Fake News and Factual Distress

Remembering Pearl Harbor with our Israeli Sisters and Brothers
December 7, 2017Rabbi Daniel M. Bronstein, Ph.D.

Among the scores and long-held slanders perpetuated against Diaspora Jewry has been the smear that Jews were disloyal to their host countries. Accused of being traitors from the time of Pharaoh to the “Dreyfus Affair” and into the present, Diaspora Jews also have been accused of war profiting. Such anti-Semitic bubbe meises (fables) served many functions, including perpetuating unflattering stereotypes of Jewish inferiority.

In other instances, disparagement of Jewish men as physically and psychologically unfit for military service served to bar newly-emancipated Jews of 19th century Europe from participating fully in society As historian Sander Gilman details masterfully in his study, The Jew’s Body, false assertions that the feet of Jewish men were intrinsically inferior kept them from serving as officers.

But what about the especially odious notion that American Jews actively ducked military service? So frustrated by such fake news, Simon Wolf, a prominent American and prominent American Jew of the 19th century, published his study, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen, in 1895, documenting the significant legacy of Jewish military service.

Still, fables and fake news die hard. 

No less than Mark Twain believed this was the case until presented with the facts and documentation, writing in the postscript/correction to his 1899 essay for Harpers:

Concerning the Jews, I was ignorant – like the rest of the Christian world – of the fact that the Jew had a record as a soldier. I have since seen the official statistics, and I find that he furnished soldiers and high officers to the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War. In the Civil War, he was represented in the armies and navies of both the North and the South by 10 per cent…of his numerical strength – the same percentage that was furnished by the Christian populations of the two sections. This large fact means more than it seems to mean; for it means that the Jew’s patriotism was not merely level with the Christian’s, but overpassed it…[the American Jewish] record for capacity, for fidelity, and for gallant soldiership in the field is as good as any one’s. This is true of the Jewish private soldiers and the Jewish generals alike…

All of this was before American Jewish service in the Spanish American War, WW I, WW II (in which more than 500,000 Jews served, well out of proportion to their percentage of the population), and service that has continued for the past 75 years.

Even so, in the opening days of the Second World War, this “poem,” slightly censored, as documented by an American rabbinical military chaplain, was making the rounds:

I’ll work like hell and never stop
I’ll stay right here until I drop
I’ll **** in my pants and **** in my shoes
I’ll save the work for the ***dammed Jews

The ongoing problem with fake news, falsehoods, and lashon hara (derogatory speech about others) in all its varieties, is that they are difficult to combat. But what happens when such bubbe meises emerge from within the family?

Most recently, Jews across the world were unhappy recipients of Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely’s assertion that U.S. Jews are “people that never send their children to fight for their country” and that “most of them are having quite convenient lives.…” Hotovely’s words ignited a firestorm, earning rebuke from Israelis and North American Jews of all ideological stripes. Since then, Minister Hotovely has “apologized,” saying, “If someone was hurt by my words, I’m very sorry.” More important, she acknowledged that American Jews are her “brothers.” Nonetheless, her comment underscores the distressing reality, not simply of genuine political and religious disagreements between Israelis and American Jews, but likewise how many Israelis are woefully ignorant of contemporary American Jewish life and history.

Just as one cannot overlook the profundity of the Diaspora’s cultural contributions to Jewish life, so too can Israelis benefit, on many levels, from learning about what it is to live in a place where Judaism and Jewish culture, in all its varieties can blossom freely, unfettered by petty politics or ideologies grounded in ignorance. Israelis could benefit from knowing more about the origins of contemporary American Jewish life, starting with the history of how a handful of refugees successfully navigated, preserved, and further developed their Jewish identity while coexisting among other peoples of every known religion and culture.

The anniversary of Pearl Harbor can offer one small slice of this American Jewish history.

We might remember names like Aaron Chabin, who as private in the army, survived the Japanese bombs at Pearl Harbor long enough to observe the 75th anniversary of the attack. We remember Solomon Isquith, an Annapolis graduate who although wounded during the attack nonetheless saved hundreds from the torpedo ship he commanded, retiring with the rank of Rear Admiral Or, we might remember Private Louis Schliefer, another American Jewish witness to the carnage of Pearl Harbor who was killed while using his personal revolver to shoot back at his assailants.

May their memories, and those of hundreds of thousands of others, be for a blessing. But in their name, we might also turn away from violence and war in favor of realizing communal comity and worldwide peace. May the examples of these three men inspire all Jews, Israeli, American, and otherwise, to truly come to know each other better that we might actualize the words of Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

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