By Sheldon Goldberg and Joel Poznansky
Special to WJW
Since the Civil War, Memorial Day has been a time of parades, speeches and decorating the graves of the fallen. For many of us this Memorial Day, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic leaves us with one option: to spend the day in reflection.
For American Jews, as for all Americans, Memorial Day, which falls on May 31, is an opportunity to remember and be grateful to those who served our country. In the popular mind, Jews are not associated with military service. Indeed, this has been used as an antisemitic slur in many nations. To answer just such a slur in the United States, 125 years ago, 63 Jewish Civil War veterans started the Hebrew Union Veterans Association, what is now the oldest, continuously serving veterans organization in the United States, the Jewish War Veterans of the USA.
Approximately 1 million Jewish men and women have worn the uniforms of all our military services, beginning in 1656. In that year, Jews in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam won the right to bear arms and stand guard on the walls of the city.
Jews fought in the French and Indian War when our nation was just a series of British colonies and they were there when the colonies sought independence from Great Britain. Many Jews rose to high ranks in the Revolutionary Army, serving as aides to Gens. Washington, Lafayette and Polaski, and they answered the call in 1812, serving in the Army and Navy, among them Uriah P. Levy, who rose to the rank of commodore, then the highest rank in the Navy.
When the Civil War broke out, 6,000 to 8,000 Jews served in the Union forces and 2,000 to 3,000 in the Confederate forces. Among those in the Union Army were seven Jewish generals and four Medal of Honor recipients. The Confederate forces had their Jewish heroes as well, but no combat generals. Only the quartermaster general and surgeon general were Jewish.
As the nation grew, Jews served in every conflict, whether it was the Mexican-American War, the wars against native Americans, the Haitian Insurrection and the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which 5,000 Jews served in the 280,000-man army. The first soldier killed in the attack on Manila, in the Spanish colony of the Philippines, was Jewish. So was the first Rough Rider killed in Theodore Roosevelt’s attack on San Juan Hill in Cuba.
World War I saw a quarter-million Jewish men and women in uniform, many volunteering even before they would have been drafted. Many were emigres who hardly spoke English. World War I was the first time that rabbis were commissioned as officers in the Army and Navy.
Four Jewish soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor in this conflict. One, Sgt. William Shemin, ventured out of the trenches on three separate occasions under heavy enemy fire to bring back three wounded men from no-man’s land. The finest tribute paid to the Jewish fighting men was given by Gen. John J. Pershing: “When the time came to serve their country under arms, no class of people served with more patriotism or with higher motives than the young Jews who volunteered or were drafted and went overseas with our other young Americans to fight the enemy.”
In the same spirit, more than one-half million Jewish men and women served in the armed forces during World War II. Of the more than 1,000 rabbis who applied, 311 were selected and commissioned. This war also saw Medals of Honor presented to three Jewish servicemen. Cap. Ben Salomon, a dentist, who as medical officer during the Battle of Saipan gave his life manning a machine gun to defend wounded soldiers from the Japanese onslaught.
In Korea and Vietnam, the heroism of Jewish servicemen stood out with two Medals of Honor being awarded for service in the Korean War, one to Cpl. Tibor Rubin, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, who had suffered antisemitism from his own comrades-in-arms, and two in the Vietnam War.
Jews have risen to serve at the highest ranks in all the uniformed services, and their service continues. Each Jewish man or woman who has served in the U.S. military has a story. For many, their dedication and service cost them their lives. But their impact on our nation and the Jewish community will last forever. For this reason, it is important that what they did be remembered this Memorial Day and every Memorial Day.
Sheldon Goldberg is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. Joel Poznansky is a former captain in Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guards.