Jews in the Military: Is Service Compatible with the American Jewish Experience?

By: Pete Zubof

This fall, I had the privilege of escorting three students from the Navy’s Officer Development School to High Holiday services.  Being trainees, they were subject to various restrictions during their time away from the base, not the least of which was a requirement to wear their Navy uniforms at all times.  Not wanting them to feel out of place, I also wore my uniform, something I had never considered doing at Synagogue.  Needless to say, we were warmly welcomed by the Congregation and, as I have come to expect when wearing my uniform, we were barraged by questions about ourselves and the military.

One of the questions I found most perplexing…and it was asked of more than a few times…was “are you Jewish?”  At first, I wasn’t sure exactly how to answer this question.  In my mind, I couldn’t imagine why I would be sitting at Synagogue all day if I wasn’t Jewish?  After the third or fourth time of hearing the same question, however, it dawned on me: the uniform.   There was a clear disconnect…how could these nice people be in the military and be Jewish.

“Nice Jewish boys don’t join the military.”  Those were the words of my grandmother when she found out that I was considering joining the Navy.  Her view echoed traditional Jewish American values which often defines success based upon educational achievement and, by extension, financial success.  Military service is perceived to fall short in both categories.  On an educational scale, military service is still perceived to be blue collar employment and the realm of the GED crowd.  That perception is simply not true.  It’s worth noting, for example, that among the four of us at High Holiday services, I was the underachiever of the group with only a Master’s degree.   Furthermore, while I will never be rich from my military service, I do feel that I am well compensated (although you should all still write to your Congressman and demand that our full military pension benefits be restored).

In a similar vein, American Jewish tradition holds military service as a dirty and or dangerous job, better suited for other people’s children.  Through our own success in America, we have come to the conclusion that we can pay for others to take care of those occupations that we would prefer to avoid…the lower class jobs, which includes the military.  At a wedding that I attended when I was a young Ensign, I was in a conversation with another guest who found out that I was in the Navy.  He told me that he, too, would have joined the military, but his parents were able to afford college.  This concept, that military service is for the under-educated and under-privileged, disturbs me.  I would hope that above all other religious and ethnic groups in America, Jews would remember that it was the American military that ended the horrors of the holocaust and that Jewish blood has been shed for this country since the Revolution.

I can’t speak to my grandmother’s definition of “nice,” but after almost 15 years of service, I can thankfully say that, despite perceptions to the contrary, Jews do join the military and with surprising regularity.  A recent Pew study suggested that 1.7 percent of American service members identified themselves as Jewish.  This percentage, admittedly, sounds paltry.  Consider, however, that a broader Pew study in the same year found that the exact same percentage, 1.7 percent, of all Americans identified as Jewish.  The reality, therefore, is that Jews are represented in the military in the exact same proportions as they are in American life.

Military service is perfectly compatible with the American Jewish experience.  Remember that we chose our professions and were not driven here by circumstances.  So feel free…ask us all your questions about the military.  Please, just remember that we are American Jews just like you…peers, not oddities.

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