Jews and the Medal of Honor

Jews and the Medal of Honor

Despite prejudice, the military has recognized disproportionate numbers of tribe members

In 2014, President Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Lori Wegner, Leonard Kravitz’s niece, for his bravery in Korea.
In 2014, President Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Lori Wegner, Leonard Kravitz’s niece, for his bravery in Korea.

It’s been a favorite theme of antisemites and the ignorant for centuries that Jews don’t fight. Ignoring the biblical history of Samson, Joshua, David, Gideon, and the Maccabees, they point to rows of Christian crosses in military cemeteries.

They purposely or accidentally ignore the scores of Magen Davids interspersed throughout American cemeteries in Normandy and wherever else U.S. fighting men and women are interred.

They point to the recipients of the Medal of Honor and ask: “What have the Jews done?” Lawyers and politicians know that you never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer. Deniers of Jewish heroes fail to heed that admonition.

Jews have served In the American military far out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. And while they have not been awarded as many Medals of Honor as non-Jews, it’s still disproportionately high relative to the numbers of Jews in the service.

The Medal of Honor first was awarded in 1861. Until 1914 it was one of only two such medals authorized. The other, the Purple Heart, was created by George Washington. The medal goes to members of the military who distinguish themselves, at the risk of their own lives, above and beyond the call of duty, in action against an enemy of the United States.

There is some question about who the first Jew was to receive the medal. Some say it was Army Sergeant Leonard Karpeles, who is credited with rallying disorganized Union troops fleeing the Confederates. His efforts led to the Union holding off the enemy forces.

Abraham Cohn also is listed as have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Cohen was born on June 17, 1832, in Guttentag, Prussia (Poland today) and immigrated to the United States as a youngster. He enlisted in the army and rapidly moved up the ranks to sergeant major with the 6th New Hampshire Infantry. That was no mean accomplishment for anyone, much less a Jew.

Cohn fought at the battle of Petersburg, Virginia, and distinguished himself in combat. On July 30, 1864, he was tasked with delivering strategic orders to a Union Army unit on the front lines. Under heavy fire from Confederate sharpshooters, he worked his way through until he reached the Union regiment and delivered the critical orders.

His actions were recognized, and on August 24, 1865, he became one of the first Jews— and one of the first Americans — to receive the Medal of Honor. He died in 1897 at the age of 65 and is buried in New York City.

One of the more unlikely soldiers to be awarded the MOH also was a Jew.

Tibor Rubin received the Medal of Honor in 2005 for his actions in Korea.

Benjamin Levy, a young private in the Union Army, worked as a drummer boy. While that may sound as if it were a position of little importance, the truth is quite the contrary. Drummer boys ranged from pre-teens to young teers, and it took guts to go into combat with nothing but a pair of drumsticks as your only weapons.

They didn’t just beat their drums. Instead, they would use their drums to signal troop movements —only drums and bugles could send messages to advancing soldiers. Buglers could meld into the advancing ranks, but drummer boys stood out as they set the pace. They became specific targets of sharpshooters seeking to disrupt communications within enemy ranks. Their youth was no protection against bullets.

On June 30, 1862, Levy was bravely marching with his unit when a soldier next to him was hit by enemy fire and went down. Levy put down his drum, grabbed the fallen comrade’s rifle, and moved into actual combat.

During his advance, he saw a color-bearer get shot, go down, and drop the unit colors. Those flags were a prize; capturing the enemy’s colors was a trophy for the winner and a disgrace for the loser. Those flags were often displayed as spoils of war. To this day, the museum at West Point displays many flags that our troops captured in combat.

So when Levy saw the the color bearer go down, he immediately gathered the streamers and prevented them from falling into Confederate hands.

Congress recognized Levy’s gallantry and courage by awarding him the Medal of Honor. As a teen, he arguably was the youngest person ever to be so honored.

Jews distinguished themselves in virtually every major conflict in which the United States was involved. Four Jews were awarded the Medal of Honor in the Indian Wars, and in the 1899-1902 Philippines campaign as a follow-on to the Spanish-American War, Private Louis C. Mosher received the MOH for risking his life under enemy fire to reach a wounded comrade and carry him to safety.

