The following is a transcript of Episode 93 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Tuesday, March 8th, 2022.
So my father was the United States ambassador for seven years, stationed in the Middle East. Much of what he regularly spoke about in his hundreds of speaking engagements during those years in country was American foreign policy in the region.
But part of the job was also to serve as a cultural ambassador for the American people to Israelis and Egyptians. And I remember he used to give a talk regularly where he argued that to really understand America. You had to read and to understand the significance of two things, the Civil War and baseball. Both of them to him represented cultural phenomena of enormous historical importance and served both as anchors and metaphors for America’s narrative about itself.
In my own work, I often find that the Jewish questions that American Jews ask about ourselves and our commitments feel awfully parochial. We debate questions of Jewish identity often in reference to Jewishness as an abstract set of commitments in which America is just another diaspora. The incidental theater, where we as diaspora Jews happened to be located, often failing to notice that who we are as American Jews, is incredibly contingent on very particular aspects of the American experience, deeply rooted in American culture in ways that are probably hard to see because we’re in that culture.
To quote a joke that David Foster Wallace used to tell: There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit. And then eventually one of them looks at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
So we, engaged American Jews, are much more likely to talk about religion and state, or Judaism and democracy, in reference to the state of Israel, than we are in reference to America, which has been around longer and engaging questions for Jews and others about what it means for our religious, communal and political values to intersect and diverge, especially in this particular place, America.
Maybe Zionism takes up too much of this space for American Jews, or maybe for some reason we’ve forgotten to notice or to take seriously the stakes of this important conversation for who we are as Americans and who we are as Jews in America.
Here’s one telling example, which will pave the way for our conversation today. I remember a few years ago, I was at the annual dinner for my kids’ school, a modern Orthodox and religious Zionist day school in the New York area.
They honored the alumni of the school. Many alumni of the school had gone off to serve in the army, by which, I mean, of course, the Israeli army. There may have been an alumnus or two who had served in the American military, but that wasn’t the plot point. And I’m not sure that that would have registered the same way as a successful outcome of the school’s education. That’s odd, I thought, or maybe not.
Affiliated and involved Jews are in a strange spot with respect to the American military as an institution of American civic life and democracy. It’s not our grandparents’ epic of American Jewish history with universal conscription as a tool for the induction of American Jews into the American story and as an instrument for social mobility. And there are of course class questions here too, which lurk below the surface about American Jews and the American military.
Meanwhile, there’s an antisemitic reputation lying just below the surface, you can Google it, that American Jews don’t serve in the military. But going back to where I started, American Jews are actually represented in the military at about the same percentages, numbers wise as the overall percentage of Jews in the population, roughly the same as it is actually in Major League Baseball, though I think there are fewer in the NBA.
American Jewish identity is intertwined interlaced interdependence with the infrastructure and institutions of the American state. And we’re overdue to talk about it. Maybe the more we understand about this American fabric in which we live, the better we’ll understand ourselves.
To explore this, I’m really excited to welcome today, Phil Lieberman, rabbi, a professor, at Jewish studies at Vanderbilt, and a commander and chaplain in the U S. Navy, and Phil, thank you for coming on the show. I guess I would love for you to start by just telling us the story of how it was that you landed in the US military.
I suppose that for many people, that’s maybe a benign question, but I suspect that for many of our listeners, it will be really interesting and noteworthy that you have all three of these identities, as an Orthodox ordained rabbi, a professor of Jewish studies, and a successful and decorated career in the US military. So maybe you could tell us a little of that story.
Phil: So, I think like many chaplains and perhaps like many Jews in the military at large, my dad was in the military. My dad was a reservist, just like me. He was in the staff Corps, just like me. But he was a lawyer. He was a JAG officer for 24 years. And so, the military was something that uh, I grew up knowing about.
And my father was a, uh, a prosecutor in his civilian life. And uh, for two weeks a year, he got to put on robes and be a judge in the army. And as a kid, I always thought that was very cool that my dad got to serve in this way. You know, as someone who went to rabbinical school and, uh, you know, knew that it was a possibility for me to serve in this way. I wanted to do it, too.
Yehuda: I suspect there are perceptions in some of the communities in which you operate, that what you do is unusual. Not for the American people, at large, but I, my guess is, in, um, aspects of the modern Orthodox community, it’s certainly unusual to have an Orthodox rabbi in the American military.
And I suspect even given the political climate on some college campuses may not, maybe not in a Vanderbilt, it’s also unusual. So I would love for you to describe that a little bit and how you’ve negotiated the perception that what you’re doing is unusual.
