Jewish Representation in US Military and Perceptions of the Larger US Populace

Three years ago, I was asked by the Jewish War Veterans organization to respond to a request for a guest speaker for a Veterans Day service at a large Reform Synagogue in Northern Virginia. The synagogue point of contact asked that I speak on “Jews in the military and why it is important that they are properly represented.” The discussion that follows is the product of this proposed speaking engagement.

The statistical representation of American Jews in the military is not an abstract parameter. It can serve as a surrogate measure of equity of sacrifice and commitment. Even though less than 0.5% of all Americans serve in the military, most Americans love their military and admire its sacrifice. And military cemeteries starkly portray the religious affiliations of those who are killed in service to their country. A dearth of Stars of David could send, to those primed to look for it, a message that Jews don’t serve their country as well as Christians. I do not know how many people think this way, but I am certain that if they were primed to think that way, they would. In 1990, Pat Buchanan, a Conservative commentator, presidential adviser, and candidate for the presidency, offered a glimpse into this possibility. There was an on-going national dialog on whether the US should go to war in Iraq, with several Jewish Neo-Conservatives advocating for war. This prompted Buchanan to write, “if the United States went to war, the fighting would be done by kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales, and Leroy Brown." The anti-Semitic implication was clear— men with Jewish names would be sending Christians to fight and die for them.

Buchanan’s thoughts are not new. They are part and parcel of the anti-Semitic stereotype that US Jews eschew military service and do not share equitably in the burden of defending our country. The power of stereotypes is that they are anchored, at least in part, on fact or one’s perception of fact, based on personal experience and observation.

My draft presentation determined that American Jews are significantly under-represented in the military, proposed possible explanations, and suggested that Jews should be better represented, for a variety of reasons, not the least being related to the question of equity. I then submitted my proposed talk to the point of contact, who subsequently informed me I had the synagogue leadership in a dither. I contacted the Rabbi in charge of this event. He stated he was afraid some would take my talk as a recruiting effort (it was not, but even if it were, I am unsure why this would be seen as a bad thing) while others would be made to feel guilty. He suggested, instead, that I talk about my experiences in the army and how I brought “Jewish values” into the military as if to imply that the US military suffered from a deficit of its own values. I demurred. He insisted. I declined the speaking engagement invitation.

Even though the synagogue had members who served in the US military, and the congregants were patriotic enough to honor the military on Veterans Day, I did detect a strong desire to avoid discussion of matters related to the issue of equity. I think it was naive of them not to recognize the stereotype that American Jews eschew military service, which under the right conditions of political populism, war, and social-economic turmoil, could find traction, to their detriment.

The purpose of this thought piece is to, therefore, “unpack” that stereotype which the synagogue leadership was loath to address. First and foremost, we should recognize that since the demise of the Draft, very few Americans of any religion serve. There are approximately 1.4 million Americans in the active force, comprising about 0.43% of the US Population of 324 million. The Jewish content of this force is not nearly as clear cut and defining “Jewish” both in the general population and in the military is problematic.

The US Census is prohibited by law from requiring respondents to report their religion. Thus, the number of Jews in America is based on estimates derived from polling and sampling. As such, a conservative estimate is that, as of 2019, There were 7.1 million Jews in America (about 2% of the total population). Again, there are no criteria under which to determine who is a Jew, under what particular definition.

Determining the number of Jews in the military is equally problematic. The US military does not require one to report religious affiliation and allows for stating no religious preference. Jewish military personnel are therefore those who self-report as Jewish, and no verification is required. Additionally, a large percentage of the military self-report as “no religious preference,” and we can assume that a proportion of these are Jewish, under a variety of definitions. A safe bet might be that the Jewish portion of the no preference military population is equal to their representation in the US population base, or that about 2% of all those reporting no preference might be Jewish.

With all this in mind, Jewish personnel in the US military should comprise 0.43% of the total US Jewish population. All things being equal, there should be about .0043 x 7.1 million Jews or about 30,530 Jews in the military. Department of Defense reports there are only 4,700 self-reported Jewish military personnel, and this represents only about 15% of what is statistically expected. As mentioned above, there are 372,000 military personnel with no preference. If we assume 2% could be Jewish, then we could add 7,440 more Jews in the military and arrive at a high-end estimate of 12, 140 Jewish military personnel, representing only 40% of what is expected. These numbers suggest there is a severe under-representation of Jews in the active US military, with Jews being under-represented, at best, by a factor of 2.5.

Thus, the point is not that Jews don’t serve, as implied by Buchanan, but rather that they “under-serve.” This under-representation can be qualitatively contrasted with the fact that in the recent past, two Chiefs of Staff of the US Air Force were Jewish, as were one Chief of Naval Operations, one Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, and several Jewish Army three-star generals.

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to explore why Jewish personnel might be under-represented. The most reasonable explanation posits this is based on socio-economic factors. It is taken as a given that the high socio-economic slice of the US population is under-represented in the military because they have access to educational and occupational opportunities which are seemingly more attractive than military service, especially in times of endless conflict, as we are now experiencing. And, American Jews are over-represented in this high socio-economic category. For example, 29% of Americans are college graduates, versus 58% for American Jews. Concerning income, 25% of American Jews have incomes above $150,000, versus 8% of all Americans.

Added to these quantitative factors is the experience factor. If fewer than expected Jews serve in the military, then a (positive) military experience is less probable to obtain in Jewish households. That is, there is probably a deficit of positive Jewish-military role models for Jewish youth to emulate. And role modeling and following may play a large part in what life choices youth follow.

My personal experience is illuminating. I know of five Jewish military families, mine included, whose children, in turn, entered the military, regardless of their inclusion in the “high socio-economic” category.

I have blogged long enough on this topic. I welcome your input and thoughts.

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