From the American Scene:
The Jewish War Veterans: Kew Forest Post 250
The resolutions passed at the sixtieth annual convention of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., held in Miami Beach in October 1955, read like a mixture of random excerpts from the yearly policy statements of the American Legion, Americans for Democratic Action, and any one of a number of merely Jewish organizations. This mélange provides a serviceable platform for men who like to identify with what they call their “brother veteran organizations”; who are customarily on the liberal side of an argument; and who remain forthrightly, indeed militantly, Jewish.
The first forty or so resolutions are devoted exclusively to defending and seeking to enhance the privileges of former soldiers and sailors: the burial allowance for veterans must be increased from $150 to $200; any disabled veteran who wants a copy of his discharge should get it gratis. Fair enough for a group set up to represent ex-servicemen—although the American Veterans Committee, “Citizens First—Veterans Second,” would be likely to spurn such proposals as crassly parochial.
But the JWV’s line in politics as such is directly on the AVC track, far, far to the left of American Legion territory. In 1955, for instance, JWV opposed enactment of the Bricker Amendment; congratulated the UN on its tenth birthday, and called on the Senate to ratify the Genocide Convention; urged liberalization of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act; declared its faith and trust in the patriotism of Harvard University; and commended the Ford Foundation for establishing the Fund for the Republic.
JWV’s specifically Jewish interests were expressed in its call for a Congressionally chartered “National Shrine for the Jewish War Dead”; its condemnation of the American Council of Judaism for “impugning the loyalty of the American Jewish community because of . . . its continued support of a national homeland”; and its pledge to promote the sale of Israeli Development Bonds. The veterans explain their participation in “Save Israel” rallies along with other American Jewish organizations “as a basic expression of solidarity on the part of the Jewish community with respect to Israel.”
For a closer look at the liberal Jewish veteran represented by this platform, one goes, naturally, to his neighborhood JWV post—in this case Kew Forest Post No. 250, located in an area of Queens which has been growing rapidly more Jewish, less rich, and closer to Manhattan since the war. Post No. 250 currently has eighty paid-up members, mostly small to middling retailers, manufacturers, salesmen, and lawyers, the children of parents born in Eastern Europe. The membership is divided about equally between veterans of World War I—some of whom are naturalized citizens themselves—and of World War II.
Inquiries about the Kew Forest post at JWV’s New York office are instantly referred to Herman Jaffe, the post’s founder and first commander as well as a former county vice-commander. “Like Ben Franklin, I’m a printer. You can call me a creative salesman.” Large and voluble Mr. Jaffe, secretary of the Benjamin Franklin 250th Anniversary Committee and publisher of a book, with pictures, celebrating his renowned predecessor, has adopted Franklin as his favorite American. His enthusiasm was aroused years ago by a penurious great-great-great-grandson of Ben Franklin who, in exchange for regular financial assistance, initiated Mr. Jaffe into the Franklin family lore. “Here you are, Herman Jaffe,” he reports having told himself, “born in Brownsville of immigrant parents, in a position to help a descendant of Ben Franklin!”
To the Jewish War Veterans, Herman Jaffe has brought the same wonder, gratitude, enthusiasm, and salesmanship that he has lavished on Benjamin Franklin. “We are the patriotic voice of American Jewry,” he says at the outset of any discussion of JWV. “We have a positive job of preaching Americanism. A salesman must sell, not knock, competing printers. I like to say that America is the best example of living ever conceived by any group of men. If Communism is a better product, it’ll get there.”
It was in 1942 that Mr. Jaffe set up a JWV post in his home community of Forest Hills. A graduate of Dale Carnegie’s course (“the cheapest investment a young man can make”), he shows a vast capacity for the pleasures of organizational life. Just now he belongs to the FDR lodge of B’nai B’rith, the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, the Forest Hills Jewish Center and Men’s Club, the Masons, Post 209 of the American Legion, the Floyd Gibbons Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the New York Advertising Club, and some dozen other assorted groups. As a life member of the Jewish War Veterans, he carries a gold-plated card. “I’m an extrovert,” says Mr. Jaffe. “Absolutely.”
