They knew all about his military exploits, his extraordinary record of combat in both the Second World War and Vietnam. But Mick and Barrie, the two sons of Melvin Zais, who rose to become a four star general in the United States Army with battlefields named for him all over the world, did not know that their father was Jewish. “It was easier for him to go along with my mother, a Southern Baptist who insisted on raising her sons as Christians,” Barrie, who also went into the military, recalled. “It was better for his marriage and better for his career.”
By all measures, anti-Semitism has declined markedly in American society over the last century, and being Jewish is no longer a barrier to advancement in most fields. But while Jews are heavily overrepresented in American government, business, banking and entertainment, they remain relatively underrepresented in positions of military leadership.
Part of the reason for this stems from the relatively small number of Jews who volunteer for military service. According to Department of Defense statistics, Jews, who make up about 2 percent of the overall population of this country, make up less than a third of a percent of the total number of those serving in the armed forces. There are many reasons commonly given for this, including the fact that Jews, with a median age of 41, tend to be older than Americans as a whole, who have a median age of 35.
Since the end of the draft in the 1970s, moreover, the military has tended to draw overwhelmingly from the working class and from the relatively uneducated. This represents a sea change over time. While more than a thousand military officers of all faiths had graduated from Princeton in 1956, half a century later there were only 16 military officers graduated from all the Ivy League schools combined. As Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer argue in “AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service — And How It Hurts Our Country” (Harper), this has led to a dangerously widening gap between the military and the civilian leadership of our country.
Allen Falk, an attorney in Matawan, N.J., who served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, is the national commander of the Jewish War Veterans. Falk warned that counting Jews in the military is often fodder for anti-Semites, who charge that Jews are unpatriotic or have stronger loyalty to Israel than to the United States. He thus chafes at the question of numbers. “Jews are very well represented in the different branches of the service,” he said.
After the Second World War, Falk insisted, the armed forces became the most “egalitarian” establishment in society, in which you were rated more on your ability than on your background or religion. Falk conceded, though, that the military has historically had what he calls a “Southern Christian” ethos, in which military officers were disproportionately drawn from the South, which has a lower Jewish population than other regions of the country. In addition, the children of active duty personnel — known as “military brats” — have frequently inherited the mantle of leadership from their fathers.
Military insiders claim that stereotypes of Jewish men as neurotic and un-masculine still persist, and they can lead to subtle, even unconscious discrimination on the part of army superiors. Since only a tiny percentage of those serving in the armed forces ever ascend to high positions, any disadvantage, whether real or perceived, can be magnified throughout the often lengthy course of a military career. One sees this dynamic in Philip Roth’s classic short story, ”Defender of the Faith,” in which a Jewish army major is cleverly manipulated by a Jewish serviceman who appeals to their shared ethnic roots in the face of prejudice from other officers.
Just two years ago, the late historian Seymour (“Sy”) Brody posted, on the website of the Florida Atlantic University, a list of close to a hundred Jewish generals and admirals in the American military. But while Jews have fought in every American war since colonial times, the history of anti-Semitism in the military is also well documented.
As Joseph Bendersky wrote in his exhaustively researched book, “The ‘Jewish Threat’: Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S. Army” (Basic Books, 2000), anti-Semitism was endemic throughout most of the 20th century in all ranks of the Army. Nor was this peculiar to the army; Victor Krulak, a much-decorated Marine Corps officer known as “Brute,” denied his Russian Jewish roots in order to rise in the ranks; he later contested Lyndon Baines Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, a move that historians believe cost him a promotion to commandant.
Is anti-Semitism still a factor in the military? There are certainly Jews in top military positions, including Norton Schwartz, chief of staff of the Air Force. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard, and Robert Magnus, a four star general in the Marine Corps, both recently retired. Some distinguished Jewish veterans have even been Holocaust survivors, including Corporal Tibor Rubin, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor in the Korean War and Major General Sidney Shachnow, who became a Green Beret in Vietnam.
Some experts on the military claim that anti-Semitism has largely been eliminated by the armed services in this country. At a time when women, blacks, Muslims, homosexuals and other minorities are serving openly, anti-Semitism seems like a thing of the past. “Prejudice is well past frowned upon in the military,” noted Norman Rosenshein, an army veteran who serves as president of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, an institution in Washington, D.C., chartered in 1958, that celebrates the accomplishments of American Jewish soldiers. “If you come near the realm of bigotry, reprimands are very serious, and will cost you rank.” While Jews often do not “broadcast” their religion, he said, they also find no need to conceal it.
Yet as the activist Mikey Weinstein has written in “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military” (St. Martin’s Press), the army is hardly immune from hate crimes against Jews, or from attempts by Evangelicals to convert Jews to Christianity. The recent scandal in the Air Force, in which senior cadets attempted to proselytize Jews, is unsurprising, according to Weinstein, in the context of an institution in which recruits were taught that they were fighting just as much for “Team Jesus” as for their country.
In some ways, it is easier to be openly Jewish in the military than ever before. Accommodations are made so that kosher food can be provided and soldiers can celebrate Jewish holidays. Yet just as the number of Jewish soldiers has declined dramatically since the draft ended after Vietnam, the number of chaplains has plummeted as well. While in the 1960s it was expected that newly minted rabbis spend at least two years in the military, nowadays few rabbis begin their career in this way. As a result, there is a shortage of ordained rabbis available to assist Jewish soldiers in fulfilling their religious needs.
Rear Admiral Harold L. Robinson is a Reform rabbi and longtime chaplain in the Navy. He organized the historic ceremony in October unveiling the memorial at Arlington National Cemetery dedicated to the 14 Jewish chaplains who died while on active duty. Robinson opined that the culture of conformity in the armed services militates against the full acceptance of minorities. “The military is all about belonging to a team and fitting in,” Robinson said. “It’s life and death. Being Jewish is to be distinctive, and that puts an extra stress on Jews. Some deal with it by trying to downplay their Jewishness, and their Jewishness can suffer as a result. There is a perception among Jewish service members that it is more difficult to be serious as a Jew than it is to be serious as a Protestant or Catholic.”
Robinson believes that the true number of Jews in the military is more than 10,000, which is twice the number published by the Defense Department. Robinson is often called upon at the last minute to find a rabbi for the funeral of a soldier who has been killed in action and had no religious affiliation listed in his file. Indeed, between 20 and 25 percent of new recruits do not list a religious preference, according to Robinson, when they fill out their initial documents.
To its credit, Robinson said, the military is attempting to become a more tolerant, open institution. But its culture of uniformity is very deeply entrenched. “Admirals and generals pick aides who remind them of themselves 20 years earlier. This gives these aides an enormous advantage later on in terms of being promoted, because they understand all the workings of command.”
While the military remains a microcosm of American society, Robinson added, it thrusts issues of diversity into especially sharp relief. “It’s a reflection of the larger society, but in much more starkly defined terms.”
Zais, the son of the general who concealed his Jewish roots even from his own family, recently attended a funeral at West Point of a fellow soldier from his own graduating class. “If you asked me how many Jewish cadets were in my class of 596, I would have counted only six or seven,” he said. “But when I went back and looked at the names on the wall of the Jewish chapel, I found 23 Jewish names. I guess that there are a lot more Jews in the army than people know.”
Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College, where he directs the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life. For the last 11 years, he has served as theater critic for The Jewish Week.