Phil: Yeah. Well, let me, start with Vanderbilt actually. So, uh, I am the first faculty member in the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt, uh, ever to be mobilized into the United States military. I just came back a few weeks ago from uh, mobilization. I was seven months boots on ground about a 9-10 month mobilization as a whole, where I, um, served as the command chaplain in Djibouti, in the horn of Africa.
So, when I got the call that I was, you know, being mobilized, you know, I obviously had to talk to the folks at my university about it, and they really didn’t know what to do with me because, there are other folks at the university who have been mobilized. There are folks in the medical center, I had a colleague who’s an anesthesiologist, who was mobilized to Afghanistan, or really, what they deal with more than that, the university is the policemen at the university who get mobilized to serve as policemen in the military. But again, I’m the first person in the College of Arts and Science. And it’s strange because it’s not a sabbatical, right? It’s a particular type of leave.
And, you know, the university wasn’t quite ready for it. I, I was really lucky in that uh, you know, my department chair was willing to find someone to cover the first few weeks of the spring semester, prior to my return. And then as soon as I returned to Nashville, then I could resume teaching. So we made it possible for me not having to miss a beat and could just, you know, go right back into the classroom.
But, you know, to be honest, I might suggest that, you know, when someone comes back from 9 or 10 months overseas, you might want to actually put them on administrative leave for a semester in order to reintegrate. Right. So there was something there, sort of having the university get its head around, uh, what I did.
Uh you know, if you look in the Anchor Bible, Genesis, uh, written by uh, Ephraim Speiser and if I’m not mistaken, when Speiser was at the University of Pennsylvania, he did some work for the government, uh, perhaps during world war II, some translation stuff.
So it’s not totally unknown. You know, and of course this is the you know, the major claim that Edward Said makes in Orientalism, right? That our scholarly institutions have been in bed with the military ever since Napoleon goes into, Egypt in 1798. But, you know, I do keep those worlds kind of distinct.
I think, um, it is actually refreshing for me to serve my folks in the military and then come back to my job as a college professor because every now and then I get a student who wants to submit a paper late because he or she has a social event to go to and, you know, or they’re going away with their family, and I said, listen, you know, I could fill this classroom with motivated people whom I know through the military, they are the same age as you. They just didn’t have the happy accident of birth that you happened to have. They’re just as intelligent, just as hardworking and, no, I’m, I’m not going to let you turn in your paper late because you have some kind of social event.
So that’s certainly one world, uh, in which I travel. The, I would say that, the Jewish community appreciates it because the work that I’m doing not only helping to facilitate Jewish life in the military, but also serving as a symbolic exemplar for the Jews in the military.
For many folks in Djibouti, I was the first Jewish person whom they knew well. Or came to know well, and certainly the first rabbi in many cases. And I just love it when someone sees my insignia and does a double-take because, you know, there are fewer Jewish chaplains in the military than there are, let’s say three-star generals or admirals.
Someone can go through an entire career and never run into, uh, you know, a rabbi in in the military. And, once you do, I ran into people from my pre-mobilization workup, whom I had met actually in Bahrain one year when I led Seder. You know, I met people overseas whom I had come into contact at other times, and on my return, I met more folks whom I had encountered on, you know, my various, um, trips around the world to serve the Navy and the Jewish people.
Yehuda: Yeah. I would love for, to, to pick up on that a little bit more, which is, what’s the rabbinic calling that’s involved in this. I mean, some of what you described sounds like any rabbi, serves the congregation. So that could be about Bahrain or it can be in Djibouti or it could be anywhere, but I wonder whether there’s more to it in terms of you as a Jew. And then we can come to the question of you as an American, not just imitating your father, but engaging in a form of service that probably tells a deep story about, about who you are as a Jew and an American.
Phil: So serving in the military is completely different from serving congregational life. I’ve done that before. You know, the folks who I run into from the military who are, have worked in congregational settings, also say, you know, you don’t have a board. Right. You’re not fighting against, or wrestling with your board of directors of your synagogue, but, you know, instead you’re wrestling with, uh, you know, the Navy culture and the Navy organization, which is really very complicated.
And the type of service is very different. Wherever your synagogue is, there is a core of Jews who, you know, hired you, unless you’re starting your own, uh, synagogue from scratch, which happens sometimes. But, you know, when I went to Djibouti, there wasn’t an existing Jewish community. I had to do what I could to create it.
And you always have to understand that you might not succeed in creating a big Jewish community. It might be one or two folks here or there. And, at a place like camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where I was, you know, we had 4 or 5,000 people. And if the Navy is indeed 1% Jewish, that might mean 40 or 50 Jews all told, right?
