AJEX: British Jewry and Wartime Commemoration
At the stroke of 11am this Sunday, individuals across Britain, including present day soldiers, veterans and their families, will observe a two-minute silence to remember the sacrifices of members of the British Armed Forces and of civilians in times of war. Among them will be members of AJEX, The Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, which, as its name suggests, is made up of British-Jewish men and women who once served in the British Armed Forces. With a current membership of approximately 4,000 people, AJEX has a long and interesting history spanning over ninety years.
Sir William Birdwood inspecting Jewish ex-servicemen on Armistice Day, November 6, 1938. The Great War...I Was There! Part 14 (1938), p.542. Â©McMaster University Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Formally established in 1928 as the Jewish Ex-Servicemenâ€™s Legion, AJEXâ€™s origins lie in the efforts of former members of the Jewish Legion, a series of battalions of Jewish volunteers raised in the British Army to fight against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine during the First World War. Led by a former soldier named Louis Sarna (1898-1978), British-Jewish veterans first congregated to remember their war dead in 1921 when a wreath was laid at the recently opened Cenotaph in Whitehall. The League of Old Judeans was soon established, which, after a meeting in Whitechapel in 1928, became known as the Jewish Ex-Servicemenâ€™s Legion. By the mid-twentieth century the organisation incorporated â€˜Womenâ€™ in its title in recognition of the role played by British-Jewish women in the war effort.
'Peace Day Celebrations. Scene by the Cenotaph, Whitehall', 19 July 1919. Â© Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
AJEXâ€™s first branch was formed in London, but other branches were soon established in other British towns and cities with sizeable Jewish populations, including Cardiff, Leeds, Glasgow and Grimsby. Although membership numbers in these â€˜provincialâ€™ branches have declined dramatically over the years, reflecting the decline of Britainâ€™s Jewish population outside of London more generally, many continue to function thanks to a team of dedicated individuals. Despite a decline in numbers, AJEXâ€™s branch in Cardiff (CAJEX), for instance, continues to participate in Walesâ€™ national observance of Remembrance Sunday in the cityâ€™s civic centre. In 2011 I was fortunate enough to have been invited to attend that yearâ€™s official ceremony, where I witnessed CAJEX members laying a wreath of poppies (featuring a Red Dragon and a Star of David in its centre) on the Welsh National War Memorial. As in the past, this event will again take place this year, as will the AJEX National Parade & Remembrance Ceremony at the Cenotaph in London.
Prayer Book for Jewish Sailors and Soldiers (1916). Â© Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
British Jews have served in most, if not all, modern wars fought by the United Kingdom, with approximately 41,500 serving in the British Armed Forces during the First World War. An additional 60,000-65,000 Jewish men and women fought for Britain during the Second World War, including 4,000 refugees from Nazism. Reasons for enrolment varied tremendously, ranging from military conscription to patriotic feeling. Others, in particular first generation immigrants, joined to express their gratitude to a country that gave them refuge and opportunities (although many German-Jewish refugees in Britain were interned as â€˜enemy aliensâ€™ at the beginning of the Second World War), while it was the Third Reichâ€™s persecution of German Jewry that motivated many British-Jews to enrol and fight against Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945.
The histories of British-Jewish soldiers and their commemorative organisations form just one aspect of both the official and personal stories that can be discovered in Adam Matthewâ€™s First World War portal.