Opinion

Israel's Top Diplomat Endorsed an Old Slur Against U.S. Jews: 'You Don't Serve'. Her 'Apology' Was a Further Insult

I served in the U.S. Air Force in America, Panama, Korea and Saudi Arabia. That's why Tzipi Hotovely's attack on U.S. Jews' 'convenient lives' hurt

Robert Levinson
Robert Levinson
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FILE PHOTO: Servicemen of the 20th U.S. Air Force stationed in Guam during World War II participate in a Rosh Hashanah service circa 1945.
FILE PHOTO: Servicemen of the 20th U.S. Air Force stationed in Guam during World War II participate in a Rosh Hashanah service circa 1945. Credit: Wikimedia/American Jewish Historical Society
Robert Levinson
Robert Levinson

When I read about Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely’s remarks about American Jews not serving in the U.S. military, I was quite taken aback.

Indeed, I suspected that there had to have been some sort of mistranslation, so I watched the video and was saddened to see that she did indeed refer to American Jews as "People that never send their children to fight for their country," and she said it in English, so there was no misunderstanding.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I take great exception to Ms. Hotovely’s remarks.

My grandfather Meyer Levinson, an immigrant from Lithuania, served in the United States Navy in World War I, my father Jon Levinson was a draftee in the U.S. Army and I graduated the Air Force Academy and wore my country’s uniform for more than 20 years. My two uncles, Jon’s brothers Fred and Mort, served both in the IDF in 1948, and then in the U.S. Army when they came home. Mort’s granddaughter is currently a student at the United States Naval Academy and wants to become a Marine.

None of us are great war heroes or famous generals but we served and serve with honor and pride. We love our country just as deeply and passionately as Ms. Hotovely loves hers.

To be fair to Ms. Hotovely, she wasn’t entirely inaccurate in her statements about most American Jews not having children who are soldiers. But this is also true of most Americans in general. 

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We are a nation of 350 million people with an all-volunteer military, fielding an active duty force of about 1.5 million in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. So indeed the burden falls on a very small segment of the population.

Shortly after 9/11 I wrote a letter to my local Jewish newspaper encouraging those from our community to consider joining up, as I pointed out that nobody owes more to America than its Jews.

But while there aren’t a whole lot of us, Ms. Hotovely should think twice before making blanket statements that dismiss the many fine Jewish American patriots who do serve.

Unfortunately Ms. Hotovely’s Hebrew-only "apology" kind of added insult to injury. She said, "To all American lone soldiers who had grandparents who fought in World War II, I salute you all."  I’m sure the lone soldiers in the IDF appreciate that and maybe their World War II veteran grandfathers and grandmothers do, but what about the rest of us she left out?

Gen. David Goldfein, current U.S. Air Force chief of staff, at his introduction by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the Pentagon. April 29, 2016
Gen. David Goldfein, current U.S. Air Force chief of staff, at his introduction by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the Pentagon. April 29, 2016Credit: Molly Riley / AP

Probably without her realizing it, Ms. Hotovely’s remarks played into an old anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews in America not being willing to serve.

She probably doesn’t know it but the oldest veteran’s organization in the United States, the Jewish War Veterans, which three generations of Levinsons were and are members of, was formed shortly after the Civil War, in part to counter that very stereotype. It would probably surprise most people to know that 50% of the first graduating class of West Point was Jewish. There were two graduates in 1802; one was Simon M. Levy.

Today the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, General David Goldfein is Jewish and he, is in fact, the second Jew to hold that position. We've also had senior officers like Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, General Robert Magnus, former Assistant Commandant in the Marine Corps, and Major General Harold Green (United States Army) who sadly is the highest ranking officer killed in Afghanistan. His wife, Col. Sue Myers, is a retired Army Colonel. Jews have served, been decorated, and died in every conflict that America has fought.

Cmdr. Dave Mundy presents an American flag to the widow of Lt. Miroslav Steven Zilberman during his memorial on 8th April 2010. Zilberman ordered his crew to bail out, saving their lives, as his E-2C Hawkeye got into difficulties returning from a mission over Afghanistan
8th April 2010: Cmdr. Dave Mundy presents a U.S. flag to Lt. Miroslav Steven Zilberman's widow. Zilberman ordered his crew to bail out as his aircraft stalled returning from a mission in AfghanistanCredit: Wikimedia/ United States Navy

Ms. Hotovely also claimed that we in the United States in our "convenient lives" don’t really understand what it’s like to have rockets raining down on our country.

I can’t claim to fully grasp what it is like to live in a place like Sderot, where I have visited, but we American Jews do a lot to help Israel protect itself. At a time when our own Defense Department is under severe budget constraints we push for billions to go to the IDF, including huge amounts to develop the Arrow Missile, David’s Sling and Iron Dome. Thankfully, many non-Jewish Americans share our concerns and overwhelmingly support this aid.

It’s also worth noting that when Iraqi Scud missiles were raining down on Israel in 1991, the Patriot missile batteries sent by the U.S. were commanded by a Jewish officer. Like my uncles Fred and Mort, another American Jew went to protect Israel.

All of us Jews who served in uniform in the American military have always taken great pride in the prowess and accomplishments of the IDF. How such as small country in which nearly every man and woman serves in uniform can accomplish so much against often overwhelming odds truly is a modern miracle.

In some cases the IDF even seems to give us some added street-cred with our non-Jewish brothers and sisters-in-arms. Some people have asked me from time to time if there is anti-Semitism in the U.S. military and I tell them that if anything the U.S. military is rather philo-Semitic and the IDF has a lot to do with that.

The relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel is indeed complicated and I give Ms. Hotovely credit for being willing to take the issues head on. But while the relationships can be at times contentious and difficult, not too different from what happens around my family Shabbat dinner table, underneath the arguments are bonds of love and respect that remain strong and are, in fact, more vital than ever.

We shouldn’t be afraid to discuss our differences openly and honestly even if at times it makes us uncomfortable. But we should also be careful to watch our words and choose them wisely lest we risk creating rifts which can be far more difficult to mend.

Robert Levinson is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force who served in the United States, Panama, Korea and Saudi Arabia. He also worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Twitter: @levinsor

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