Israel-Diaspora Relations: Part II Security
American Jewish Military Service
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, accused his own Deputy Foreign Minister and fellow Likud member, Tzipi Hotovely, for admonishing American Jews for not “fighting for their country.” “There is no place for such attacks, and her remarks do not reflect the position of the State of Israel.” A government statement was issued stating, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemns Tzipi Hotovely’s offensive remarks regarding the American Jewish community.” Netanyahu himself said, in response to her comments that, “To reject them (the Jews of the Diaspora) is a very big mistake… They are not obliged to adopt our exact way of seeing and interpreting Jewish identity.”
Hotovely claimed that the tension arose because of a failure of American Jews to understand the complexities of the geopolitical situation and to adequately empathize with the plight of Israelis threatened by rocket attacks and terrorists. Progressive Jews urged the Prime Minister to fire her for “offensive comments” against American Jews. They claim that she said that American Jews were “too comfortable” to understand Israel. The heat of the responses grew so high that Hotovely was forced to apologize. “I salute every American Jew who joined the IDF, or who fought during World War II. I didn’t mean to offend anyone, and I apologize.” She added that she “was cognizant of the great contributions American Jews have made to the State of Israel.”
She clearly misspoke when she said American Jews never serve in the military. However, in the context, it is clear that she meant “most American Jews”. What had she originally said? “Maybe they’re too young to remember how it feels to be a Jewish person without a Jewish homeland, without a Jewish state.” US Jewry “never send their children to fight for their country.” “Most [American] Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, or to Iraq. Most of them are having [sic] quite comfortable lives. They don’t feel how it feels to be attacked by rockets, and I think part of it is to actually experience what Israel deals with on a daily basis…This is the reason for the distancing between US Jews and Israel. American Jews contribute a great deal to Israel, but they cannot condition their connection to Israel on the government’s policies. We need to remember that the past few years have seen stormy discussions about Judaism and identity. These arguments are a healthy part of democracy.”
Were these remarks offensive? Did Hotovely attack American Jews? Did she admonish American Jews for not fighting for their country whether “their” referred to the US or Israel or both? In my reading of her remarks, they were intended to be more descriptive than judgmental. If so, was her description accurate? Is it accurate that most American Jews do not serve in the military?
It is interesting to note that, in addition to Jews on the right, especially in Israel who came to Tzipi’s support, they were joined by neo-Nazis. A neo-Nazi internet site thanked the Deputy Foreign Minister for “admitting” that Jews don’t serve. The Daily Stormer columnist, Lee Rogers, wrote that Hotovely “exposed an ‘inconvenient fact’ that Israelis and American Jews don’t want to talk about.” According to those antisemites, Jews do not want to talk about their antipathy to American military service at the same time as Jews are among the most vociferous voices on the right in American politics. Jews do not fight in wars; they just promote them, so the propaganda goes. Paul Wolfowitz, a neo-con architect of the Iraq War, is the one at whom they aim most of these barbs. Further, the pro-Israeli Jewish lobby is accused of promoting wars in the Middle East that directly benefit Israel.
Was Hotevely right or wrong on facts? Was the seemingly disproportionate response to her remarks stimulated because her statement could be used to reinforce a stereotype propagated by the extreme Right? Or because it exacerbated already existing Israeli-US Jewry relations? Or both?
What are the facts? Of course, Jews have served in the American military, some in very prominent positions. This has been the case since the War of Independence. Look at the role of Solomon Bush in that war. Francis Salvador was revered as the “Paul Revere of the South.” In the War of 1812, which Canada won, though the US won in the peace agreement, Uriah P. Levy as the first Jewish Commodore was a real war hero. In the Civil War, Jews served on both sides, Moses Jacob Ezekiel was a Confederate soldier. Benjamin Levy was a Yankee soldier who was awarded the Medal of Honour. And Lewis Morrison, a Black Jew, was an officer on both sides, in the Confederate Army until 1861 and in the Union Army after that. The most famous was Brigadier General Edward S. Salomon of the Union Army.
If we leap to the Second World War, estimates suggest that Jews served in the armed forces in higher proportions that their percentage of the population. Many made distinguished contributions. Ellis M. Zacharias, a Captain, won a Silver Star and served as Deputy Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence.
Robert Rosenthal was a Lieutenant Colonel in the USAF. Maurice Rose was the Major General who received the unconditional surrender of the Germans. Of course, because of his portrayal in Hollywood films, the most famous one of them all was David “Micky” Marcus, an army Lieutenant Colonel, a flier who received the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross and then went on to serve the IDF as a Brigadier General. There was also Reform Rabbi Max Eichhorn who took part in the liberation of Dachau.
Jews also held prominent positions in the Korean War – Tibor Rubin received the Medal of Honour. In the Vietnam War in which Jews were better known for their disproportionate role in opposing the war, Jeffrey Feinstein was a Colonel and flying ace. In the post-war history of the American armed forces, Admiral Hyman Rickover was the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” General Robert Magnus was a Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Norton A. Schwartz served as Chief of Staff of the USAF.
