Surviving World War II was not a privilege

Recently, a student at Princeton sought to end a political discussion with the phrase “check your privilege.” This is an old trick, an undergraduate’s parting shot. Such last words seek to steal an otherwise unsuccessful argument. It was the same during my years at a British university in the 1980s. Then the favoured riposte of the debate loser was “ideologically unsound;” words taken from a punk rock song, but spoken with smugness and no sense of what such a judgment could have meant on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

In this case, the Princeton student on the receiving end of “check your privilege” was Tal Fortgang, the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Unimpressed at being told his views should be scrutinized like the tax returns of Nixon’s political opponents, Fortgang responded in print. His rejection of the notion that he had any privilege to check received national media coverage and comment that broke down along predictably political lines.

Jewish media for the most part are ignoring the argument, but The Forward has gone out of its way to criticize Fortgang. One Forward article calls his essay “bratty” and links it to the sickening bigotry of Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.

More curious is an article by The Forward’s Michael Kaplan that seeks to knock down Fortgang’s story “of triumph against all odds: His grandparents, survivors of the Holocaust, came here as penniless immigrants and had to work their way up the socio-economic ladder.” To disprove this story of self-made success, Kaplan argues that the Jewish refugees escaping Europe were helped by the U.S. government and had the good fortune to encounter a buoyant labour market. Kaplan quotes an obliging professor as saying that “They certainly weren’t struggling for basic necessities.”

Yet the odds were not on the side of Jews who went through years of racial persecution during which their families, friends, and communities were slaughtered, and who often suffered torture and starvation. Some of these refugees had barely a 1% chance of survival during the war. It was little better afterwards. In Poland, for example, they returned from the death camps to face hostility and violence in their home towns. None of this appears to matter to Kaplan at The Forward. He seems to believe that because the U.S., unlike Nazi Germany, failed to starve these Jews that somehow diminishes their post-war reconstruction of their lives.

As if sneering at Holocaust survivors were insufficient, Kaplan also goes after the Jewish beneficiaries of the GI bill. Again, he bolsters his view with an academic’s statement, in this case that the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, to use the law’s official name, was “the most massive affirmative action program in American history.” This is an old claim. It is based on the fact that the southern states administered the GI bill in a racially discriminatory fashion.

What Kaplan misses is that the post-war denial of GI benefits to African Americans followed the U.S. forcing them to serve in a segregated army. This shameful episode in U.S. military history has largely been omitted from American memories of World War II. Indeed, one of the few portrayals of the violence that white GIs inflicted upon their fellow African American soldiers is in Carl Foreman’s brilliantly cynical film “The Victors” (1963). Most Americans accepted their segregated armed forces, but their allies were more critical. The press in Britain, to the dismay of white Americans, supported the African American soldiers who were assaulted by their white comrades for going out with British women.

Kaplan’s agenda, however, is less the maltreatment of African Americans than exposing Jewish “privilege,” in which he includes the GI Bill. The difficulty is that the eligibility requirement for the GI Bill was onerous—you had to survive to apply. Over 400,000 servicemen paid the price for a thriving, post-war America but were ineligible for the “affirmative action” of the GI Bill because they were dead.

One former GI who I had the privilege to know was the only member of his unit not to be killed, injured, or taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge—one man out of 44. These are odds that would impress most people, but perhaps not a writer at The Forward.

Actually the odds of this GI making it to post-war “affirmative action” were less than one in 44. He was a Jew. The Germans sent the Jews that they captured from his division to the Berga forced labour camp. Around 20% of these American Jewish prisoners of war were worked to death.

Of course, most GIs did not see combat. That did not diminish their contribution. As General Patton said to the Third Army “An army is a team… Every single man in the army plays a vital role.” America was generous in response, even if it did not bother to distribute the assistance fairly.

America was also wise. Back in the 1940s people remembered the social problems and political commotion caused by neglected veterans from the previous war. The GI Bill was political self-interest as well as a reward for service. Irrespective of the government’s motives and failures, the GIs earned the GI Bill. Check your history.

About the Author
Andrew Apostolou is a historian based in Washington D.C. He has a D.Phil. in history from Oxford University and has worked on human rights campaigns in the Middle East.
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