When Jews Were GIs
|The Battle to Enlist: Anti-Semitism in the Armed Forces
Then the war came and uprooted Jews from their established routines, comfortable neighborhoods and mundane affairs. Initially, however, the war did not seem to change their lives. Jews read the papers, raised funds and sent packages of food to help Polish Jews, the newest victims of Nazi attack. They protested and urged their political representatives to help rescue Jewish refugees desperately trying to leave Europe. They signed affidavits of support to assist near or distant relatives obtain visas. They helped the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine, as it struggled against the encroaching reality of war. But at the same time they held banquets and dinners to raise monies for their local synagogues and hospitals. They continued their intramural political struggles. They celebrated the ordinary rounds of holidays and family occasions, births and weddings, bar mitzvahs and confirmations.
s declared war in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Jews threw themselves into the war effort together with their fellow citizens. Some young Jews did not wait to be drafted but enlisted in the armed forces. But only a minority chose to leave college as Nathan Perlmutter left Georgetown University to enlist. The majority followed the more common track of continuing to work or remaining in school until called by their draft boards. A few intrepid individuals were forced to battle American anti-Semitism in order to enlist, as was the experience of one recent Yale graduate. Rebuffed by biased Manhattan recruiters who refused to enroll him in the navy's officer corps, Martin Dash went down to Baltimore to use his relatives' address to sign up. Seymour Graubard faced similar problems with Air Force Intelligence. A Columbia Law School graduate, Graubard had a deferral from the draft but "was insistent on getting into action. All my non-Jewish friends were accepted, but my application was lost three times running. I was finally informed by a sympathetic air corps officer that the air corps didn't want Jews." Graubard then pulled strings to get a commission in the army. A handful of Jewish pacifists faced a different dilemma. Convinced that the Second World War "would be an imperialist one," committed Jewish socialists like Paul Jacobs had to decide: "Should we or should we not support the Allies against the Nazis and the Italian Fascists?"
Many more American Jews shared Nathan Perlmutter's sentiments: when asked why he wanted to join the marines, Perlmutter told a surprised recruiter, "I want to fight Fascism." Most Americans saw Japan, not the Nazis, as the crucial enemy. "The primary objective of our war is to defeat the Japs--not Hitler, and certainly not Nazism," reported Ari Lashner with dismay. He found among his fellow recruits in the Maritime Service Radio Cadet School "no sympathy for what I presented as the fundamental issue of the war: the defeat of Fascism." While Lashner praised a healthy skepticism of American soldiers toward naive and idealistic slogans of war, he recognized that their sentiments derived from prejudice. "With the Japs it's different. They hate the Japs."
Jews entering the armed forces faced a choice in how to identify themselves; they were asked to indicate their religion on their dog tags. As a confirmed socialist and secularist, Jacobs initially told the army air force that he had no religion "and then found out that this made me fair game for all the chaplains. After being bombarded for a week by suggestions that I attend Catholic, Protestant, Hebrew, and I even think Christian Science services, I gave up." He had his "dog tags stamped with the initial 'H' for Hebrew, thus at least removing myself from the anxious ministry of the other groups."
Approximately 550,000 Jewish men and women served in the United States armed forces during World War II, the equivalent of 37 divisions. The participation of 11 percent of the Jewish population in the service, 50 percent of the men age 18 to 44, ensured that few Jewish families would not have a close relative in uniform. Widespread involvement in the military turned Jews into fighters. They became seasoned soldiers, competent in handling arms and comfortable in taking risks. It was the only generation of American Jews to know military life firsthand. The experience changed their lives, their perceptions of the world and their self-understanding as Jews. "The experience of the war years," Lucy Dawidowicz observed, "had a transfiguring effect on American Jews and on their ideas of themselves as Jews."
Military service lifted Jews out of their cities and sent them to bases located often in the rural areas of the country, especially the South and West. The first encounter produced a kind of culture shock. "I was in a strange land among people who hardly spoke my own language," wrote one GI from Brooklyn. "On this foreign soil one could not find lox or bagels or pumpernickel. Here Southern fried and grits were the popular delicacies." To many Jews' amazement, "this foreign soil" was indeed America. The United States turned out to be a Protestant nation, not a Catholic one. Jews in the armed services discovered a world beyond their provincial neighborhoods. "Most of us were kind of insulated," Abe Shalo remembered, "... we had very little knowledge of the rest of the country. Whatever we learned about the United States was for the most part from geography books.... We knew very little about the people." And the geography books "didn't tell you how different the average American was." Jews acknowledged their surprise upon realizing how Protestant the United States was. They had mistaken the heavily Catholic cities of their childhoods for the entire country.
Jews also discovered the diversity of the Jewish diaspora and how different Jews were from each other. Stationed in Calcutta, India, David Macarov enjoyed hospitality for soldiers at "a weekly tea at the magnificent home of Lady Ezra, and a kosher chicken dinner" prepared each week by Mrs. Gubbay. Writing to his family in Atlanta, Macarov admitted: "When I mention these people, I am sure that the first question which enters your mind is 'Are they Indians?' ... Yet I know that what you really mean is 'Are they dark skinned?' And I find that I get very angry at the question, and am tempted to answer, 'What difference does it make?'" "Perhaps," Macarov continued, "you don't realize what a remarkable accomplishment that is for me. Born and bred in the South, it did not matter what I thought, I felt an instinctive prejudice against dark skins." Though he knew the attitude to be wrong, he did not think he could overcome it. Yet after living among Indian Jews for several months, Macarov discovered that he not only no longer felt revulsion toward dark-skinned people, "but [didn't] see how it could have existed."
The army introduced other Jews to racial discrimination and prejudice. One recruit stationed in Virginia observed a Jim Crow incident on a bus--a black soldier who refused to sit in the rear was forced to get off. Writing home to family in Brooklyn, he described the matter and concluded: "It is about time that all JIM CROW laws were abolished in the South.... Such a move would prove how truly and genuinely we mean our war aims." This awareness and anger at civil discrimination--and its contradiction of clearly articulated American wartime ideals--stimulated in many Jews a commitment to civil rights.
The armed forces similarly gave Jews a new perspective on anti-Semitism. Greenberg remembered that the first time he was "labeled a Jew or a kike was in the Army." His experience was not uncommon. "You know, Dad, there is anti-Semitism. I have found it in the army," wrote Lillian Kimberg, a WAC. Although most Jewish soldiers encountered anti-Semitism in the service, many thought that daily living together reduced prejudice. Kimberg discovered that "many of the girls have never seen a Jew." But she felt that, as "a representative of my religion," she "showed them that Jews are people like all others in the world." Some were less sanguine about the impact an individual could make. Victor Gotbaum recalled many incidents and "statements about our cowardice and Jewish unwillingness to fight. I was deeply upset by it. Here we were fighting the Nazis, and then this madness in the United States Army!" Lashner wrote: "We are either despised, mocked, or magnanimously tolerated."
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