Which means that if you have an event, getting two or three people is actually a huge success, but not only that, if you’re the rabbi of a synagogue out in town, you might expect one or two people who were not Jewish, but Jewish curious to come in. In the military, I would say that when you have a Jewish event, when we had an ice cream social in our, in our sukkah at camp Lemonnier, there might not have been another Jew in the entire event, you know, and that’s okay. It was a great opportunity for folks to learn about what Jewish life is. So a lot of that goes on.
The other thing that happens is that as a rabbi in the military, sometimes folks open up to me in a way that they wouldn’t open up to their own clergy, because they don’t expect me to judge them in the way that their own clergy would.
So the service to the Jewish people is different. Some of it’s direct, right? Some of it is, you know, I got a, um, mastered arms, first-class Jake Feldman. Who is a New York city cop. Right. And I can give him a mezuzah to put on his room in the barracks. Right. So some of it’s that kind of direct stuff. Or having lunch every Shabbat morning with uh, Lieutenant Commander Phil Rothberg, who was, uh, as they said when he left, Africa’s uh, okayest hand surgeon. Uh, but you know, so sometimes it’s that kind of direct stuff.
Sometimes it’s interfaith teaching. You know, I made sure that we had regular classes with the other folks on my team. We did one on death and salvation in different religious traditions. We also just did a general introduction to world religions. And sometimes the service to the Jewish people piece is, you know, as I said, providing a positive image of who the Jews are to people who might be totally unfamiliar.
Yehuda: Yeah, it’s interesting. Um, from what I’ve read and, and you’ll play this out more for us. It strikes me that the chaplaincy work, there’s like a different lane of different people coming from different faiths, but you’re not there purely to minister to the Jews. Like that would be like the Chabad equivalent, right.
You’re there to serve as a chaplain to members of the armed forces for all of their pastoral and educational needs. And obviously Jews are getting Jewish services, but there’s, it seems like a shared universal mission.
Phil: 100%. Right. So according to the sort of Naval doctrine, we have four areas of professional Naval chaplaincy. Uh, one of those is to provide for your own people. And another of those is to facilitate for other groups. So, when folks came to us and they identified as a church of Latter Day Saints, right, I wanted to make it possible for them to have, uh, services, right? So we find a lay leader or we otherwise try to facilitate, we can take them out in town. Right. There’s a lot that we can do. But that extends not just to what we think of as religious services, but also to counseling. Cause one of those other core competencies is caring for all.
Yehuda: You alluded to this before in reference to the university where there’s a real gap. If they don’t have a category for a faculty member to go spend time to be mobilized, then there’s this unbelievable cultural gap between what we consider to be the kind of core institutions of American life and this other core institution of American life. We don’t have a category for it.
That feels to me like it’s a story that’s unfolded over a very different period of time. Obviously there’s a whole saga of the question of American military recruiting on college campuses. But it also feels like a bigger metaphor for the gap between how most Americans and certainly most American Jews relate to the military as something that’s just far away from them disconnected from their lives and for their families.
And I I’d love for you to unpack that a little bit because I suspect that probably creates some resentment by members of the armed forces about this role that American military are serving. And I would love to figure out how to close that gap a little bit.
Phil: Um, I think that’s probably a kind of a mutual resentment, right? That is to say that, uh, I think there’s just a total lack of understanding of what it is that, uh, folks in the military are doing among faculty at American college campuses and probably among their administrations as well. And so, the university just had to sort of figure me out.
You actually said something very interesting at the beginning that alluded to kind of class differentials, suggesting that the military was at one point a kind of a route for social mobility. I think that that’s changed somewhat, right? That is to say, in some parts of the military, for sure, it’s perceived as an opportunity to have a steady job, uh, maybe to learn some skills, to sort of expand those skills into one’s civilian life when one leaves the military and so on. But a lot of the folks that I encountered in at camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti actually are paid more in their civilian jobs and have better opportunities on the outside than they did at Camp Lemonnier.
Which makes one wonder what the heck they’re doing in the horn of Africa, feeling as though a hairdryer is blowing on them every time they leave their office. And, uh, you know, the answer is I think that they’re committed to serving their country.
So, it’s one thing that really struck me from my time, uh, overseas, that as, uh, as difficult as it was for me to be away from my family, some of the other folks that I was working with had been on their second, third, fourth, fifth, and more mobilizations. So they had a civilian life. And, you know, they have a kind of a parallel military career and they keep taking these opportunities. Now, the police force and government service, right, understand easily how to fit into the military. The private sector does less so, and I would say the university system does even less so, because, for most of what it is that is taught at, you know, the university, there isn’t necessarily a kind of corresponding job in the military, right? So if you’re a doctor, obviously there are, if you’re a lawyer, obviously there are opportunities to serve. But if you’re an English professor, you know, again, Jewish studies professor, religion, or history, right?
