By Lance Allen Wang, Editor
I have always felt comfortable in the company of fellow Jews, and likewise, I have felt equally comfortable in the company of fellow veterans. Each time, it is much like a family reunion where I don’t necessarily know anyone, but feel the kinship and know I am among my own. However, to be in the company of Jewish veterans is a place that is particularly special to me – a minority subgroup of a minority subgroup. Indeed, it is why I find myself an active, participating member of Jewish War Veterans of the United States.
The ties that bind veterans together are close – sometimes even with veterans from opposing sides. In Yehuda Avner’s book “The Prime Ministers,” the author describes a meeting between wounded veterans from opposing sides of the Yom Kippur War, and how the reconciliation was deeply affecting for all parties involved.
In Ken Burns’ recent “Vietnam” PBS mini-series, he showed interaction between former American and North Vietnamese adversaries, and again, the reconciliation seemed almost therapeutic. The fact is, as the war veteran feels out of place in what might be called “polite society” due to his unique experiences, it is often with those who shared the battlefield with him, friend or foe, that he finds understanding.
Finally, in CBS reporter John Laurence’s book “The Cat from Hue,” a recollection of his many years reporting from the field in Vietnam, he describes an unusually close relationship that a Marine First Sergeant, a World War II Pacific veteran, develops with Laurence’s Japanese cameraman, who turns out to have been a former adversary of the Marine’s. Close combat can be indescribable to anyone but the participants – however, that also can forge bonds between those that endure it, even sworn enemies.
So where does that leave Jewish American veterans? Jewish veterans have dealt with the intensity of combat since the dawn of recorded history. However, is there anything distinct about the experience of Jewish combatants? Of course there is. For instance, many Jews I met in the military had concerns about how they would be treated as a Jew if captured – whether by Nazis during World War II or Islamic extremists today. Sometimes the experience of maintaining their religious obligations in the field was a point of discussion. And of course – any Jew who has served in Southwest Asia must have sensed the presence of being near somewhere significant to their roots.
So how can relating to Israel’s veterans benefit America’s Jewish veterans? To start with – there is the sense of kinship – we can consider Israeli vets “family which we’ve not yet met.” Secondly, there is a sense of being able to share that which cannot be shared with the uninitiated civilian. Most importantly, there is a sense of purpose. We both serve democracies, yet we both serve democracies who find themselves enmeshed in controversy, politically and diplomatically. These are turbulent times, both within and without our countries. It is so often the fighting man who pays for these controversies – be it in their relationship with civil society, constraints such as excessively tight rules of engagement based upon political considerations, and because the services in the United States and Israel are often made up of a high percentage of non-careerists and citizen-soldiers, social rifts that take place in the society at large find their way into the uniformed services.
Some initial projects to explore the therapeutic value of having Israeli and American veterans meet have been successful. In 2015, the American Heroes to Heroes Foundation and the Israeli Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization sponsored a 10-day meeting in Israel between American and Israeli veterans suffering both psychological and physical wounds from their battlefield experiences ranging from Vietnam to the West Bank, from Iraq to Lebanon, from Afghanistan to Gaza. The Jerusalem Post reported one comment from a participant: “Seeing them gives me strength… These are people who have gotten married, have jobs and children. We have the same thoughts. We only need to look into each other’s eyes to know that we already know everything. I am sure I will keep in touch with them. When I hear them talk about what happened to them, I feel like they are telling my story.” The comments were from a battle scarred Israeli veteran, but could just as easily come from an American participant.
In a time where many in the diaspora find themselves at odds with political decisions made in Israel, increasing a rift between parts of our small American Jewish community and our equally small homeland, perhaps veterans reaching out as a means of salving their own souls can help bridge the divide.
Volume 72. Number 1. Spring 2018