Jewish War Veterans shatter stereotypes, recall history

Monroe Mayer, the national commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, is no stranger to snipers. But when the barbs are hurled by a "Babs" look-alike, that's when the hurting really starts.

"I saw this Barbra Streisand imitator awhile back," Mayer said, "and believe me, she was no funny lady."

According to Mayer, one the performer's biggest laughs came when she tossed off a few lines about the lack of Jews in the military.

"The audience was in hysterics," Mayer, a World War II vet from Vermont recalled in an interview Monday. "I didn't find it funny at all. The performer was obviously Jewish, and I thought if one of our own thinks like that, what does everybody else believe?"

Apparently, the same thing.

That's the reason the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C., exists.

And it's also the reason that Mayer, along with other Jewish veterans, was in San Francisco this week to give a talk at the War Memorial Building. Before stopping off at Sacramento to discuss hate crimes with state legislators, Mayer reminded the audience that regional posts are the lifeblood of the organization.

According to Wallace Levin, commander of the San Francisco branch of the Jewish War Veterans, most Bay Area Jews are unaware that the organization exists.

"We tend to get lost in the shuffle," Levin said. "There's a lot happening in the community, and people don't normally associate Jews with the military."

During the interview, the veterans discussed the stereotypes of Jews not being warriors, the legacy of the organization, and the differences between Jews who served during World War II vs. Vietnam.

"What people don't realize is that in proportion to their percentage of the population, Jews were over-represented," said George Weinstein, a Second World War veteran from New York. "During World War II, 60 percent of Jewish physicians were on active duty," he added. "That alone should dispel the notion that Jews were never active on defending their country."

Mayer agreed, saying that "from the outside community, there's always the perception that Jews don't give a damn about patriotism.

"To them," Mayer added. "Jews are only concerned about making money and screwing people. And from within the Jewish community, there's a sense of 'not talking back to the goyim,' and turning the other cheek.

"We ain't like that today," Mayer said. "That's why we got the state of Israel, but that's a whole other story."

Not entirely, according to Douglas Becker, a Grass Valley resident who served in Vietnam. "You don't have to be in Israel to be a nice Jewish boy in the military," he said.

Becker, who attended the University of San Francisco during the heyday of the student protests in the Bay Area, said that serving in the military gave him "an opportunity to be an American."

As Mayer gave him a paternal punch on the shoulder, Becker said that he was aware many Jews actively protested against the war in Vietnam.

"We all know about the [Abbie] Hoffmans and the [Jerry] Rubins," Becker said. "And while I can see that they thought our country's policies were misplaced, I thought their methods were very misplaced.

"I guess I was just cut from a different tallis," he added.

Becker, who was in the Mekong Delta during 1972-73, said that being a Jewish soldier overseas was a double whammy. "At times, there was a real sense of loneliness, even though I was surrounded by comrades. There was a quiet sense of desperation."

Noting that he was the only Jew in his unit of about 50 soldiers, Becker said that things would have been much easier if there was more of a sense of connection.

"On the other hand, the first kosher meal I ever had was in Bangkok," he said, laughing.

The reception accorded to returning vets was no laughing matter, however. Telling the other vets in the room that he would try not to cry, Becker said the Vietnam vet has been unfairly depicted.

"The Vietnam war was not about American GIs killing babies," Becker said, his voice quavering. "It was about young men and women going into the pits of hell, and often helping the very people they were fighting. But you never hear about the Vietnam vets protecting infants or helpless villagers. We're painted as mercenaries or killers."

Mayer again laid a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Good God," he said. "What different times those were. The difference between those wars was like the difference between a lunar landscape and Miami Beach.

"There was such unity during the Good War," Mayer said, referring to World War II. "We were scared… but it was such a tremendous feeling, because everyone knew they were fighting the good fight.

"That was the high point of the country, and it's never been repeated," Mayer added.

The two veterans agreed that membership in the Jewish veterans group is dwindling and is now at an all-time low. Originally begun in 1896 by a group of Civil War veterans, the organization hit its zenith in the 1950s.

"We're losing 1,000 World War II veterans [Jews and non-Jews] every day," Mayer said. "That's the rate that we're dying off at. So there's really an urgency to telling our stories."

However, World War II vet Weinstein sounded a more optimistic note. "When membership reaches zero, it hopefully will mean that there are no more wars to be fought."