Jews In the Military
by Rachel Soussan
Throughout history, a common anti-Semitic method of incitement has been to accuse Jews of being unpatriotic. This was often largely expressed in the accusation that Jews were unwilling to join their military.
Following World War I, a census instituted by the German Military High Command known as Judenzahlung (lit. Jew-count) was carried out to substantiate claims that Jews were few and far between in the German Military and thus unpatriotic. Though never publicized, the results disproved the claims, and the correct number leaked out. However, the Jewish authorities who had conducted the same census and had found their statistics of the Jewish proportion of soldiers to be considerably higher, were denied access to the archives.
Throughout American history, Jews have played an important role in the military, dating back to as early as colonial times. In 1654 Asher Levy, one of the original 23 Jewish settlers of New Amsterdam demanded the right to stand guard at the stockade. Jews had been previously excluded from the voluntary home guard service, and were forced to pay a compensatory fee for their lack of service. After two years of filing petitions with the colonial court, Levy and his Jewish comrades were permitted to serve.
In response to anti-Semitic claims the Hebrew Union Veterans Association, the precursor organization to the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, was established in 1896 in New York City. They pledged to “maintain a true allegiance to the United States; to combat anti-Semitism and bigotry wherever it originated and whatever the target; to uphold the fair name of the Jew and to fight his battles wherever unjustly assailed; to assist such comrades and their families as might stand in need of help; to gather and preserve the records of patriotic service performed by men of the Jewish faith; and to honor the memories and shield from neglect the graves of heroic Jewish veterans.”
Still today there is a prevailing sentiment that Jews somehow exempt themselves from military service. While it is always difficult to convince bigotry, it is important to examine the dynamics of religious expression in the military.
First, it is important to note that there is no census for religion in the U.S. Military; thus, no real statistics exist for the number of Jews in uniform. Furthermore, when soldiers enlist, it is not uncommon that they check the “no preference” option when asked their religion. Various Jewish chaplains interviewed for this article say that often the Jewish soldiers that seek them out are unaffiliated on paper. Based on the Jewish casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one chaplain estimated 30-40% of Jews in the military do not specify their religion. Some Jews anticipate deployment and feel concerned about being identified by the enemy as a Jew. Other secular Jews simply don’t feel the need to express their faith on paper. Undoubtedly a further proportion fear prejudices and preconceptions.
Unfortunately, by not registering as Jews, the prejudices and preconceptions are perpetuated.
The facts regarding the number of Jews in the U.S. Military are as follows: during World War II, American Jews comprised approximately 3.3% of the population, while 4.23% of the U.S. Military service members were of Jewish faith showing clear overrepresentation of Jews in the military.
Whilst today the percentages are lower, according to the president of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, 44 Jewish servicemen and women have died in the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan. Of these 44 fallen soldiers, approximately one-third had not registered as Jews and their religious background only became apparent after their deaths. Thus, experts have suggested that there may be a lot more Jews in the military than previously assumed.
Acts of Jewish military heroism throughout the history of America are commonplace, and still today, Jews comprise a significant proportion of the armed forces. The suggestion that Jews shy away from their responsibility towards their country is insulting to Jewish soldiers that the Algemeiner interviewed for this article, including a Sgt. First Class who served two tours in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq, a Sgt who is currently a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, having lost a leg to an IED during his last tour, and a Marine Corporal also a patient at Walter Reed who lost both of his legs in a recent attack. Fallen Marine, Lance Cpl. Jeremy M. Kane, was killed on January 23, 2010, while supporting combat operations in Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
Despite prevailing anti-Semitic sentiment regarding military service among Jews, there were those who recognized their heroism and bravery. During World War II President Franklin D. Roosevelt praised the fighting abilities and service of Jewish men and women. General Douglas MacArthur in one of his speeches said, “I am proud to join in saluting the memory of fallen American heroes of the Jewish faith.”
While no real statistics exist in regards to the number of Jewish U.S. service members, one fact remains: the Jewish representation in the military equals at least the Jewish representation in the American population, if not more. Taking into account the number of soldiers who do not register their religion, Jewish population in the military might even be highly underrepresented.