Obviously these are things that folks in the military know and want to learn. But they’re not part of the kind of core mission of the military a lot of the time. So there aren’t that many opportunities, even if there was the inkling and the desire on the part of university faculty to serve in that way.
Yehuda: That’s really interesting because it means that it’s like there’s an implied covenant here, which is if there is some aspect of why someone would want to serve in the military, that it’s about a sense of obligation and loyalty to country and responsibility, that least at one point in time might have been repaid by social mobility, good career skills, et cetera.
But now you have basically a dual problem. You have a country where the language of obligation, citizenship, patriotism that’s expressed in these types of commitments is probably lower than it’s ever been. Like, why would I, why would I do that? Right. It’s not even complemented by the fact that like, well, this would probably be good for your career. And that seems to me like a dual problem. And I really do wonder for American Jews, in the long run, if we don’t have robust forms of expression for how we express our patriotism and our loyalty and our gratitude to America, it feels like a real rupture of the covenant between Judaism and Americaness.
Phil: I would say that for me, um, serving in the military is definitely a manifestation of a sense of obligation that I have to America, because Jews have it great here, you know, my, um, I’m just happy that I’m able to serve in this way. And I’m happy that we have everything that we have in America.
The safety and security and so on that we take for granted, is something that as a medieval historian in another part of my life, right, you know, the Jews didn’t always have. I do feel a sense of obligation to serve in this way.
And by the way, I think that, um, those folks who have done recruiting, uh, say chaplains, haven’t necessarily focused on that. Right? They don’t necessarily focus on the service part. Right. They’ll say, you know, here’s all the fun stuff you get to do. Right. You can jump out of airplanes or you can ride in tanks, you get to go on the ship. Right. But the Kiddush Hashem part right is really what, you know, one thing that we get to feel pretty intensely, you know, when I had my birthday, uh, some of the other department heads put up a giant sign that said, Happy Birthday Rabbi on camp. And everyone passing by that sign for the whole day, you know, would say, you know, Hey, happy birthday.
Like they knew who I was. And, you know, I knew that it wasn’t just Phil Lieberman that they were seeing that too. It was the rabbi. Right. It’s that role that I was filling. It wasn’t really about me. It was the role that I was getting to fill. Exactly.
Yehuda: Yeah. I mean, I, you see that by the way, with the way that many American Jews relate to the IDF where they kind of use it as a source of a sense of pride, a sense of nobility, a sense of Jews have power in the world. They want to appreciate it. They want to use the terminology of the most moral army in the world. Not just that it’s there to defend the Jewish people, but that it’s a morally great thing.
I even felt a tingling of it. I saw this picture that went viral and social media, you know, in Ukraine, the conscription now is 18 to 60. And so it was this picture of this frum guy, big beard and a kippah, standing there, manning a booth with a gun. He clearly had just been brought into the army. As far as I could guess. Maybe, maybe not. Um, and I, I did feel this kind of twinge of like, wow, that creates a very different story about what it means to be a citizen of a society that feels probably very distant for most American Jews. I wonder what you, what would you want American Jews to do in terms of a curriculum in thinking about the military, thinking about our sense of responsibility to the military. How would you want to see that conversation change?
Phil: So, um, I would want, American Jews to understand that their relationship with their country is very special and not historically unique perhaps, but certainly very special. And it’s perhaps not hard to convey in the mind of Jews a sense of obligation and desire to repay that, as well as to protect that. But to highlight the kind of uniqueness of that relationship, I think could help.
Yehuda: Well with that, I want to thank you so much for your time, and for being with us today, Phil.
Phil: Thank you.
Yehuda: We’re going to take a short break, after which, we’ll be zooming out to look at the broader historical context of Jewish chaplaincy in the military with our second guest for this week, professor of history and an author, Ronit Stahl. We’ll come right back.
Yehuda: I’m joined now by Ronit Stahl, who’s a associate professor in the department of history at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of a great book called Enlisting Faith: How the military chaplaincy shaped religion and state in modern America.
Ronit, thanks for joining us to put some of this conversation about Jews in the American military into a larger historical context.
If I understood the thesis of your book, and you can help spell this out, chaplaincy emerges in America as part of world war I. And in some ways, either as part of, or maybe just generates this, what you call the American Tri-Faith model, right? Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic. Um, another term that you use is moral monotheism.
So, and I’m, I’m fascinated by that because those are not the three faiths. Um, but that’s like a, it’s like a whole story of how Judaism kind of emerges into becoming part of like normalized American religion. So did I get that right? And like, tell us a little bit of that story of its emergence, because I I’ve had a lot of questions about what that means for Judaism and America.