In his own opinion, Mr. Jaffe’s most significant contribution to JWV came when he served as co-chairman of the Historical Pageant and All-Star Show staged in Madison Square Garden in 1946 to celebrate the organization’s fiftieth anniversary. The Pageant, which has since become an annual affair, was entitled “The Fighting Jew.” It is in this role that sixty-year-old Mr. Jaffe, who enlisted in the army in 1916 and was wounded at St. Mihiel, would have himself accepted by other Americans. “As a member of the Anti-Defamation League, I’m a Jew—and ‘anti’ is a negative word. As a member of JWV, I’m a veteran, with an honorable discharge to back me up. The discharge opens doors to us. People say, ‘He’s coming as an American who is a vet—and also a Jew. He has served’.”
As a vet, Mr. Jaffe is accepted by American Legion posts, and marches in the Decoration Day parade every year. “We go into a church to honor the dead and lay a wreath. Then we go to the green and put up a flag and the speakers make appropriate patriotic statements. I’m a veteran along with everybody else. So when JWV speaks for Israel in the State Department, we’re speaking as Americans who have proved our patriotism on the battlefield. We are the patriotic voice of American Jewry through the good fortune of having been soldiers.”
The eleven members of the Kew Forest Post who gathered in Room M2 of the big, modern Forest Hills Jewish Center for their monthly meeting on April 4 made small talk while their newly installed commander, slight, twenty-nine-year-old Kenny Brown, hastened in and out, clutching a manila folder and wearing a distracted expression beneath his overseas cap. “The rabbi says no more bingo,” Kenny notified two of his fellows in a breathless voice. “Everybody’s been on his neck. ‘If JWV can have bingo, why not us?’ Even for free.” He vanished out the door.
We only run the game to draw people, explained past Post Commander Irvin Loitz, a thickset World War II veteran now engaged in importing wrist watches. “There’s no charge, and the prizes are contributed by members.” He held up a box of metal watch-bands. “You know, you have a card game, three guys sit down to play. With bingo everybody gets in.”
Kenny was back, telling someone about a promising fund-raising idea passed on to him by the women’s auxiliary, now meeting in Room M3. A moment later he shot through the door again.
Me, I come every week, said Irvin Loitz. “It gets in your blood.” Irvin began coming because his uncle, one of the post’s founders, presented him with a six-dollar year’s membership on his discharge from the army. In the Kew Forest post, he says, he has discovered friendship and a chance to serve. “We take amputees to Broadway shows, to the fights, to football games at the Polo Grounds, to beach parties.”
Irvin’s current project was a raffle being run by the Queens County JWV. “Everybody who buys a dollar raffle gets a Banker’s Pen, retail value ninety-eight cents, for keeps.” Furthermore, the purchaser had a chance at a Plymouth sedan or a Waring Blendor or a Bissell carpet sweeper or a Roto Broil “400,” among other useful things. Irvin had already sold thirty-six books.
At 9:15, Kenny took his place behind the desk up front and tapped his Banker’s Pen. “Comrades . . .” he declared.
The door opened and a man entered with extensive apologies for being late. He had been trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade a friend to forego his B’nai B’rith meeting that night in the interests of JWV.
Comrades, resumed Kenny, “this is a meeting of the Kew Forest Post No. 250 of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America.”
The veterans rose to salute the colors. Irvin Loitz stepped forward, opened a Bible and, with the assistance of surrounding voices, delivered an extemporaneous invocation. Next came the reading of the minutes, in which it was revealed that Herman Jaffe had criticized the post at the previous meeting for undertaking to sell certain theater tickets, and Jesse Schwartz had criticized Herman Jaffe, and a number of condolences had been expressed. It appeared, too, that several potential officers had resigned at the last meeting, but the situation was cleared up when Kenny explained that he had meant to type “declined.” The post treasurer now read his financial report, which included $11.15 for Kenny Brown’s post commander’s pin.
These preliminaries out of the way, the commander started to explain something about a $32.20 food bill at McGinnis’s restaurant, but notified that he was out of order, he read letters from available candidates for national JWV office instead.
The next item on the agenda, somebody called out, was “Committees.” “We don’t have any functioning committees at the present time,” Kenny said, whereupon Irvin arose, called himself a one-man committee, and gave a brief talk on his raffle books and Banker’s Pens and appliances. Then the commander, notified that the agenda called for “Correspondence,” read some more letters on applicants for national office.
