How World War I Shaped Jewish Politics and Identity

The War America Forgot

First Class: Five Jewish chaplains trained at a Kentucky school. Permission given for this use only.
Courtesy of Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati.
First Class: Five Jewish chaplains trained at a Kentucky school. Permission given for this use only.

By Paul Berger

Published June 25, 2014, issue of June 27, 2014.

When World War I broke out 100 years ago this summer, Forverts Editor Abraham Cahan predicted “a frightful bloodletting.” Under the stark headline “Milkhome” (War), Cahan wrote: “War means a retreat backwards, a return to darkness.”

June 28 will mark the centennial of the spark that ignited that war: the assassination of the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand. Cahan opposed the war on socialist principle. In that, he resembled most American Jews, who, like the majority of Americans, opposed America’s involvement at the start.

Although American Jews may not have supported a military campaign, they became entangled in the humanitarian side of the war from the beginning. They rushed to the aid of starving Jews in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. They helped the destitute and brutalized in war-torn Eastern and Central Europe.

Finally, in the spring of 1917, when America entered the war, American Jews had to fight. More than 200,000 Jews donned a uniform, the first time Jews fought in significant numbers for the American armed forces.

The war was a defining moment that changed American Jewish identity, power and values, but it has been overshadowed by the catastrophe of World War II. Daniel Soyer, professor of American Jewish history at Fordham University, said: “In terms of the development, shape and attitudes of the American Jewish community, in some ways the First World War was as important as the Second World War.”

While the Second World War had a devastating effect on the Jewish populations of Europe, the First World War shifted the balance of power in the Diaspora from the old world to the new. American Jews emerged from World War I as major philanthropists. “While World War II shifted forever the demographic center of world Jewry, the First World War saw the shift of financial and institutional centers of world Jewry to America,” said Rebecca Kobrin, professor of American Jewish history at Columbia University.

In America, World War I gave millions of Jews, many of them immigrants, a sense not just of their Jewishness, but also of their Americanness. And it forced the military to recognize and accommodate the nation’s Jews, setting up a framework for Jewish soldiers to maintain their traditions as best as possible on training bases and during deployment overseas. The war also saw the first serious organization of a Jewish chaplaincy. Jessica Cooperman, professor of religion studies at Muhlenberg College, said that World War I institutionalized the Jewish chaplaincy and put a structure in place that could be taken up instantly following America’s entry into Word War II.

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