International Jewish Humanitarianism in the Age of the Great War

On Tuesday 18 January 2022, we welcomed Dr Jaclyn Granick, Lecturer in Modern Jewish History at Cardiff University, for a talk on international Jewish humanitarianism in the age of the Great War. Dr Granick began by explaining how the history of Jewish suffering in the Great War and interwar period has been largely overshadowed by the devastation of the Holocaust. Yet, this era saw a number of crises afflicting the Jewish populations of Europe. Almost half of the world’s Jews were living in the Pale of Settlement in Russia at the outbreak of the First World War, and they were directly affected by the clashes on the Eastern Front. In addition to the torments afflicting all civilians in wartime – hunger, cold, illness – the Jews also suffered pogroms and violence aimed at them in particular.  

With the US remaining largely outside the conflict for much of World War One, American Jews were able to look to their coreligionists abroad who were suffering the ravages of war. Granick explored how American Jews adopted the mantle of solidarity in this time of transition towards the US’s expanding role in the post-war world.  

Various American aid committees were established to help Europe’s Jews after the Great War. Most were aimed at helping children and many had political aims, such as stabilising Europe in the face of Bolshevism. One of the most significant organisations, and the one on which Granick’s talk focused, was the Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee). The Joint was initially employed in providing food relief and emergency supplies, but when other aid organisations left in the early 1920s, the Joint remained and performed a function which we could define as being a mixture of state social welfare and international development. 

From 1914 to 1931, the Joint distributed over $80,000,000, well over $1bn at today’s rates. The Joint in many ways filled the vacuum of governments in recent war zones, by creating and developing links across Jewish civil society. The Jewish diaspora ran its own affairs and looked after the countless Jews (and non-Jews) afflicted by the war. 

This was the first time that American Jews had looked beyond America, beyond their immigrant relationships and personal connections, and it marked a shift in how humanitarian aid was organised and distributed to Jewish communities located in disparate geographical locations.  

Dr Granick’s recently published book, International Jewish Humanitarianism in the Age of the Great War, was announced as a winner of the Jewish Book Council award just two days after her fascinating talk for the Centre. 

You can view the recording of her talk here: