The First World War is often portrayed a simpler war from a simpler time, when a bunch of empires squared up to one another, and citizens obediently fell into their national tribes. But For King and Country? points out that violently competing beliefs existed inside supposedly united communities, and they are made clear by a look at the Jews’ experience of the conflict.
Days after war’s outbreak, a Jewish recruitment poster implored young men to sign up and ‘reciprocate’ Britain’s recent ‘fair treatment’ of the Jews. 50,000 did so over four years. But you’re asked to see through that jingoism, at a Britain which was still struggling with assimilation. The newer Jewish immigrants — perhaps fleeing enemy states — who did not fight were called ‘shirkers’ or ‘aliens’. Bethnal Green suffered anti-Semitic riots. The Jews’ right to be conscientious objectors was contested; there was none of our current understanding that one could feel loyalty to Britain but not to her allies — like Russia — from which Jews were actually seeking refuge.
To commit to the fight meant aligning a whole host of political and personal motivations. This complexity is explained clearly. With photographs, diaries, letters and ephemera, the exhibition uses individuals’ testimonies to access the question of how it felt to fight a brother on the battlefield. 50,000 Jewish soldiers representing Britain confronted 100,000 for Germany. It is implied that Jews’ history of persecution made this a particularly defacing, traumatic prospect — which was only exacerbated by tense ethnic relations on the home front. A futurist painting by the poet Isaac Rosenberg likens the repetitiousness of war to a merry-go-round, and encapsulates the nihilism of it all.
Rosenberg was bullied in the trenches. Again, the message we get is of fractiousness within supposedly ‘united’ ranks, with Jews struggling to receive kosher rations or chaplains on the frontline. It makes the stories of heroism all the more resounding, whether it was Frank de Pass winning a Victoria Cross for storming an enemy trench, or Reverend Michael Adler sending all Jewish soldiers a prayer book and improvising portable services in the trenches. Or — of course — all those on the home front: nurses like Florence Oppenheimer, and policemen and factory hands.
One saving grace amid the gloom of war’s end was the greater opportunity offered to recent Jewish immigrants who served for Britain. It was a different story in Germany: criticism of the Jews’ efforts would contribute to the Holocaust, and even an Honour Cross marking active service would prove meaningless. This exhibition proves that conflict begets only further conflict, and dispels the idea that the First World War was a meeting of nations. It was not this: it was a meeting of non-organised populations with very complicated allegiances, and on its battlefields, it was all too often a meeting of friends.
For King and Country? The Jewish Experience of the First World War runs until 10 August at the Jewish Museum, London, NW1 7NB. Entrance fee is included in the general admission charge: £7.50 adults, £6.50 concessions, £3.50 children aged 5-16. Free for under-5s, carers, Museum Friends, and holders of Art Fund, Museums Association, or London Pass cards.