Josh Glancy

Jews fought and died for America

It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that all diaspora Jews are bookish

April 23, 2021 13:36

A few blocks from my home in Washington DC, nestled discreetly on a leafy side street, is the National Museum of American Jewish Military History. I’ve walked past this museum 100 times and always promised myself that I’d stop by for a proper look. This being my last week in Washington — I’m moving home to London after five years — I decided on a recent stroll that it was now or never.

Jewish diasporic military history has always intrigued me, I think because to many people it appears like a paradox: that bookish Jews somehow don’t belong on the battlefield. Of course, in reality, that’s nonsense: some half a million Jews served in the American military in the Second World War alone. Eleven thousand died.

The museum itself is small but intriguing, telling the story of Jews in the American military from the earliest days of the nation. It starts in 1654 with Asser Levy, one of the first Jews to settle in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. As the fledgling colony battled with nearby New Sweden on the Delaware River, Levy was keen to join the New Amsterdam militia and do his bit. But governor Peter Stuyvesant wouldn’t let Jews serve, demanding that they pay an extra exemption tax instead. Levy appealed to the colony’s government in Holland, who allowed him to do his duty.

So began the long story of Jewish military life in America. “From the day of the founding of the republic, we have had no struggle in which there have not been citizens of Jewish faith who played an eminent part,” said President Teddy Roosevelt, in words splayed across the wall of the museum. Dotted around this exhibition are mementos from that story. Eugene Cohn has donated sketchings of Japanese kamikaze attacks at Okinawa; Herbert Stone a firing pin removed from a German mine on Omaha beach. This being a Jewish museum, there’s also a section devoted to detailing “A Mother’s Grief”.

I found myself much affected by this history of Jewish sacrifice. Not so much because of the stereotypes it dispels, but because of what it says about Jews and America. How they loved this country and died for its ideals and its mistakes. How much the liberty that America has sought to advance meant to a people denied freedom for so long.

Because it’s an American institution and this country loves a founding text, the museum also has a constitution, the founding principles of Jewish American War Veterans. The second line of the constitution encourages its adherents to “foster and perpetuate true Americanism”. This is another Teddy Roosevelt reference. True Americanism, he wrote in his eponymous 1894 essay, is the belief that “our nation is that one among all the nations of the earth which holds in its hands the fate of the coming years. We enjoy exceptional advantages, and are menaced by exceptional dangers; and all signs indicate that we shall either fail greatly or succeed greatly.”

How eerily true those words still ring today. But is Americanism fading? Could this fractured, angry, introverted nation still sustain the mighty endeavours that won those two world wars? Does America still have the muscle? The heart?

As I leave this extraordinary country after five years, I must admit I’m feeling uncertain. In many ways, the Trump era was a testament to America’s resilience: its unique system of government was stress tested in the extreme. The system bent but it did not break. Walking around the National Museum of American Jewish Military History is also a reminder of how much worse things have been. That there was once a time when brother fought against brother, Jew against fellow Jew, as the Union and the Confederacy slaughtered each other by the hundred thousand.

Yet putting civil strife aside, the ability to fight a foreign war — even a misguided one — demonstrates a solidarity and a unified sense of national purpose that is sorely lacking in the America of 2021. This is a profound problem, for a house divided against itself cannot stand indefinitely. “Above all we must stand shoulder to shoulder, not asking as to the ancestry or creed of our comrades, but only demanding that they be in very truth Americans,” wrote Roosevelt in 1894.

For nearly 400 years, American Jews have lived those words. Many live it still. In front of the museum are stones inscribed with the names of those Jews who fell in the ill-conceived and ill-fated US wars of the 21st century: Robert Secher, of Germantown, Tennessee, a marine who was shot during combat in the Anbar province of Iraq in 2006. Daniel Agami of Coconut Creek, Florida, who was killed in 2007 when a bomb exploded near his vehicle in Baghdad.

There are many more. For all our sakes, as Jews, and as citizens of a world that is better off with a strong and united America leading it, I dearly hope their sacrifice was not in vain.

April 23, 2021 13:36

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