Ronit: Great. Well first thank you for having me. And that is a good overarching narrative with one small correction, which is that chaplaincy itself in the military l ong predates, uh, world war I, but the Jewish chaplaincy as an institution really begins in world war I. There had been a few Jewish chaplains here and there.
You know, you can look at the civil war and identify one here, one there, but institutionally World War I is the watershed moment, for American Jews, for rabbis serving in the military. And it launches as you noted, um, a real transformation of not just the military or the military chaplaincy, but the idea of what counts as American religion.
And so through the military, the idea that it’s not just Protestants, not just Christians, which is to say Protestants and Catholics, but Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, that for much of the 20th century constitute American religion.
Yehuda: And then as you know, later in the book, right. It’s funny that I, I said the chaplaincy starts and what’s actually just Jews, that’s because I see the world in Jewish colored glasses. Um, as you point out later in the book, there are a whole bunch of other faiths that have a hard time cracking that code.
So what is it in particular about Jewishness, especially given like, the history of Jews everywhere else in the world, we were certainly not the first through the gate, in terms of being a, like, legitimated minority faith community. So what is it about Jewishness that can kind of break through and become part of that Trinity of these other two expressions of Christianity that becomes harder for other faiths?
Ronit: Part of it is really the World War I moment in which first of all, there’s a draft. And so that means you’re getting all sorts of Americans from all sorts of spaces, uh, who, you know, are obligated to serve. And one aspect of the World War I draft is that people, men and it’s men who are drafted, they are assigned to units that tend to draw from the same geographic spaces.
So part of what happens, and this is different in later wars, but in World War I, you get high concentrations of Jews in places like Philadelphia or New York, New Jersey, there are new army and Navy installations, and there are lots of Jews there because that’s where Jews live.
So you get a two-fold effort. One by, uh, Jews and by the Jewish community. And, um, there is advocacy both within the Jewish community, as well as through Jewish legislators in Congress to press the military to open the chaplaincy to Jews. It’s not that it was exactly closed off. There was no prohibition per se on Jews serving as military chaplains, but there was concern since that, you know, they are a minority religion, as you pointed out, who exactly would they be serving? The mandate of chaplains is to serve everyone in a unit. You know, is the rabbi gonna serve the Protestants too, is sort of a question.
At the same time though, you have chaplains assigned to these places right, they’re at the Philadelphia Navy yard or at Camp Upton, New York and they’re like, wait a second. We need help serving Jews, like, right. The Protestant or Catholic chaplain realizes that they have a lot of Jews in their units and they need to be served.
So there’s also internal pressure from existing chaplains saying, you know, we need some assistance here. So it’s really the convergence of internal and external factors that elevates the place of Jews in the military. And to be clear, it’s not just Jews. There’s an act of Congress that really opens the chaplaincy and Jews are one of the groups.
It’s also to latter-day saints, to Christian scientists, to others groups. But all the other groups get folded into that vast category of Protestant. Jews stand separately, and there is a recognition that rabbis are not the same as ministers and priests. Jewish needs are not the same as Protestants and Catholics in terms of religious observance.
So there is then this creation of these three groups, these broad groupings cause the military is interested in management that works. And for them management that works, that sort of effectiveness is about, you know, big categories they can work with. You now, there’s constant fears that come up about like, you know, is every little group, as you said, there’s a lot of minority religions, Jews are not the only group, but Jews are sort of a manageable minority group. They’re identifiable. And what the Jewish community does through the Jewish welfare board is exhibit a willingness to work together, to kind of, not erase, but ignore denominational distinctions in its work with the military so that they could be treated as a single group by the US military.
Yehuda: Right. And that denominational difference will become relevant much later in our history more in recent years. You know, I want to ask you, I guess, an unfair question as a historian, which is, it feels to me that what you’ve laid out is emblematic of the, of a deep trade that American Jews are basically making, which is that I I’ve always understood as a layperson on this story that the military is a powerful vehicle for American social acceptance, social mobility, integration into the American story by and large a good story.
There are also trade offs. There’s a bartering taking place. And even in this, in a framing of, you know, Jewishness becoming equivalent to Protestantism and Catholicism in America. There is something that was a trade. It’s accepting the language and the category of American Christianity in order to be not that and accepted.
And then you’re effectively like another denomination of Protestantism for all of the limitations that comes with that. You know, you say elsewhere in the book that like, and I think you alluded to this now, that a large part of the chaplain is to be social workers and that they’re teaching citizenship and character and there too, okay, when Jewishness becomes tantamount to citizenship and character, it is it, it is a universalizing ethos of Jewishness.
