The Jewish Advocate: “You can’t blame the soldiers for fighting in a war”; Exactly three decades since the end of the Vietnam war, veterans reflect on the views of Boston’s Jewish community towards the conflict and its 30-year legacy

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

At the 30th anniversary of the end of one of the most painful periods in American military history, one veteran is working hard to ensure that today’s soldiers won’t have to endure what he went through. Attorney Harvey Weiner served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, and the memories or returning home to a hostile public are still fresh. “Coming back was an extremely negative experience for myself and for almost all other Vietnam veterans. The reaction of most of us was to just hunker down and forget about it, put it behind us, and not talk about it at all.”

The events of September 11, 2001 changed that attitude for Weiner, who feared that an unpopular war might follow. Weiner worried that soldiers today would once again face demonstrators who made no distinction between the war they opposed and the soldiers who fought in it. His solution was to get involved with the Jewish War Veterans. 

The Jewish War Veterans of America is the oldest veterans’ organization in the United States, dating back for more than 100 years. Its goals include affirming Jewish presence in past wars and the present military, lobbying on behalf of veterans’ causes, keeping alive the memory of deceased veterans, and providing assistance and social outlets to veterans and their families.

In the four years Weiner has been involved, he has quickly risen through the ranks and will assume the position of State Commander at the group’s upcoming convention in Plymouth on May 21st.

Looking back at his experience as a young veteran, Weiner waxes philosophic: “In this democracy, I think it is very important to have dissidents and anti-war protests, even during wartime. But a distinction must be made between the soldiers fighting a war who should not be blamed for the war, and the war itself. After the Vietnam War, the soldiers were treated poorly – spit upon and called names when they came back. One of the legacies of that war is a realization 30 years later that you can’t blame the soldiers for the war.”

Paul H. Levenson, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Chayai Shalom in Easton who currently serves as chaplain at several area hospitals, saw both sides of the situation as a former army chaplain turned war protestor: “Having been a chaplain in the army, we were ‘obligated volunteers’ because of World War II – how could Jews be unpatriotic? We went in the army if we were able to do so. It was a very difficult time for rabbis – we opposed the war. I got into a great deal of trouble. No question, I was confronted with people in my congregation who insisted we had to be loyal to America. I said we had to be loyal to the principles of Judaism – you do not fight an aggressive and unjust war.”

Historian Michael Feldberg, the director of research at the American Jewish Historical Society in Newton, notes that “there was near unanimity in the Boston Jewish community towards ending the war.” In fact, Levenson points out that the CCAR, the Reform Movement’s Rabbinic, voted in 1967 to withdraw from the obligated volunteer program with the armed services: “It’s one of the few times that I spoke at the plenary sessions before hundreds of colleagues, opposing the war. I roundly said that if I had been called up from reserve to active reserve, I would have refused to go. The resolution against obligating Reform rabbis to go into the armed services won. The majority of reform rabbis in 1967 roundly voted against the war.”

However, Feldberg points out, Jewish protests against the war really took seed in the context of the Jewish counterculture movement, the precursor to the Jewish renewal movement. Feldberg sees in this context a close tie between the war protests and a shift in the Jewish community: “The ferment of rebellion against authority – the authority of the older generation – that was triggered by both the civil rights movement and antiwar movement carried over into young Jews questioning the imputed authority of federation leaders and synagogue leaders. It reflected the generational conflict that the Vietnam War uncovered.”

Feldberg saw the generational split as empowering for young Jewish: “It lead to an intensified sense among a lot of young Jews that the older generation no longer deserved to set overall social policy either for the United State or for the conduct of Jewish life. When the war ended, it did not mark the end of these impulses.”

It was, however, the end of any sense of a unified Jewish voice. Feldberg points to Henry Kissinger’s Nobel Peace Prize as an illustrative moment: “For many Jews, this was a great source of pride, but for a younger generation of Jews, it was a source of anger that the first Jew to win the Nobel [Peace] Prize should be a man who was, in their mind, a war criminal.” Aware of the generation gap, Weiner has made it his mission to reach out to current soldiers, supporting both them and their families while they are away, and inviting them to welcome-home ceremonies upon their return. He also encourages young veterans to join the Jewish War Veterans so they can in turn help others.

The efforts of Weiner and his compatriots have paid off. Weiner says: “There was a demonstration recently, and I remember a photo on the front page of the Globe of a demonstrator with a big sign saying ‘Support the soldiers but oppose the war!’ I think the nation is getting it right.”

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