Reflections on the Significance of Pearl Harbor on American Jewry

November 29, 2021Rabbi A. James Rudin

December 7  marks the anniversary of the surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. The attack led to America's formal entry into World War II. What ensued would have a profound impact on the Jewish community, particularly Jewish Americans and others with intersecting identities. Here are three examples of the attack on Pearl Harbor's impact on American Jews:

1. A Silencing of America's Most Vocal Antisemites

Adolf Hitler's declaration of war on the United States 4 days after the assault on Pearl Harbor led to the dissolution of the 800,000-member isolationist and antisemitic "America First Committee." The AFC's leading public spokesman, the aviator hero Charles Lindbergh, delivered a speech in Des Moines 3 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, calling out the British, American Jews, and the Roosevelt Administration for agitating America toward war. His pro-Nazi sentiments earned him a special "Fuhrer Medal" in Berlin from Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goering.

Another virulent public antisemite of the pre-war period was Roman Catholic Father Charles Coughlin of Detroit, whose weekly radio program on 36 stations attracted millions of listeners. In his broadcasts, Coughlin called FDR's New Deal policies, including Social Security, the "Jew Deal." It was not until May 1942 that Catholic Church authorities finally silenced Coughlin's hate filled tirades.

2. Returning Jewish Soldiers Raised the Confidence Quotient of the American Jewish Community

Historians estimate that 600,000 Jews served in the American military during World War II. When Jewish men and women returned to civilian life in 1945, they no longer perceived themselves as members of a vulnerable minority group, but rather as part of a proud, self-confident community. Their collective experience marked the "coming of age" of the American Jewish community.

Many of these veterans benefited from the educational, vocational, and professional opportunities afforded them through the "GI Bill of Rights," one of the most significant pieces of social legislation in American history.

In the years after the war, American Jews, especially military veterans, were sure-footed in their strong public support of Zionism and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. And they assumed a major global leadership role in reminding the world of the horrors of antisemitism and the mass murders of the Holocaust. At the same time, many American Jewish veterans began to publicly question why the American Jewish community had not done more to stop the Nazi genocide of six million Jews in Europe.

A personal note: Nearly every male in my family above the age of 18, including my father, served in the US military in such places as Iwo Jima, Iceland, France, Belgium, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Kasserine Pass in Tunisia (my father's brother was wounded there in the February 1943 battle with the German "Afrika Korps" forces and received the Purple Heart medal). Our family was not unique; hundreds of thousands of other American Jewish families had similar stories. Happily, my dad, and all my many uncles and cousins survived the war.

3. German-speaking Jewish Refugees Become American Intelligence Assets

A unique contribution to the victory over Nazism were the 2200 young Jewish refugees from Europe who, because of their language skills and familiarity with their native-born national cultures (mostly German, French, Italian and Polish), became US Army counter-intelligence agents. They were known as "The Ritchie Boys" because their secret training base was Camp Ritchie, located near Hagerstown, Maryland.

As members of the American army, these German-speaking Jews interrogated Nazi prisoners and were frequently able to obtain information vital to the Allied war effort. Among that group was future US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; Jewish philosopher Walter Kaufmann; Princeton history professor Arno Mayer; and J.D. Salinger, author of the famous novel "The Catcher in the Rye." Unlike most of the Jewish "Ritchie Boys," Salinger was born in the US, but his knowledge of German enabled him to become a counter-intelligence operative in Europe.

Today, the American Jewish community still confronts the plague of antisemitism (and many other forms of intersecting oppression including racism, transphobia and other forms) embedded in this nation's body politic. Sadly, we have witnessed homegrown anti-Jewish agitation and violence in Charlottesville, in Pittsburgh, in Poway, in Jersey City, in Kansas City, and in far too many other locations throughout the land.

In the aftermath of December 7, 1941 and the defeat of Hitler's Third Reich, public antisemitic voices in the US were silenced. I am confident that the American Jewish community will once again prevail in the struggle against the hate-mongering descendants of Lindberg and Coughlin.

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