In 1900, the United States, as part of a multi-national force, became involved in the Boxer Rebellion in China. At the Battle of Peking, William Zion earned the medal for his actions, although the citation is unusually laconic, saying only: “In the presence of enemy during the battle of Peking, China, July 21-August 17, 1900, throughout this period Zion distinguished himself by meritorious conduct.”

A Marine private, Zion later joined the Army and rose to the rank of first lieutenant. He died of an accidental gunshot wound on March 25, 1919.

The United States became involved in Haiti in 1915 when President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Marines in to restore order. Six of them were awarded the MOH. That included three Jews, an amazingly high percentage.

Union Army corporal David Urbansky was awarded the Medal of Honor for “Gallantry in Action” at the battles of
Shiloh and Vicksburg.

World Wars I and II and the Korean War brought combat into the modern era. Seven Jews received the Medal in World War I. Three Jews were awarded the MOH in World War II, all posthumously. Ironically, two of the recipients were awarded the medal for actions that claimed their lives, Raymond Zussman lived through his encounter, only to be killed in action less than a month before his scheduled presentation.

No Jew received the honor during the Korean War; those honors came later. That’s quite possibly because of antisemitism, although the government and military would deny any such assertion. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. While there are no statistics, in recent years several minority servicemen have been awarded the Medal, with the official admission that they were overlooked because of prejudice in the military.

Evidence of this is the Medal of Honor awarded to Tibor “Tibi” Rubin, who received the award for his actions in Korea on September 23, 2005, a mere 52 years after the conflict ended in an armistice. There is no way to know how many other Jews may have been overlooked for the honor because of prejudice.

Tibi Rubin was born in Hungary. When he was 13, the Nazis deported him and his family to Mathausen. While Tibi survived the concentration camp, his parents and two sisters did not.

The camp was liberated in May 1945, and Rubin determined to repay the Americans by joining the U.S. Army and fighting the Germans. But he was only 15 and unable to enlist. He did not make it to the United States until 1948. He tried to enlist again but was turned down because he was unable to pass the English test. He studied and finally made it in 1950, just in time to be posted to Korea.

When his unit was desperate to locate a retreat route, Rubin, by himself, defended a location for a day, holding off a major North Korean unit. That earned him four recommendations for the Medal of Honor and a number of other awards. It went nowhere because his first sergeant was described by others in his unit as a “vicious antisemite.”

The sergeant regularly sent Rubin on the most dangerous missions and ignored orders to put through the paperwork for the soldier to receive the Medal of Honor.

“I believe in my heart that Sergeant (Artice) Watson would have jeopardized his own safety rather than assist in any way whatsoever in the awarding of the Medal to a person of Jewish descent,” Cpl. Harold Speakman said in a notarized statement.

Rubin’s luck ran out in October 1950, when his company was captured by the Communists and placed in a POW camp. At the risk of his own life, Rubin would sneak out of the POW camp at night and forage for food for his fellow prisoners. These actions saved the lives of some 40 prisoners, who eventually were freed.

Rubin’s army friends began to promote him for the Medal of Honor in the early 1980s, some 30 years after his discharge from the military. This piqued the interest of such politicians as Senator John McCain, who was a former POW, and Representative Benjamin Gilman of New York.

The Army ultimately was forced into a corner and reexamined its policies for recognizing minorities. Congress finally passed the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act in 2001 to recognize minorities. (Kravitz was the uncle of musician Lenny Kravitz.)

On September 23, 2005, Tibor Rubin finally received his due. He was presented with the Medal of Honor.

“It would have been nice if they had given it to me when I was a young, handsome man,” Rubin joked. “It would have opened a lot of doors. I wanted to prove that there was a little schmuck from Hungary who fought for their beloved country. Now it’s Mister Schmuck the hero.”

Tibor Rubin died 10 years later, on December 5, 2015, at 86. No one called him any name other than Tibor Rubin, Hero.

Bob Nesoff of New Milford is an Army veteran who served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army’s elite Green Berets. He is also a past commander of a Jewish War Veterans post and a current American Legion member.

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