What about American wars in the twenty-first century, specifically Iraq and Afghanistan? Just prior to those wars, Hal Glassman in Bush Senior’s Operation Desert Storm was a Seargent Major who earned the Legion of Merit and also served in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. In the twenty-first century, the estimable list continues: Eric Greitens, Rhodes Scholar and US Navy Seal; Brad Colbert in the US Marine Corps; Admiral Michael Boorda who served as Chief of Naval Operations; Rabbi Michael Cohen served in Afghanistan. The head of the USAF currently is General David Lee Goldfein.
However, the data may be misused by antisemites in their accusations that Jews are unpatriotic, use gentiles to fight their wars and are unwilling to sacrifice themselves for country and flag, in the last fifty years, Jews have not served in the American armed services in proportion to their population in the country. That shibboleth may have been proven wrong when applied to Jews serving in the German Army in World War I, but it is generally correct when applied to Jewish US military service in the twenty-first century in contrast to WWII where 4.23% of military personnel were Jewish though Jews constituted only 3.3% of the population.
The popular and even prevailing sentiment that Jews exempt themselves from military service in America, may be exaggerated, but it is not false. Even though military records are not kept regarding religion, using various other techniques, related to their proportion of the population, if Jews were to serve in proportion to other groups in the country on average, only about 25% of a number that might be expected serve do. This takes into consideration that perhaps 40-50% of Jews in the armed forces nowhere indicate that they are Jewish but instead check the box stating “unaffiliated,” either because they are secular, oppose public declarations of religion or even fear anti-Semitism.
This fact of under-representation may not be the result of their being Jewish but more likely the disproportionate numbers of Jews in the Middle Class which also sends relatively few of its sons and daughters into the military. Nevertheless, 44 American Jews in the military, such as Marine Lance Corporal Jeremy M. Kane in Helmand Province, died in Iraq and Afghanistan and only one-third of those 44 were registered as Jews. In the Jewish Daily Forward 2011 article, “Profiles of Our Fallen,” the number was 37. Even if all had been registered, Jews in this century would still make up smaller percentages that their proportion of the population might suggest. Of 5,775 Americans killed in 21st century wars, the number of Jews constituted only .64%, not the 2-3% that their proportion of the American population. In the case of women casualties, Jews made up 50% not 2-3% of the total since Airman Elizabeth N. Jacobson was one of the two women who died in during her service in the military.
Nevertheless, Tzipi Hotovely was generally accurate when she said that, “Most [American] Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, or to Iraq. Most of them are having [sic] quite comfortable lives.” She was also accurate when she said that most Jews in America live comfortable lives and are not subject to rocket attacks as are Israelis. Though her factual foundation was generally on target, was her analysis? It seems reasonable to conclude, based on facts, that American Jews do not bring the same experiential history to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Further, that may have some bearing on explaining why most American Jews are relatively dovish compared to Israeli Jews.
Were her facts and analysis accurate when she implied that American Jews condition their support of Israel on whether they agree with government policies? Without going into detail my analysis suggests that American Jewry, certainly organized American Jewry, continues to support Israel despite most of its members disassociating themselves form Israeli government policy. If all American Jews are taken into consideration, including the 60-70% who have little or no connection with their Jewish identity except perhaps a nominal one, then one might be just in concluding that a clear majority of American Jews are unsympathetic to the policies of the current government of Israel.
There may be up to 200,000 Jews of American origin in Israel. But that is from a population that makes up the bulk of the Jewish Diaspora. Currently, less than 2,000 American Jews each year out of five million make aliyah to Israel. 60% have never visited Israel, though most take vacations around the world. So why was Tzipi slammed onto the canvas by her fellow Likud member and Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu? Was she at fault for being unpolitical, for saying that which most leave unsaid, that there is a major chasm between the attitudes of Israeli Jews and those of American Jewry? That does not mean, however, that American Jews do not “understand” Israel. Having a different experiential background does not disqualify one from understanding. It is even possible that detachment allows for a better insight.
That is why, in part, leftist Israeli Jews often call on American Jewry to save Israel from itself. The Left is also drawn nostalgically to a period when American and Israeli Jews were more united, when Israel had a more pronounced image of a nation risen from the ashes, an underdog and, at the same time, an idealistic nation. The Left has used the controversy to criticize both Tzipi and the Prime Minister for covering up the rift between Israel and American Jewry when the rift must be clearly examined and faced. If there is a disconnect, as Tzipi claims, the fault perhaps should be placed at the feet of the current government. That is why, I believe, Netanyahu was so angry at Tzipi for her remarks. It raises a specter that the PM would prefer to keep swept under the rug. As David Bedein of the Center for Near East Policy Research opined, “Tzipi Hotovely told it like it is, and broke the taboo of not saying that most young Jews abroad do not emulate their peers in Israel who look forward to the day on which they enlist to serve their country.”
Would any Jewish leader either in Israel or in the Diaspora suggest that young Jews in the Diaspora should adopt the same sense of obligation of Israeli Jews and serve in the IDF? Relatively few do now. There are less than 2,000 Jews from abroad volunteering for such service each year. The vast majority of Jewish youth in the Diaspora cannot grasp that the vast majority of Israeli Jews accept service in the IDF as a rite of passage, including most on the Left.
To be continued Part III Different Views of Palestinians
With the help of Alex Zisman