Serving while Jewish

by | Nov 2, 2017 | Torah Thought

The 1890s was an era in some ways like our own. Anti-immigrant hatreds in America were on the rise, even as businesses relied on the immigrants for low-wage labor. American nativist and racist groups were making new recruits and calling for the exclusion of the foreign-born.

High up on the list of targets of the bigots were Jews. Not being White, Anglo- Saxon and Protestant, Jews couldn’t really qualify as Americans. Besides, most of them were labor agitators or even communists…. One of the tropes of the anti-Jewish slander of the day was the charge that a Jew can not be a patriotic citizen of his adopted country. Anti-semites claimed: Three times daily, the Jews pray to return to Zion; so how can they care about the lands of their domicile? The Reform Jewish “Pittsburg Platform” of that era, sensitive to this charge, deleted our historic Zionist aspirations from the Siddur. (Reform Judaism came around to endorsing Zionism decades later, during the Hitler era.) But even in the 1890s, other Jews responded by setting the record straight. In 1895, Simon Wolf, the leading Jewish Washington insider of the era, published a comprehensive survey of American Jewish patriotism from colonial times until his own day, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen.

Among the prominent public intellectuals joining the anti-Jewish chorus was Mark Twain. Writing in the March, 1898 issue Harper’s Monthly about the causes of anti-Semitism, he uncritically repeated the charge that Jews shirked military service.

But Mark Twain possessed a quality that was rare even then and still more uncommon today—he could quickly and publicly acknowledge that he had been wrong. When shown the statistics compiled by Simon Wolf, Twain published a retraction of his false claim. He acknowledged that the percentage of the American Jewish community serving in the armed services equaled that of the majority Christian population. Twain went even further in praise of Jewish patriotism. Castigating the military of his era for harboring widespread and open anti-Jewish sentiment, Twain argued that the rate of Jewish enlistment was proof that the Jewish embrace of patriotic duty involved a higher degree of self-sacrifice than that called from his Christian neighbor.

Since Mark Twain’s day, Jewish participation rates in the American military have risen and fallen. The peak was during the Second World War, with Jews enlisting at significantly higher rates than other American ethnic groups. But in the Vietnam era, while many Jews served with distinction, anti-war sentiment led to a decline in American Jews’ eagerness to join the military.

It is not clearly known how many Jews are serving in the military today, in part, because a number—anecdotal evidence suggests a high number— of the Jews in the military decline to identify themselves religiously. But one sub-group—chaplains—is illustrative. It is clear that the desire to serve as chaplains is less among non-Orthodox rabbis today than formerly. I personally know several younger Conservative/Masorti chaplains, but Orthodox rabbis account for an increasing percentage of military chaplains today. There are doubtless several reasons for that—to cite one, ceremonial Jewish observance is easier today than before, removing a disincentive from Orthodox participation—but an anti-military prejudice within American Progressive circles is unfortunately also a factor to be recognized.

Those of us who move within Progressive and Moderate circles should do what we can to counter this prejudice. For Jews, no country in the millennia-long history of our Exile has matched America’s willingness to grant us the freedom to be ourselves and simultaneously to defend our common domicile. This is an effort worth joining.

And for all our brothers and sisters who are serving while Jewish—we thank you and we honor you. May Heaven protect you, and prosper your work of protecting all of us.

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel