Jews in the Military

Date: Friday, October 28, 2022

In honor of this year’s Veteran’s Day, this post discusses the very long history of Jews serving in the United States military. The history of Jewish people in the military begins even before the founding of the country, with Jewish immigrants serving in the French and Indian War. One of the most important Jews who assisted in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, was Haym Solomon, a financial broker from Poland who arrived in 1775. He and other people were able to help convince France to grant loans to the Continental Army that helped them eventually defeat the British. Later in American history there were Jews on both sides of the Civil War, with some even holding the rank of General. civil war book

The Jewish Soldier from Michigan in the Civil WarThere were Jews who fought in World War I, and especially World War II. The number of Jewish American soldiers in World War II totaled 550,000 Jews, men and women, which was around 4.23% of the total military forces. Twenty-two of those received senior rank: 18 generals, 6 major generals, 12 brigadier generals, 1 vice admiral, 2 rear admirals and 1 commodore, were honored for their service. Unfortunately, during WWII, 11,000 Jewish American soldiers were killed; 7,000 of these deaths occurred in combat duty. There were also many medals awarded for valor as well, with two receiving the Congressional Medal of honor. (You can read more about it here.)

The first official Jewish chaplain in the US military was a German-born Rabbi named Jacob Frankel. He was appointed to his post in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln. Since his appointment, the ranks of Jewish chaplains in the military have continued to increase. In order to serve the spiritual needs of all these Jews serving in the military, siddurim and other ritual objects were created expressly for the US by the military or otherwise utilized by the military. The most recent publication of a siddur intended for military use (of which this author is aware) was published by the Jewish Welfare Board in 2014. The Jewish Welfare Board was founded in 1917 to “safeguard the rights, fulfill the spiritual needs, combat the loneliness and isolation and honor the service of Jews in the United States armed forces.”

Military prayer bookOur Cincinnati campus has an extant portable Shabbat kit which was designed for use by chaplains and soldiers, and includes a Torah scroll, prayerbooks, Shabbat candles, and a wine cup. Some books in our collections which may be of interest on this topic include Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson, Ours to Fight for: American Jewish Voices from the Second World War by Jay Eidelman, Jews and the Civil War: A Reader by Jonathan Sarna, and many others. There are also many books about Jews in the militaries of other countries, such as Austria-Hungary, France, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In a chapter of Ours to Fight For, entitled “Jewish GIs and the War against the Nazis,” Jay Eidelman writes that,

“Jews entering the military in World War II faced several obstacles. The United States was rife with anti-Semitism in the 1940s, which ranged from physical attacks to the “polite,” exclusionary social anti-Semitism of the elite. Theories based on the same racist logic that animated Nazi ideology were widespread in America and pointed to American Jews as a racial and economic threat…In the years preceding the war, the army was so concerned about the threat from Jewish subversives that it devoted tremendous energies to surveillance of Jews.”

Chaplain kit

This threat and hostility towards Jewish soldiers began to abate to some degree as “the shared experience of combat was another important factor in diminishing anti-Jewish animosity. Many Jews found that like atheists, anti-Semites were hard to find in foxholes…Serving in the military had integrated American Jews into white American society in ways that were unimaginable just five years earlier.” This integration has only deepened since that time, with many Jewish people continuing to serve their country proudly in the military and may this continue to be the case for the future as well.

Contributed by Eli Lieberman, NY Klau Library
Campus: All Campuses