And I, I would love for you to talk a little bit about the trade-offs, what we, what we gain and what we lose in, in a story of kind of ascendancy into this, into this American story and, and what might’ve been bartered along the way in that process.
Ronit: This is actually kind of a fun question. It is a little bit of a tricky question for a historian, but it is a fun one. And I think it is important as, as you’ve said that the military in this context is serving a legitimizing function. So it’s saying, you know, it’s stamping American Jews as American, and stamping, therefore, Judaism as part of an American religious landscape.
And that has a lot of value. You know, the currency, especially World War I, World War II. That’s really meaningful in a country where Jews are still, you know, are predominantly Ashkenazi Jews, who are becoming white, um, in racial terms. But you know, this is part of that process in which, um, the kind of Americanizing functions does a lot to elevate, and integrate Jews. And in part, it’s because of the military as an engine of social change that, functions at one level, very practically, which is to say people actually have encounters with people they wouldn’t have met in normal everyday life and suddenly, um, Jews are less scary, less different, less unusual to people who may in their regular lives never have met Jews.
But as you say, it’s not sort of in all good process. And there are certainly the feelings of individual soldiers, or the feelings of families, the feelings of the rabbis who serve as chaplains. Some of whom see this as an incredible opportunity to be part of this kind of grand American institution.
And others who see it quite differently and have real concerns about losing perhaps some particularity, but also even on a level of religion, even if we think of in this space, Judaism, as this other American religion. There is a way in which, you know, the military doesn’t quite get a lot of Jewish ritual. There are a lot of concerns, durable concerns over things like Kashrut. There are certainly trade-offs made about Shabbat and holiday observance and, that’s at kind of the gritty level of right, someone’s everyday experience where they may see trade-offs there.
But you know, there is also a question I think, of, you know, the ways in which the American Jewish community can sometimes sit uncomfortably as long side other religious groups, because it’s a religion, but it’s not just a religion. But in this space, it’s expected to act like in a religion and specifically to act like Christian religions, where, for example, there’s a lot more emphasis on belief, than necessarily on behaviors or rituals or communities. And so you can be a Jew in the US military and not have a minyan anywhere nearby, or, you could be a Jew in the US military who is not observant at home necessarily in, in religious ways, but still feels connected to Jewish community or Jewish peoplehood, but that’s not a type of Jewishness that’s necessarily understood as how one is Jewish in the military.
Yehuda: Yeah. And, and I would say by extension to the larger American project of like the, my Jewishness can fit into categories that domesticate my belonging into a bunch of American contexts, but that my performance of that Jewishness winds up looking like something really quite different. But that’s, I think for another, for another time.
I guess, you know, one of the, one of the more poignant pieces in the book is when you talk about this, um, ambivalent moment, right after the second world war in the DP camps, when chaplains are caught between the responsibilities that they might feel that they have towards survivors, to help their families, to help find their families like, and that’s, uh, that’s the ultimate test of like loyalty to the Jewish people – what do you need right now? Versus the responsibility to basically serve an American military institution in the midst of an occupation in Europe. And I would suspect that the soldier’s needs and the needs of the survivors in the DP camps are, are conflicted. So maybe you could talk a little bit about that. How much of that serves as an inflection point on this, or maybe it’s just an anomaly in this story of an American project and a Jewish?
Ronit: You know, I think that’s both an inflection point and an anomaly. And I’ll explain what I mean by that. I do think it’s anomalous in the sense that there’s really no other clear moment where American Jewish military chaplains face quite the same set of sort of stark differences potentially in their goals or mission.
And at the same time, there’s a real effort to integrate these goals and mission to not see them, or have them perceived at least as so distinct. And we see this in several different ways. One is simply that Jewish chaplains in DP camps can often communicate with displaced persons, with survivors, in ways that other military officials cannot. In part because of spoken Yiddish, for example, but also because there are ways of relating that other military officials, even other chaplains just don’t have.
And someone like David Einhorn, who says to survivors, I come to you as an American Jew, right? And I come to you in both of these roles, as an American, as a liberator, but also as a Jew and as a rabbi. I think these are moments that are incredibly meaningful to the chaplains who serve.
And so as much as there’s sometimes tension in who are they serving in that moment, there’s also, I think an extraordinary amount of meaning and of pride. And for some of these chaplains, it’s in many ways a difficult circumstance, but it’s also one that is transformative for them, right? This really gives the substance of what it means for them to be a rabbi a chaplain.
But as you’re saying, of course, the military doesn’t always see their commitment in DP camps or to survivors in quite the same ways. I mean, one of the later sizes of this is also the ways in which the chaplains know how to navigate the military bureaucracy and can kind of operate a little bit rogue at times, in terms of reconnecting families, smuggling materials, and it’s because they have connections in multiple spaces.
