By: Pete Zubof
As amazing as it may seem, May is here and with it, Memorial Day. This holiday is a chance to honor our veterans, specifically those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. This year was actually somewhat historic with regards to American military honors. In March of this year, in a historic ceremony, President Barack Obama bestowed the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, to twenty-four veterans, the largest such group to be awarded that medal since World War II. Of the twenty-four, nineteen of the awardees were servicemen whose gallantry was believed to have been overlooked due to possible prejudice or discrimination based on the fact that they were of Hispanic, African American or Jewish heritage.
Minority organizations applauded the efforts of the Obama administration to restore the lost valor of these men. In speaking for the Jewish community, several Jewish publications identified five awardees of Jewish lineage. These were William F. Leonard, Donald K. Schwab, Alfred B. Nietzel, Jack Weinstein and Leonard M. Kravitz. There is, however, a problem with this list. Of the five, only one, Leonard Kravitz, can be definitively identified as a Jew.
In an ironic twist, the Jewish community may be guilty of jumping to conclusions on the genealogy of these men based purely on stereotypes surrounding their surnames. Evidence against the Jewish ancestry of the other four Medal of Honor recipients comes in a number of forms but is fairly convincing. Online databases exist that allow users to search grave records, most even with photographs. From this we learn that William F. Leonard, Alfred Nietzel and Jack Weinstein have grave markers engraved with crosses or other Christian imagery, evidence at least that they were certainly not practicing Jews at the time of their deaths. The evidence against Donald Schwab’s Jewish ancestry is less specific, but his official Medal of Honor biography lists him as active in the “church and community.”
This is not the first time the Jewish community has, unfortunately, jumped to conclusions with Medal of Honor winners. An article in Discover JCC magazine identifies “at least 27” Jewish Medal of Honor winners. Nearly half of those, however, can, with a high level of confidence, be identified as being of non-Jewish lineage. In fact, the Jewish War Veterans of America definitively identifies only 16 Jewish Medal of Honor winners. Where, then, does the confusion arise?
Many of the Medal of Honor winners mistakenly identified as of Jewish ancestry came from immigrant families who arrived in America in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Their surnames were largely Germanic and, as such, have been mistaken by modern scholars as Semitic in origin. The irony lies in the fact that the Jewish community has laid “claim” to these men based on the same stereotypes that likely robbed them of their full honors to begin with.
Not being Jewish does not in any way reduce the valor of any winner of the Medal of Honor. As Jews, however, we should feel an obligation to look beyond a simple name and understand the personal stories of each of these American heroes, both Jew and Gentile. By doing so, we pay proper respects to all of these great individuals while simultaneously realizing what a rare honor it is indeed to be one of the 16 Jewish recipients of our nation’s highest award.