Op-Ed: Tisha B’Av and the First World War
According to tradition, the messiah is born on Tisha B’Av. It also stands to reason that the redemption of the Jews can only follow their exile.
On Tisha B’Av, the First and Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and Judean independence was lost to the Romans following the fall of the city of the city of Beitar, the last stronghold of the Bar Kochba revolt. As a result, the Jews lost their spiritual center and were exiled from their homeland.
Many additional tragedies throughout history have marked the day of Tisha B’Av. One of the most ominous was Tisha B’Av-August 1, 1914. On that day Germany declared war on Russia, transforming the European conflict between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Serbians backed by Russia, to a World War between opposing alliances.
The declaration of War on Tisha B’Av, 1914, brought the unthinkable to reality. Millions died on the fronts. Military casualties from new weapons technologies produced tools for killing en masse; improved artillery, poison gas canisters, tanks, airplanes for dropping bombs from the skies. Civilians caught in the fighting often faced persecution, expulsion, starvation and disease. Over one million Armenians were systematically massacred by the Ottoman Turks.
The twentieth century was a post enlightenment era where new ideologies viewed mankind as the arbiter of his actions, possessing a personal autonomy free of any controlling dogma. Yet, mans’ primal instincts endured, and his capacity for evil had not diminished despite the onset of modernity.
This storm that had swept over the world severely impacted the Jews who were caught in the middle. Young Jews stood on different sides of the lines in trenches facing enemies, some of whom were fellow Jews. Amid the chaos of war, Jews, despite these young men's service as soldiers, were targeted, suffering pogroms at the hands of Cossacks, and mass expulsions in Poland and Galitzia by the orders of Russian commanders. It is estimated that one million Jews either fled or were expelled from their homes to live in dire circumstances.
Following the war, Jews would face additional horrors. Catastrophic massacres during the Ukrainian Civil War of 1919-1920, a rise of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and the world. The rise of communism following the 1917 Russian Revolution, which was also a direct result of the war, would soon threaten Jewry with a new virulent form of anti-Semitism. Nazism would gain a foothold in Germany, and grow with the rise of Hitler, and the eventual economic chaos of the Great Depression of the early 1930’s.
In the year 1914, a massive storm was unleashed upon the world and the Jewish People. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Graubart, in the introduction of a book he authored on the extreme difficulties of the First World War, cites a sentence from the Psalms, “Hashem looks to the Earth and it quivered.” (104:32) The events of 1914, whose aftershocks are still felt, shook up the world. The letters of the Hebrew word, “Tirad” from the sentence meaning, “The ‘Earth’ Quivered” is the numerical equivalent of the year, 5674, which is 1914.
Perhaps, as the war shook the world and caused hatreds against the Jews to surface - which so often accompanies chaos - it also unleashed powers of redemption.
As victorious British and allied forces over the Turks in the Middle East were completing the conquest of Palestine in 1917, the famous Balfour Declaration endorsing Jewish statehood in the Land of Israel was issued. During this era of nationalism and the advocating of national rights for minority groups, the Balfour Declaration received support among many world leaders. It was an era of both widespread anti-Semitism as well as support for Jewish Statehood.
War weary Jewish communities around the world, paused, and celebrated. A popular Yiddish daily, Dos Yiddishe Folk, stated, “for the first time in two thousand years we again enter into the arena of world history as a nation which deserves a national home.” The religious Zionist movement, Mizrachi, issued a statement, “It seems that Holy Providence which guided Israel in its long night of exile is about to reward the Jewish people for all their suffering and tribulations.”
The Balfour Declaration did not cause the rebirth of the Jewish State, but it did give Zionism international support and caused its eventuality. Zionism gained a footing during these tragic and trying times.
That dream, although it appeared near, was still distant. Its realization was soon prevented by the British who enacted severe restrictions on Jewish immigration into the land and implemented the infamous MacDonald White Paper of 1939 calling for only 15,000 Jewish immigrants per year the next five years. The White Paper also nullified the principle of Jewish Statehood as called for by the Balfour Declaration.
With no sanctuary, European Jewry faced destruction.
Ninety-nine years later, the Jewish world still lives in the shadow of the dark days of ‘The Great War’ of 1914-1918. Forces of hate still abound and clamor for the destruction of Israel and Jewry. The events of November 1917 ultimately lead to Jewish Statehood and the continual ingathering of the exiles. The Jews en masse have returned and reconnected with their spiritual home. They need no longer to be prey for their enemies in foreign lands as in the days of that horrific conflict.
The hope of Tisha B’Av yesterday and today is that the light of redemption shine bright, illuminating a world where sorrow becomes a memory, albeit a painful one, of the past.