So in some ways, again, this is, this is anomalous because there’s really not a moment, where the chaplains themselves are faced on the ground with the sort of decision point of who’s my commitment to? Who am I serving?
But it does, I think, represent an inflection point in the sense of what will come in the 1960s around the Vietnam war and struggling over what is the commitment to, I mean, this is a struggle that is not limited to American Jews during the Vietnam war. But one thing that comes up in the seminaries and especially in the reform movement, which has really the strongest commitment to the military chaplaincy at the time, despite being also the most anti-war movement, is one thing that comes up in the seminary. And there’s, again, all these World War II chaplains who then have roles in the seminary and roles in the CCAR. So you know, by 20 years later, they’re like the heads in many ways of much of the reform movement, is they feel incredibly conflicted when new rabbinical students and new rabbis don’t want to serve in the military because they view this as sort of letting down both Jews and Americans, and they often frame it as, you know, they they’ll ask questions like, well, you say you’re anti-war, you’re anti the Vietnam war, but would you be anti-war if this were about Israel?
And so we can see there this moment where the Jewish is internally wrestling with, what does it mean to be Jewish in the United States? What does it mean to make a commitment to the military as Jews? And does it matter what government, what war, what people, chaplains are serving?
Yehuda: So you mentioned Israel and I would love if you’d stand there for a second. I’m wondering to what extent is the emergence of the IDF on the global stage and as a kind of visible option for not only Jews, but for other Americans to look at Jews in military service, what does that do to the kind of self-consciousness of American Jewish servicemen and women? What does it do to the culture of the military?
I could see it both being a kind of positive asset. Look, Jews are just like everybody else. They have an army. But I could also see it introducing some of the variables of like, you know, the relationship of faith to empire become quite different when it’s in the calculus of a nation-state versus for, for American Jews.
So in what ways could we see that have an impact on how Jews experienced the American military here?
Ronit: So I think one thing, and I don’t really write much about this in the book because it doesn’t quite fit the narrative, but on this topic, I think it’s actually really relevant, is that during World War II, there are some American Jewish chaplains and some American Jewish soldiers who have contact with Jews who are serving through the British empire.
Right. They’re serving the British military, but because they lived in Palestine, and they’ll encounter them especially in Italy. And it’s an interesting moment of tension actually, because not sall of the Jewish soldiers, like again, they’re British Jewish soldiers, but they’re really serving through Palestine and they’re referred to as Palestinian soldiers when American Jews meet them. And again, it’s often in Italy and they’re really puzzled by them. There’s often a language barrier because even if they’re serving in the British military, they often, they’re speaking Hebrew, they’re speaking Russian, they’re speaking whatever languages they were speaking in mandate Palestine. And so they’re not necessarily speaking English and they’re puzzling to American Jewish soldiers who just are like, who are these people? What do we do with them? They don’t yet represent sort of an ideal in any way.
There are really interesting interactions between American Jewish soldiers who are serving in India during World War II and encounter the Indian Jewish community in different ways. Uh, we see this also, Jewish soldiers in like Tehran right, they’re posted there and like, what are the encounters with these other Jewish communities?
And eally the World War II stories from what, what kind of bubbles up in letters and diaries, is in many ways a sense of, of true puzzlement, like who are these people? They’re kind of like us, but we’re not totally sure who they are. So one thing the emergence of the IDF, I think certainly by the sixties does, is really sort of consolidate this idea of like what a Jewish soldier could be through the lens of Israel in a way that’s easier to grasp onto, but of course then easier to like input anything you want onto as well, because it’s not sort of the texture difference of encountering, you know, one person in Italy, another one in Tehran, someone else, in Mumbai, like it’s a very different situation.
But by the 1960s, I think it is an interesting crossroads because for many American Jews, there’s a lot of support for Israel and for the IDF, militarily, and at the same time, there’s a lot of questioning of the United States militarily because in general, not, of course, all American Jews, but many Americans Jews were very active in the anti-war movement, were anti-Vietnam, became sort of anti-military, anti-imperial.
And so there’s actually real tension between these commitments. And I think what’s actually interesting from the historian’s perspective is that you can really often see it in essays that are being written. And again, when HUC is asking these rabbinical candidates, but if it were Israel, would you feel differently?
And these kiddos are writing, one of the greatest sources I found where, uh, you know, a box of these letters that they wrote. They’re, these are often five to 10-page essays about why reform rabbinical students didn’t want to serve as chaplains and sort of selectively objected to the Vietnam war.
