Friday, Nov. 11 is Veterans Day. Anyone who served in uniform for the United States probably doesn’t need a reminder of the date, which began as Armistice Day after World War I, marking the official end of hostilities in “the war to end all wars” — Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. Non-vets probably need a reminder.
One of the biggest organizers of Veterans Day activities is the Jewish War Veterans (JWV), the oldest veterans group in the country, founded in 1896 for veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American wars. The Jewish Week spoke with Allen Falk, JWV national commander, a Marine veteran and attorney who lives in Aberdeen, New Jersey.
Q: Veterans Day seems to be a forgotten holiday — unlike in Israel, where everyone knows someone in the Army, most Americans don’t. Especially in the Jewish community. Why is it important to remember our veterans?
A: I don’t think it’s forgotten. Americans around the country appreciate the meaning of Veterans Day and many participate in programs that honor veterans’ service. For Jews, in this generation it is true that many do not have a relative in service. However, if you go back a generation, it was almost universally accepted that Jews served in the military. In World War II nearly all Jewish men served. The military today is much, much smaller. Less than one percent of America’s total population is now serving in the military.
How will JWV mark Veterans Day?
At the local level, we expect every JWV post to be involved in their community’s Veterans Day ceremonies. At the national level, I will be in Washington participating in ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Vets tend to get a bad rap — criticized after Vietnam, pictured now as homeless people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Is that reputation changing?
Vietnam vets and other draftees may not have agreed to all our government’s policies, but the overwhelming majority of them did their jobs well and honorably. Today’s veterans are not draftees but are motivated and professional volunteers. I believe most Americans appreciate their service and its importance in keeping our nation free.
What should Americans do when they meet a veteran?
It may be a cliché, but it makes sense to say, “Thank you for your service.”
JWV, by the latest count, has about 32,000 members. When was your high point, and when did the numbers start dropping?
The high point of JWV’s membership was in the post-World War II era. Our membership list was in six figures. JWV, like all other American veterans organizations, has lost its membership as the World War II veterans drop off.
Millions of Americans have served in our foreign wars. Why is there a need for a separate Jewish veterans organization?
Among Jewish organizations we’re unique because we’re made up exclusively of American veterans. Among veterans organizations we’re unique because we have a responsibility to represent the interests of Jewish veterans. For example, we are one of the very few Jewish organizations who oppose granting any further clemency for Jonathan Pollard. We feel he not only betrayed his country but betrayed the Jewish members of the military. We are also one of the few veterans’ organizations who have joined with the ACLU in opposing the display of the Latin cross on any public property when used as a memorial to all American war casualties.
Has there been a loss of interest in the organization’s activities with each generation, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan?
I don’t believe there has been a loss of interest by American Jewish veterans in JWV. However, I do believe that many of today’s veterans are less likely to join any organization due to factors in their lives, which make commitment to such organizations difficult.
What’s your pitch to make JWV relevant to young, Jewish veterans?
Along the same lines as your earlier questions, we’re the one veteran organization that best protects their interest as Jews, and the one Jewish organization that best represents their status as veterans.
Is there a generation gap in the organization — in terms of what you do or how you do it — between the older and younger members?
There is some difference between the interests of World War II veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, and those leaving the service while still in their 20s. However, they have so much more in common as veterans that I don’t believe it’s a serious issue.
What are your major issues now — getting benefits for veterans, supporting our troops abroad, fighting anti-Semitism, etc.?
Yes, we’re trying to get better benefits for veterans. Yes, we’re trying to support our troops abroad — even if it means returning them home. And yes, we’re always in the lead on fighting anti-Semitism.