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Recruiters, Activists, and Volunteers: American Jews and the Military

Sun, December 16, 12:30 to 2:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 1 Complex

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


This panel examines American Jews’ broad involvement with the military, whether in the United States or abroad, throughout the twentieth century. The three papers address the varying roles American Jews held during World War I, World War II, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, specifically focusing on the respective positions of recruiter, activist, and volunteer. Although American Jews’ participation in these wars has received much scholarly attention, this panel challenges established narratives of Jews’ wartime efforts by investigating the understudied tensions associated with competing calls for inclusion and distinctiveness in military units, examining familiar historical sources in innovative ways, and asking new questions about the malleability of foundational narratives.

The papers presented by Jessica Cooperman and Amy Weiss both examine American Jews’ potential wartime service on behalf of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and later Israel. Cooperman investigates the larger questions of dual loyalties and Zionist predilections associated with recruitment of young men for the Jewish Legion operated under British auspices. This presentation offers an understanding of the complicated narratives of nationalism—both American and Jewish—during World War I and how American Jewish leaders navigated these demands for loyalty. Amy Weiss’ paper explores how American Jewish volunteers in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War sought to change their perceived place within Jewish collective memory by writing memoirs and hagiographic historical accounts of their wartime service. In using sources from both the 1948 war and from the late twentieth-century, Weiss demonstrates the fluidity of public narratives in the United States and Israel surrounding the significance attributed to American volunteers’ contributions. Zohar Segev offers a new answer to a question with which many scholars have grappled: Why did allied forces during World War II not bomb Auschwitz as a way of ending or reducing the number of Jewish murders in the death camp? Previously unexplored archival evidence from American Jewish activists reveals their requests to the American government opposing the bombing of Auschwitz, instead opting for other military actions to end the Jewish genocide. Together, these papers offer new insight into American Jews’ active involvement in the military, whether operating from the home front or battlefront.

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