It was on March 15, 1896, on a cold day in New York City, that 63 Jewish veterans of the Civil War gathered to address the then-popular canard that Jews were not patriotic enough to serve their country. These proud veterans and other Jews who had served honorably in the war were living proof that the demeaning accusation was an anti-Semitic lie. That day, those veterans founded the Hebrew Union Veterans Association. The Spanish-American War two years later and the wars of the 20th century created new Jewish military veterans, who formed their own groups. Eventually, the various groups merged and renamed their organization.
What we know today as the Jewish War Veterans of the USA traces its lineage back to that gathering in 1896 — 125 years ago — an anniversary we celebrate this week. But even today, the organization battles the myth that Jews don’t serve in the country’s armed forces.
It also continues to fight discrimination against Jewish veterans and war dead. For example, in 2002, JWV pushed for the passage of the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act, which resulted in 24 service members being awarded the Medal of Honor after having been initially passed over because they were Jewish.
And in a time when Jews felt less secure in this country than they do today, JWV took some unpopular yet principled positions that, as we look back, make us proud. For example, in March 1933, after the Nazis came to power, more than 4,000 veterans marched on City Hall in New York to call for an economic boycott of Germany. And after World War II, JWV supported the Japanese American community’s efforts to seek redress for internment during the war. In 1963, JWV was a proud participant in Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington. And, in 1971, after initially supporting American involvement in Vietnam, JWV became the first veterans service organization to call for bringing the troops home.
JWV operates the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington. The organization’s posts commemorate Memorial Day and Veterans Day annually, including gatherings at the JWV memorial outside the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville.
And JWV staunchly defends the record: When Israeli Minister Tzipi Hotovely said in 2017 that American Jews “never send their children to fight … serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, or to Iraq,” JWV set her straight, and she apologized.
Last week, JWV released a video chronicling the organization’s 125-year history. It is a tribute worth watching.
Although we pray that we will be able to avoid further war, we are grateful to all who have served our country, including, of course, our Jewish veterans. We celebrate JWV’s 125th birthday, and wish JWV continued success.