Jews in the U.S. military, the other false meme-UPDATED
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Jews in the U.S. military, the other false meme-UPDATED

In an otherwise engaging Q and A with Tzipi Livni at Tablet, David Samuels promotes as fact what can only be speculation: that U.S. Jews underserve in the military "have no connection to military life":

Samuels: In World War II, the American Jewish community sent 550,000 troops to fight Hitler, and Jewish scientists were central figures in the invention and manufacture of the atomic bomb. They were the foot-soldiers of American democracy. Now they go to Harvard and start Facebook.

Livni: They contribute in another way.

Samuels: But we have no connection to military life. When we see pictures from the war in Lebanon or Operation Cast Lead, we say, “This is wrong. Why should we support this? It’s terrible. This is not what Judaism in my synagogue was about. This is an army that’s killing people.”

I don’t know where he gets this from. The U.S. military tracks the religions of its enlistees (for burial purposes) but has kept the information secret since after World War II.

Jews served disproportionately before the draft was abolished in the 1970s. I’ve heard from the folks at Jewish War Veterans of the USA that, according to their estimates, that continues to be the case. In this 2008 story, The Forward in 2008 estimated 30,000 in active service, about 2 percent of the roughly 1.5 million (PDF) in the services and commensurate with the overall population. There are on average 80 Jewish cadets out of 4,000 at West Point — 2 percent, again roughly proportionate with the population. Jews in recent years have reached senior command positions in the services.

I tracked all this when Jennifer Rubin at Commentary made the same unfounded assertion, in her attempt to explain why Jews don’t go for Sarah Palin.

Now Samuels could argue that Jews, like all Americans, are largely unconnected to the military because of the end of the draft — but he makes it sound like exceptionalism: "We have no connection to military life." (In any case, I don”t think his broader thesis is true — the most vehement opponents to Israeli military excesses have, after all, emerged from the military.)

[UPDATE: I should have noted when I wrote this that he does make this assertion in a subsequent question:

But that’s not how American Jews live their lives. They go on Facebook, they go to the shopping mall, they go to Harvard—but by and large, they don’t go into the army. Their reality is the reality of most people in the West, who live in a world that is largely detached from the killing that our soldiers do every day in far-away places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

I don’t think Samuels wittingly wants it both ways, but that’s how, in toto, it comes across. And instead of mitigating his original generalization, the follow-up broadens it: Jews, as Jews avoid the military; Jews, as Americans are detached and materialistic.

Still, I should have noted that he placed what he perceived as Jewish detachment from the military in an American as well as a Jewish context.]

We can’t know about Jewish numbers for certain one way or the other, although I think the evidence  suggests a proportionate representation in the military.

So I have two problems with the claim that Jews underserve: When Mark Twain drew the same conclusions over a century ago, he retracted after Jewish veterans pelted him with pained protests. Why is it Jews who are now perpetuating the ancient myth of Jews avoiding service?

Second, I’ve interviewed parents of dead Jewish American troops. You can’t come away from that kind of interview without feeling that they deserve better than this.