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American Jewish History 88.2 (2000) 311-314

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The Fighting Rabbis: Jewish Military Chaplains and American History. By Albert Isaac Slomovitz. New York: New York University Press, 1999. xiii + 171 pp.

In 1916, the Prussian Ministry of War issued an extraordinary command. It ordered that a count be taken of all Jews serving in the German army. The so-called Judenzaehlung (Jews' census) was part of a growing and radicalized wartime German anti-Semitism and was a reaction to the popular belief that German Jews were shirking their military responsibilities and reaping huge wartime profits. Such an anti-Semitic atmosphere evolved despite Kaiser Wilhelm's proclamation in 1914 that he recognized no political parties, only Germans.

That proclamation, popularly called the Burgfrieden (peace within the fortress), was taken as a sign by Germany's Jews that they had achieved [End Page 311] a measure of social equality previously unknown. It was a false assumption. A few years later, as if to further distance themselves from the frightful implications of the Jews' census, German Jewry published a statistical analysis which demonstrated that more than 11,000 of its fathers, sons, and brothers had sacrificed their lives for the Fatherland during World War I.

In his brief but interesting and rather comprehensive history of the American Jewish military chaplaincy, Albert Isaac Slomovitz, an ordained rabbi and a Navy chaplain, makes it clear that, in his view, despite some American Jewish perceptions that the United States military was "tinged" with anti-Semitism, quite the opposite was true. Indeed, in Slomovitz's view, "the military functioned as an institutional force representing equity and religious sensitivity" (p. xi). This was especially true in the chaplaincy, where Christian and Jewish clergy helped to promote interfaith understanding.

And yet, in that same year as the German Judenzaehlung of 1916, an article in The American Jewish Yearbook, published by the American Jewish Committee, reported on the results of a survey undertaken earlier that year by the American Jewish community whose purpose was also to ascertain an accurate number of Jews serving in the American military. Such a published report was not in reaction to anti-Semitism in the American armed forces during World War I, which was minor and of little consequence, but reflected an underlying nervousness about the larger American society. For nearly three decades before the outbreak of the Great War, the success and growth of the American Jewish community triggered a sharp increase in social discrimination and anti-Jewish feeling.

Especially disturbing was an attitude that questioned the patriotism of American Jews. Slomovitz cites an 1891 letter from a former soldier to the editor of a prominent American journal that stated in part: " I cannot remember meeting one Jew in uniform or hearing of any Jewish soldier . . . ." (p. 27). The author Mark Twain wrote that the Jew "is charged with a disinclination patriotically to stand by the flag as a soldier" (p. 27). The military was therefore seen as a natural and important place to help break down such impressions, and the military chaplain an important figure in achieving this objective.

Despite the presence of military chaplains as early as the colonial period, Jewish chaplains were not allowed in the United States military until the Civil War. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington circulated a sermon to his troops written by a rabbi, but until the outbreak of hostilities between the North and the South, military clergy were restricted to those who possessed clerical ordination and were members of a Christian denomination. [End Page 312]

But approximately 6,500 Jews joined the Union army and 2,000 joined the Confederacy. American Jewish communal leaders and organizations, the Jewish and secular press, and even Christian politicians sought to change the restriction. In 1862, a rabbi was officially appointed as a military chaplain, one of three to serve in the Union forces. No known rabbi served as a Confederate chaplain.

With America's entrance into the First World War in 1917, the first large group of Jewish chaplains, twenty-five, saw active service. American Jewish...