By 1LT Scott (Shalom) Klein, Ed.D.
On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was founded, and US President Truman became one of the first world leaders to recognize its provisional government. Over the ensuing decades, there have been occasional strains in the relationship, but for the most part, US-Israel ties have stayed strong. The alliance has always been one of mutual benefit, and indeed the Jewish people have been helping the United States since before its inception. It could be argued, in fact, that America as we know it would not exist without the active involvement of Jews throughout the nation’s history.
Case in point—Haym Salomon, friend to General George Washington and the ad hoc financier of the American Revolution, who “subscribed heavily to government loans, endorsed notes, gave generously to soldiers, and equipped several military units with his own money.” Salomon passed away in 1785, having spent $658,000 of his fortune to aid the colonial war effort… roughly $21,000,000 in today’s purchasing power.
American Jews have been deeply invested in most of America’s subsequent military efforts. However, in recent years, comparatively few have continued that proud tradition for various reasons. A brief look back in time supports the case for why it is so important for this generation’s young adult American Jews to revitalize their heritage by joining branches of the US Armed Services.
During the Revolutionary War, ~3,000 Jews aided the cause to rebel against the tyranny of the British Empire. The Civil War saw those numbers rise to ~7,000 fighting on the side of the Union (roughly 4.6% of the total US Jewish population at the time), with another ~3,000 serving the Confederacy. American Jews also fought for their adopted country during the War of 1812 against Britain (over maritime rights), the 1898 Spanish–American War, the War with Mexico, and in both World Wars.
Approximately half a million American Jews (an estimated 11.53% of the Jewish population in the country) signed up to join the US military during WWII to fight against the horrors of the Nazi Third Reich and the Holocaust, which took the lives of six million European Jews and held five million as POWs.
Patriotic American Jews continued the tradition of military service during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. During the 1980s, Jewish scientists such as Edward Teller contributed to the development of invaluable weapons technology initiatives such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka the “Star Wars program”) which helped expedite the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
The significant and continuing efforts of Jewish American soldiers have been widely hailed by national organizations for their positive impact on US history and broader global affairs. As one such organization, the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America has worked since 1896 to affirm “that Jewish men and women serve honorably and heroically in the military forces of the United States of America during peacetime and war.” The JWV also defends “the rights and benefits of all service members and veterans, fights anti-Semitism, and supports the State of Israel.”
In the same vein, the National Museum of American Jewish Military History “documents and preserves the contributions of Jewish Americans to the peace and freedom of the United States, educates the public concerning the courage, heroism, and sacrifices made by Jewish Americans who served in the armed forces, and works to combat anti-Semitism.”
Despite the well-earned pride of the American Jewish community in their centuries-long military contributions, recent decades have seen the percentage of Jews serving in the US military drop off dramatically. In 2017, PBS noted that “less than one-third of one percent of the people serving in the US Armed Forces are Jewish.” Meanwhile, around the country, reports of anti-Semitic incidents continue to rise, with the Anti-Defamation League citing a “75% increase in anti-Semitism reports to the agency’s 25 regional offices” in May 2021, according to the BBC.
While there are numerous factors contributing to the escalation of anti-Semitism, Jewish Americans do have the power to fight back. One way to do so is through enhanced engagement across the board, from taking on the responsibilities of military duty to participating in politics. Indeed, the two are not mutually exclusive; many former and sitting members of Congress served in the military, using their veteran status as a steppingstone to their political careers.
Long-term career planning aside, there are several incredible benefits to joining any branch of the Armed Force, including ROTC scholarships for officer cadets, paid tuition via the Tuition Assistance and GI Bill programs, paid technical training, and international travel opportunities. Such travel may involve deployments during which members collaborate closely with allies such as the Israeli Defense Forces, working together to achieve mutual objectives.
Military members are also able to earn merit-based promotions, work towards a retirement pension, and gain valuable real-world experiences which will serve them later in life. Intangible benefits include the pride one feels in performing a patriotic duty for their nation, a nation that continues to strive towards improved equity and inclusiveness while helping to spread democracy around the world.
During a 2021 Veterans Day reflection, US Army Chaplain (Major) David Frommer, West Point’s Jewish Chaplain, pointed out the inherent “conflict” in today’s lack of Jewish presence in the US military. While noting how grateful Americans are of veterans, he highlighted how “comfortable” citizens have become with the “idea that fewer and fewer Jews seem to be counted in their numbers.”
Chaplain Frommer stressed the importance of mutual support and fellowship among Jewish military service members, which is relatively lacking in today’s service only because, so few Jews are signing up. He proceeded by pointing out how the “orchards” of Jewish lands had been “ravaged throughout the ages in their vulnerability, until here in America—for the first time in the history of our diaspora- George Washington, quoting our ancient prophet Micah, promised us a different future.”
“Here we found a home,” Chaplain Frommer continued, “that strives to honor the Jewish value of b’tzelem Elokim, respecting the humanity of every person despite our differences. And when Esau’s sword is needed to defend this home, then Jews should be the first ones to wield it.”
The fact is, America continues to need the full support and involvement of its Jewish citizens. When times seem bleak, that is when Jews of all stripes must band together and draw upon their collective power to effect change. Military service is an incredible step in that direction, one that should not be missed.
Dr. Scott (Shalom) Klein is a well-regarded community activist and entrepreneur. Shalom is a published author who hosts the popular “Get Down to Business” radio show in Chicago and serves as an Officer in the US Army Reserves (Military Police) as well as the Chairman of the Village of Skokie Economic Development Commission. Shalom holds a doctorate in educational leadership and a master’s degree in Jewish Professional Studies with a concentration in nonprofit management. He is on the executive committee and active leader for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR).
Originally published in the Shavous 5782 Jewish-American Warrior