Almost every American can imagine the straight rows of white gravestones. This weekend, those markers will have our flag placed in front of them as we remember those who fell defending our country and our values. The neat, tidy rows affirm that all those who fell in the line of duty are equal.
Yet they are not identical. The gravestones display the names and backgrounds of various soldiers whose families immigrated here from Europe, Asia and Africa. While most have a Christian cross above the name of the fallen, some have a symbol of Islam, and some have a Star of David. These tens of thousands of Jewish soldiers — and their families — paid the ultimate price to safeguard the United States of America.
The fallen soldiers’ diverse backgrounds are more than a footnote. For years, many Americans defended their country even as it discriminated against them and their families. African-Americans fought despite racial segregation. Jews joined the army despite university quotas and other forms of institutionalized anti-Semitism.
In World War II, some 550,000 Jewish soldiers served in the US military. Contrary to some stereotypes, Jews have always been part of the American military. Sergeant Major Abraham Cohn was the first Jew to receive the Medal of Honor — for his valor above and beyond the call of duty during the Civil War’s Battle of the Wilderness and Battle of the Crater in 1864. Cohn was one of the 9,000 Jews who fought for the Union. Since then, many thousands of Jewish soldiers have defended and continue to defend this magnificent nation in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.
Like their counterparts from all backgrounds, many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Among the 417,000 American troops killed in World War II, nearly 40,000 were Jewish soldiers. This meant that nine percent of America’s war casualties came from a demographic group that accounted for less than 3% of the country’s population.
Today, a far more disproportionate ratio is casting a pall over the Jewish experience in America: Jews comprise just 2% of the population, but 58% of the victims of religiously motivated hate crimes, according to the most recent FBI data on that subject.
On the left, extremists are accusing Jews of dual loyalty and not being truly American. On the right, they are fanning the flames of racial hate. The past year’s deadly synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway demonstrated like never before the clear path from anti-Semitic rhetoric to anti-Jewish violence. Before he carried out the attack on the final day of Passover, Poway shooter John Earnest wrote that he would “die a thousand times over to prevent the doomed fate that the Jews have planned for my race.” Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers, meanwhile, lamented on social media just hours before his attack that the Jewish refugee aid group HIAS “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The murder of Jews by white nationalists is directly connected to the conspiracy theory that Jewish immigrants pose a threat to the so-called “real America.” This was evident during the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klansmen chanted together that “Jews will not replace us.” These anti-Semites willfully ignore that Jews have been part of America since its inception, and that tens of thousands of Jews died wearing US military uniforms and defending the American dream.
Americans of all backgrounds fought shoulder to shoulder in World War I and II, Korea, Afghanistan, and other battlefields. All of us owe our lives, lifestyles, and liberties to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died defending us — including the Jews among their ranks. We must remember them. It is our duty to upkeep the dream they fought for, a dream for the US to be the “home of the free.”
As we salute our fallen soldiers, we must acknowledge that their dream is not yet a reality. Anti-Semitism, racial tensions, and discrimination against people with disabilities run rampant in America.
The neatly organized lines of gravestones we visit this Memorial Day remind us that we are all created equal. At the same time, the diverse names and religious symbols on the gravestones underscore the fact that we are not identical. Our defining challenge, then, is to strive for greater respect for the living — to ensure that those who are not identical are still equal. We will honor those who paid the ultimate price by continuing their fight to make this country a better place.