Here is a guest post from Dan Katz, a Special Forces medical sergeant who has just returned from his second Iraq deployment. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 and this fall will enter Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“How much anti-Semitism have you encountered in the Army?” It has to be one of the most common questions I get when I go home.
Embedded in this question is an assumption that any Jew who enters the military has to experience at least some prejudice. However, the true answer to this question is “not much.” Sure, every few months I’ll hear some soldier use the word “Jew” as a verb meaning to cheat or be cheap.
There was the instructor who wondered aloud if I had joined the Army just to kill Arabs, but that’s more ignorance than prejudice. And one time I did hear a DA civilian question the occurrence of the Holocaust to one of his coworkers. But, spread all these isolated incidents out over my five year Army service and it’s really not much.
The Jewish civilians with whom I’ve spoken over the last few years always want to know what it’s like to be a Jew in today’s Army. Most of the time, my bland response disappoints them. Being a Jew has made little difference in my service, probably because I’m not observant.
Were I to follow all the laws I learned in my Orthodox yeshiva elementary school, life would be far more difficult. Training exercises and combat operations do not stop just because it’s Saturday, and while one can request Kosher MRE’s, doing so adds a burden to one’s leadership chain and draws attention to oneself in an undesirable way.
On certain occasions, such as the major holidays and the occasional Shabbat, I have sought to participate in Jewish life. When I have, I did encounter some stumbling blocks. The biggest problem is that there are few Jewish chaplains in the military.
While there is no shortage of interested rabbis (I have no doubt the Lubavitch organization alone would gladly supply enough for every major post), Army personal grooming regulations forbid soldiers from growing beards, which prevents many rabbis from serving.
Support from the civilian Jewish community often makes up for the lack of uniformed rabbis. For the bases close to major cities, the local Jewish community is a great help, as was the Fayetteville synagogue when I was stationed at Fort Bragg. For those farther away, lay leaders and visiting rabbis fill the void.
When I was in basic training at Ft. Benning, a retired Navy Seabee captain led a trio of lay leaders who ran the Sunday Jewish Services. (The services must be held at the same time as the Christian services so that all recruits perform religious worship at the same time.) These devoted individuals were assisted by a Chabad rabbi who made the hour-long drive from Emory University every Sunday to be with us.
Finally, multiple organizations, such as the Aleph Institute and the Lubavitch movement, provide logistical and motivational support to the troops abroad through postal and electronic mail.
Another problem is that we often lack a critical mass of Jews to support religious activities. One exception was Sunday Jewish services that took place during basic training at Ft. Benning, which trains tens of thousands of Army recruits a year. The Jewish services generally muster around 40 troops. Although about a quarter of those were non-Jews who’d heard about the good food at the kiddush that ends every Jewish service and another quarter were just looking for a break from the strictures of Initial Entry Training.
Another exception occurred when I was in Baghdad on my first deployment in spring of 2008. I managed to get to the Passover seder at Camp Victory, on BIAP [Baghdad International Airport], which is home to somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 soldiers. The chaplains managed to gather around 60 Jewish personnel for the event, including contractors and DA civilians.
However, for the more minor holiday of Purim, there were only around 10 soldiers present, including the one Jewish chaplain I met in my service and two non-Jewish chaplains who were attending for educational and solidarity purposes.
When soldiers are in the far less restricted environment of garrison duty, often away from the largest bases, they normally cannot find or do not prioritize attending Jewish activities.
While not an integral part of my service experience, my religion has contributed to several comedic episodes. In basic training, when I would tell my cohorts I am Jewish, they would frequently respond that they knew “a Jew” back home. Most of the time, this Jew was described as the rich guy in the neighborhood.
My religion has also lead to a number of interesting conversations with evangelical Christians, who are often impressed by my being a Cohen, a descendant of Aaron.
I cannot say that there is no anti-Semitism in the military. There may be some lurking under the surface, but fear of the Army’s ever-vigilant Equal Opportunity (EO) system keeps it in check.
I say this because, unfortunately, I have encountered a fair number of soldiers who harbor anti-black prejudice, but the white soldiers who hold these beliefs do not voice them around black soldiers. These white soldiers know that doing so would likely result in an EO complaint and, subsequently, the end of their careers.
For me, being Jewish has only lead to good-natured banter and mockery among friends, to which everyone from every socio-demographic group is subjected.
Being a Jew seldom makes a difference in the Army for most of us. I’ve actually found that being from a wealthy, intellectual, and cosmopolitan background causes more difficulties in relating to other soldiers than religious differences do. There is, sometimes, a feeling of isolation, of being far from home and the communities to which we are accustomed.
Most of the time though, that feeling is overcome by another feeling, one of belonging to a different brotherhood, the one that connects all servicemen and women who fight for the same flag.