After a while, Kenny got to “the most important thing” on the agenda, and slouching shoulders straightened somewhat. He revealed that the post owed the county office $107 on unsold tickets to “Pipe Dream.” Here was the subject that had parted Comrades Jaffe and Schwartz at the last meeting. The post had held its tickets until the very night of the county-sponsored theater party and then had not been able to get rid of them. Now County wanted its $107.
A tall pipe-smoker named Sid rose to explain that County had gotten the tickets tax-free and had tagged on the tax as profit. Sid felt strongly that County should not make money on Kew Forest’s loss. The same thing had happened last year, when the post got stuck with “House of Flowers” seats and Sid had had to race around Times Square trying to find twelve servicemen willing to accept them for nothing. The membership was clearly in sympathy with Sid, and it was agreed to support Jamaica Post 90—which had also been left holding several unsold tickets to “Pipe Dream”—in its forthcoming resolution against paying County.
Kenny used the ensuing lull in debate to slip in his explanation of that $32.20 food bill. That was the price, he swore, of treating six amputees and one blind Wac to dinner. He assured his comrades that the sum did not include himself, his wife, or Augusta Feinstein of the women’s auxiliary, and that the tip had been pro-rated.
This led into “Good and Welfare,” and Vic Perls, a sixty-two-year-old World War I vet, rose to remind everybody that the baseball season was upon them. He thought he could get thirty or forty seats for paraplegics to the opening game, but needed four men to take care of the boys. Two volunteered, and the matter was left unsettled.
Sid now took the floor again to report that tickets for JWV’s annual All-Star Show at Madison Square Garden were available to members at cost. Irvin reminded Sid that nobody bad taken any tickets to this gala since Herman Jaffe relinquished his paternal interest in it some seasons back. “I propose we buy up a bunch of cheap seats at a quarter apiece and give them free to kids,” said Irvin. “It’s good public relations and only kids can walk up that far anyhow.”
A wistful-looking fellow in a khaki shirt and JWV cap got up to report that the chapter’s annual high school poster contest was not progressing well. “Mr. Barrett, our contact, got sick in January, went to the hospital in February, and was convalescing in March.” Irvin told him he should have dealt direct with the principal, and he subsided ruefully.
While women’s voices from Room M3 cascaded against the folding doors behind him, Kenny tried to read a list of proposed delegates and alternates to the upcoming county meeting. Some confusion resulted from Vic Perls’s announcement that he would probably be away during the convention, but this was satisfactorily cleared up by switching Vic to the alternate list.
A dispute now developed over whether the election of new members was “New Business” or “Committee Business.” Irvin at length carried the day with a firm declaration that it was neither: it occupied a special category all by itself. Kenny reported that no new members had to be voted on anyway.
The auxiliary meeting had apparently ended by this time, for women’s faces began appearing at the door’s glass pane. But their husbands were intent on a portion of the national news letter being read by Herman Jaffe. It had to do with a Congressman’s demand for $100-a-month pensions to all World War I veterans reaching sixty-two. The Congressman was quoted as questioning the propriety of giving aid to foreigners while American ex-servicemen went without. Victor Perls reminded his comrades with spirit that the Kew Forest post had passed a resolution calling for $100 to all vets sixty-five and older.
Mumbling something about “New Business,” Commander Kenny Brown brought up the matter of purchasing a $60 ad in the next national convention journal. Irvin protested vigorously against such an expenditure, and wound up with a motion that Kew Forest never take an ad in any convention journal ever again, since the money went to the sponsoring chapter and not to the national. Herman Jaffe waved him down. “Let it go. Let it go.”
The commander now made several announcements. He had committed the post to join with fifteen other Forest Hills Jewish organizations to sponsor a Mass Rally on Israel and the Middle East Crisis, to be held at the Center in April. For $78.60, Kew Forest could send one hundred cartons of Chesterfields to a veterans hospital.
A woman burst through the folding doors, glared belligerently around, and swept out. “I guess the girls are ready for bingo,” somebody observed.
Sid rose, removed his pipe, and earnestly requested the membership’s opinion, “in view of what happened last year,” on holding a dance at Lost Battalion Hall.