And so you do really see a lot of friction about what does it mean to be a Jew, to be an American Jew, and to be affiliated in any way with the military. And this hinge point kind of over, but which military? And what’s deemed acceptable or unacceptable. And I think that will actually continue to reverberate in which there become as often a glorification of the IDF and Jewish communal circles alongside of a vilification of the US military.
Yehuda: Oh my goodness. Ronit. That is so interesting. Well, I mean, first of all, I know you’re writing about something else, but you’ve already flagged two books that I think you should write. One is about just a history of the Jews in the military. I mean, all of the examples that you gave, India, elsewhere and, and the place to start by the way is Phylo of Alexandria’s nephew is Tiberius Julius Alexander, who then is one of the leading generals in the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. So like talk about Jewish pride, right? So that’s like one, that’s the oldest, one of the oldest examples to that effect. But that’s super interesting.
And then this whole story of which I that’s so amazing of this intersection in the sixties, between the rise of the IDF and a kind of skepticism about American military. So I guess we’re a little bit of the heirs of that, right, today.
And I I’d ask just as a last question, like you know, it, it does feel as though there’s a pretty significant, um, ambivalence or maybe ignorance of the place of the military as kind of an American civic institution. And as a site of American civic obligation in many sectors of the organized Jewish community. Like I happen to know where the JWB sits in the organized Jewish communal map, but that’s only because one time I was at the JCCA, Jewish Community Centers of America Conference, which is where they’re located.
But I would guess that many involved and educated Jews, would have no idea where that’s located. Wouldn’t see it as part of the social class fabric that they’re connected to. And so I’m wondering whether you think that that just is a kind of one-way street in terms of where American Jews are heading, whether there’s any, you think there’s any future down the line of a kind of reacquaintance, given how important this story was for American Jews throughout the 20th century of a kind of, besides reading your book, kind of re-acquaintance by American Jews with the centrality of the military, to their own, our own collective thriving.
Ronit: You know, I think, first of all, that you’re right, few American Jews today would even know what the JWB meant. And that is a marked difference from really 1917 to really, I think the 1970s, maybe the 1980s, even, where at least people could have said, oh, the JWB, the Jewish Welfare Board.
And that that has a role, and certainly, you know, World War I, World War II, even through Vietnam, American Jews would have had some passing familiarity with the JWB as an organization. So I think you’re absolutely right that we see a really different landscape today. And part of that, I think to be clear, is not just about the American Jewish community, but it’s about the end of the draft.
Because you know, the JWB emerges with the draft and emerges at a time, therefore, where almost every American Jewish family is gonna have some contact with the US military. It doesn’t mean every single family has someone who serves, but you know, over time in, in that kind of middle of 50 years of the 20th century, most people, because most Americans have someone in their family that serves, they’re connected in some way to the US military.
So the end of the draft and the turn to an all-volunteer force really shifts the terrain of the military as an institution and what you start to see as a bifurcation within the military of sort of career military, people who may have long family histories or not, but you know, the military is their career. And then you have people who enlist because it’s their opportunity. I mean, the military remains still, you know, an important engine of social mobility in the United States.
But because American Jews on the whole are a relatively well-off and well-educated group, they tend not to enlist in the US military. And there’s less of sort of a family history of military as a career for most American Jews. So I do think, the, the shift in the American Jewish understanding of the military and of the JWB, is in many ways about larger shifts in American society relative to the military and military civilian relationships.
I don’t see that changing immediately. As a historian, we love contingency. And so you just never know what might shift or what might change. And yes, I’ve studied this and yes, I’ve written a book about this, but you know, I think it’s important for Americans, including American Jews to understand the military, not just as a martial institution, but as a social institution, because whether you like it or not, it functions this way in American society.
And so I do think one thing the American Jewish community has to reckon with at some point is. Given that there is this distance between American Jews and the military. What does it mean? To get back to those earlier questions of American Jews, like really becoming part and parcel of like, who is an American, what does it mean now and in the future, if that becomes totally detached, from the military, not because we have to reify the military in any way, but because it is such an important institution, governmentally as well as what it does, you know, in the world.
And again, people can have all sorts of opinions about whether they think what it’s doing is, is right or wrong, both from a military perspective and a social perspective. But the bottom line is that it remains a significant institution of American society. So where do American Jews fit, if they’re not, um, a significant part of that infrastructure?
Yehuda: And arguably a religious institution of American society as well. Well, uh, well, thank you so much. And thank you all for listening to our show and special thanks to my guests this week, Phil Lieberman and Ronit Stahl.
Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman common and edited by Garrett Hobbes at Silver Sound NYC, with special thanks to Cori Choy, assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by Socalled.
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