They came from all over the state of Washington and were sent all over the world. They were soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who fought in every American conflict since World War II, and at a Washington State Jewish Historical Society event on Dec. 4, they told their stories to a rapt crowd of more than family members and friends who were there to honor them and commemorate their service to the United States.
“They” are Jewish war veterans — plus a few still on active duty — and as the audience learned, their experiences in the military have been as varied as the places they’ve served, the conflicts they’ve witnessed, and the specific roles they’ve played. From Jack Yusen, who spent more than 50 hours in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific after his ship was sunk during World War II, to Rabbi Jay Heyman who had to counsel a sailor on why it was inappropriate to use the words “kike” and “nigger,” veteran after veteran described their experiences with a mix of solemnity, pride and a good dose of Jewish humor.
Air Force pilot Yoni Goldstein, who’s just been deployed overseas, provided his comments on tape. As an observant Jew, Goldstein described the changes he’s had to make — willingly — to practice Judaism and fulfill his military duties. For one thing, there are limits to when he can keep his head covered.
“I wear my kippah as long as it’s not a hazard to flight,” he explained, “but the mission comes first. And I know I can’t wear it in certain countries.”
Goldstein also has had to make concessions about observing Shabbat.
“I’ve had to fly on Shabbat a few times,” he said. “At first it was hard, but I put the fact that we are saving people’s lives ahead of everything else.”
Other vets alluded to the issues faced by Jewish troops in recent years, given where conflicts are now taking place. Dr. Rob Lehman, who served during Desert Storm, explained that he was directed to replace “Jewish” with “no religious preference” on his dog tags before being deployed. And he described coming face to face with the Jewish-Arab divide when he first entered the hospital where he’d be ministering to Iraqi POWs. He realized that none of the maps on the walls showed the state of Israel. Instead, its territory was identified as Palestine.
The overwhelming message of Sunday’s event was that serving in the military has been a deeply meaningful experience, But the veterans offered reminders that there has been discrimination against Jews and other minorities. Two of the honorees — Stan Tobin, now deceased, and Heyman — had direct roles in fighting for equal rights and both were recognized for their efforts.
Tobin’s niece Lee Micklin recounted her uncle’s experience during World War II at Fort Geiger Air Force Base in Spokane, before the armed services were integrated. Micklin explained that Tobin was appalled by the military’s unfair treatment of his black troops and successfully fought for their equal access to the base’s PX and recreation facilities and for their right to sit where they pleased on public transportation to and from the base.
Heyman, a former Navy chaplain, had an even more far-reaching impact. Heyman was posted to an air base in Japan and described his discovery there of an anti-Semitic film that was being distributed to men and women throughout the military services around the world. The film fed the worst stereotypes of Jews, depicting them as black-frocked, hook-nosed Christ killers. Heyman protested and was eventually able to get the film withdrawn. He also worked to sensitize non-Jewish airmen about why Jews are offended by Christian symbols on government property during the holiday season.
While virtually all the younger vets denied there is any anti-Semitism in the modern military, former Marine and current Air Force reservist Mike Ekshtut acknowledged that fear of discrimination hasn’t completely disappeared. Ekshtut described his first day in Marine boot camp when his drillmaster asked all the Jews to stand up. Ekshtut was the only one among 87 recruits who did so and was told to report immediately to a major. Needless to say, he was fearful of what was in store for him but his concerns were soon allayed. “You are one tenth of one percent of all the Marines in the Marine Corps,” the major told him, then added, “By the way, I’m Major Goldberg and I’d like to invite you to Shabbat services.”
It was a few weeks later before Ekshtut discovered that there was another Jew in his unit but he had been afraid to come forward for fear that “they were going to beat us.”
Despite the few references to real or feared discrimination, the overwhelming message of the WSJHS event was that Jews have played a key role in the military history of the U.S. and have a strong sense of pride in their contributions. When Rabbi Heyman closed his remarks by saying, “My life has been enriched by being in the military,” it was clear he spoke for every veteran in attendance.