Kenny, clearly an opponent of the proposal, recalled that in 1955 only nine members of the post showed up for the dance.
We realized $500 on the journal, retorted Sid. “If not for that we’d be $300 in the hole today.”
If not for three hard workers, we wouldn’t’ve gotten the ads either, said the commander testily.
Herman Jaffe called for a little decorum. Irvin stood up and cleared his throat. After two years of serving as post commander, he had discovered that no matter what the project, the same handful of members would pitch in and do the work. “The problem is to make money. The most painless way to make money is a dance.”
We should’ve charged more, muttered Sid.
Irvin re-cleared his throat. Lost Battalion Hall, he pointed out, had a regular following for dances; any affair held on the premises was assured of a minimum number of ticket buyers at the door. “Anyway,” he challenged, “if we don’t make the money this way, how are we going to make it?”
We could sell tickets to the Madison Square Garden All-Star Show, Kenny suggested weakly.
You wouldn’t raise twenty cents, countered Irvin.
I’d like to make a motion, called Vic Perls.
Herman Jaffe shut his eyes and shook his head. “You’re out of order.”
A motion is never out of order, ruled Irvin. Herman Jaffe shrugged.
Vic made a motion to reserve Lost Battalion Hall for one evening during the second or third week of November.
Are you sure that’s the best time? Kenny put in dubiously.
You can’t keep interrupting that way, Herman Jaffe remonstrated with his commander. “You’ve got to give the floor a chance, even if you think the majority is wrong. Be nice and judicious.”
In the fifteen-year life of this post, Mr. Jaffe went on, “it’s always been a case of a very few people doing most of the work. That’s the way it is everywhere. That’s the way it is in the American Legion. It’s up to the commander to generate the enthusiasm that will inspire the members to work for their post.” Strings of hair had appeared below the commander’s cap and lay damply against his forehead. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly. He tapped on his desk with his Banker’s Pen. “I think you’ll generate a lot of enthusiasm.”
Most dances are successful in November, Irvin put in a judicious postscript.
At 10:30 p.m., Kenny declared the meeting adjourned. Irvin delivered a brief prayer, closed the Bible, and enfolded it in the post’s banner. Everyone saluted.
As the bingo game was being organized, Queens County Commander Joe Tan-enbaum and past County Commander Dan Yudow appeared in Room M2, straight from another meeting. Joe, an attorney, was born and raised in Bayside when that section of Queens had only six Jewish families. He considers JWV an organization ideally suited to fighting anti-Semitism. “Nobody can impugn the motivations of Jewish veterans who have served their country. JWV is the patriotic voice of American Jewry.” Joe believes that most of his comrades look on JWV as an organization which will one day outlive its usefulness—when there will no longer be a need in America for a body of Jewish veterans. At the moment, Joe is running for Judge Advocate of JWV’s New York Department.
Dan Yudow, also a lawyer, now in the textile business, credits a certain “Jewish consciousness” with providing the glue for the Jewish War Veterans. “We all met anti-Semites in the service. In the hell of service—and I mean hell.” This reminded him of his experiences as the leader of a Jewish group at a camp in Alabama one Christmas eve, when all the Jewish soldiers were put on K.P. “So the captain calls me and tells me to explain to the boys why they all have to be on K.P. that night. ‘You want me to do your job for you, captain?’ I ask him. ‘This is an order, Yudow!’ yells the captain.”
Then there were Dan’s overseas experiences. “I lost three non-coms alongside me, but couldn’t get promoted to first sergeant. . . . A bullet doesn’t care whether it hits Jew or Gentile. . . . There were Jews on the front line; I got a hole in my head to prove it. . . . I’m a living example that Jews fought.”
Dan belongs to the American Legion too—as do most of the JWV officers. “But I feel lost there. I belong because the Second Infantry Division belongs. I’m very close to the Second Infantry Division.”
The Jewish War Veterans fit neither the stereotype of the Jew—which they believe they are helping to change—nor of the American Legionnaire. Within its community, the Kew Forest post cooperates with other Jewish organizations in rallies for Israel and for Israeli bonds; it marches with other veterans’ organizations on Decoration Day and observes the Fourth of July in their company. But the JWV members are separated from the Jewish groups on the one side by their muscularity, and from the Legionnaires on the other by their liberalism. When a Jackson Heights member embarked on a one-man search for Communists in the PTA during the McCarthy-Cohn era, the county JWV leaders successfully squashed him.
Although the Queens County posts allied themselves with the American Veterans Committee shortly after the war, when the other veterans’ organizations refused to march with the new liberal group, the JWV members remain closer in spirit to the American Legion, with its uniforms and its processions and its slogans, than to AVC with its intellectual cast and purely political interests. Last year’s Miami Beach convention featured a parade with floats, led by a retired brigadier general on a white horse—both in full regalia. Kenny Brown, who says he joined JWV in an effort to help counteract the Legion’s influence, has nonetheless joined the local Legion post as well. “The Legion’s big enough and flexible enough to take in everybody,” explains Herman Jaffe.
The patriotism of the JWV members is as authentic and as innocent as Herman Jaffe’s feeling for Ben Franklin. Their good works for hospitalized veterans are palpable—and a tribute to their willingness to go to some inconvenience to help men who need help. Their liberalism is unsullied by doubt, uncomplicated by nice questions of what constitutes being liberal on a given issue. Their response, when they sense duty, is to sponsor a rally, picket, boycott, or haul a malefactor into court—as they did a vehemently anti-Semitic St. Albans woman a few months ago. This lady had been waging an all-out neighborhood war of invective against a Jewish woman and her children. The victim of the abuse appealed to a rabbi who, in turn, took the matter to the Queens County JWV. The veterans advised bringing charges, and entered the case themselves as a friend of the court. The defendant was found guilty of disorderly conduct and put on probation—with the promise of a jail sentence should she resume the battle. She later moved from St. Albans. JWV members in Queens now cite the case as an object lesson in how to beat down anti-Semitism.
From time to time a JWV delegation will meet in relative quiet with State and Defense Department officials to ask arms for Israel, but by far the most popular tactic of the veterans is the public protest. Recent protests have been directed at the McCarthy-instigated army investigation of Fort Monmouth, in which JWV scented anti-Semitism, and at the shipment of U.S. tanks to Saudi Arabia. On May 20 of this year the veterans initiated a rally in Washington to demand liberalization of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Law.
A typical protest came last December when JWV demanded of Secretary of State Dulles the “immediate removal” of Edwin A. Plitt from the Board of Clemency and Parole, which had freed Sepp Dietrich, organizer of the Malmédy massacre. The National Commander wrote, in standard JWV style, that he was “confident that every American veteran also feels outraged that an American representative on such a board should participate in such a callous disregard of what any reasonable person must have known would be the reaction of any American.” When Plitt was indeed removed, after widespread criticism, JWV’s monthly newspaper, The Jewish Veteran, headlined the story: “JWV Request Brings Results.” An instinct for direct group action, a conviction that when they act they act for America, combined with a very high estimate of their effect on the course of things, a feeling of solidarity with those who shared the experience of war, and a weakness for ceremony—this much these veterans seem to have taken home with them from the army. To which is added the customary political orientation of the American Jew and, perhaps, some Jewish tradition of charity. The resultant mixture is the common element that distinguishes our Jewish War Veteran.
Vic Perls remembers JWV’s action against the rabble-rousers who held rallies in Yorkville in the 30’s. “We sent Joe McWilliams to the hospital six times.” And he remembers the “Shirts Off Your Backs” campaign of 1947, when the veterans collected uniforms for Israeli troops.
The friendship here is something special, says Irvin.
Commander Kenny Brown notes, before being whisked away by an older member, that in addition to all its non-sectarian efforts, JWV sees to it that Seders are held at the veterans hospitals.
We’re the militant arm of American Jewry, declares Dan Yudow. “Who shipped arms to Israel sub rosa? Who picketed Gieseking and made him turn around and go home? Nobody else had the nerve to do it. The next day my father calls me up. ‘Danny boy,’ he says. ‘What are you doing on the front page of the News, holding a swastika?’”
We represent you, Herman Jaffe points a finger. “With our honorable discharges to back us up, we’ve taken on the responsibilities and duties of representing American Jewry. No one has ever challenged us.”
And from the next room: “Twenty-four. Seventeen. Nine. BING-O!”