Setting the record straight: Jewish recipients of the Medal of Honor


As every American knows, November is a month of thanksgiving. We celebrate, of course, the Thanksgiving holiday itself, but it’s not the only holiday in which we demonstrate gratitude. On Nov. 11, we also give thanks to our nation’s veterans. Veterans Day is a chance to honor the men and women who have served in our county’s armed forces by both giving thanks for their service and celebrating their accomplishments. On Veterans Day this year, we look back on a somewhat historic year for minority servicemen and servicewomen, including Jews. In March of this year, in one of the largest ceremonies of its kind, President Barack Obama bestowed the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, to 24 veterans. This was the largest such group to be awarded that medal since the cessation of hostilities following World War II. Of the 24, 19 of the awardees were minority servicemen. Their gallantry, it is believed, was overlooked due to possible prejudice or discrimination, based on the fact that they were all of Hispanic, African American or Jewish descent.

Minority organizations applauded the efforts of the Obama administration to restore the lost valor of these servicemen. The Jewish community was particularly outspoken, with several Jewish publications celebrating the five Jewish awardees: William F. Leonard, Donald K. Schwab, Alfred B. Nietzel, Jack Weinstein and Leonard M. Kravitz. The Jewish list, however, is problematic. Of these five men, only one, Leonard Kravitz, can be definitively identified as a Jew.

In an ironic twist, the Jewish community may have been guilty of jumping to conclusions on the genealogy of these men, based purely on stereotypes associated with their surnames. Evidence refuting the Jewish ancestry of the other four Medal of Honor recipients takes a number of forms, but seems fairly definitive. The most convincing sources are searchable online records that contain images of grave markers. From these records, we can verify that three of the identified “Jewish” servicemen: William F. Leonard, Alfred Nietzel and Jack Weinstein, have grave markers engraved with crosses or other Christian imagery. While this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of these men having some form of Jewish heritage, it does suggest, at least, that they did not identify as Jews at the time of their deaths. Donald Schwab’s grave marker is not available as a public record. His official Medal of Honor biography, however, lists him as active in the “church and community,” lending credence to the idea that he was a practicing Christian. This is not the first time the Jewish community has, unfortunately, jumped to conclusions with Medal of Honor winners. An article in Discover JCC magazine identified “at least 27” Jewish Medal of Honor winners. This directly conflicts with the Jewish War Veterans of America list, which definitively identifies only 16 Jewish Medal of Honor winners. Where, then, does the confusion arise?

Incorrect or stereotyped surname association can account for many of these cases of misidentified Jewish veterans. A number of Medal of Honor winners, particularly those who earned their medals prior to the end of World War II, came from immigrant families who arrived in America in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Their surnames were largely Germanic and, as such, have been mistaken by modern scholars as Semitic in origin. The irony lies in the fact that the Jewish community has laid “claim” to these men based on the same stereotypes that may have kept them from initially receiving the Medal of Honor.

Medal of Honor recipients are all American heroes. Whether these servicemen were Jewish is a footnote in history. Their heroic acts speak for themselves. As Jews, however, we should feel an obligation to look beyond a simple name and understand the personal stories of each of these American heroes, be they Jew  or gentile. By doing so, we pay proper respects to each of these men as individuals, and not as stereotypes. At the same time, we can appreciate what a rare honor it is indeed to be one of the 16 Jewish recipients who did earn our nation’s thanks and its highest military award.

PETE ZUBOF is a native of Richmond, Virginia. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland and has a master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island. He’s a pilot in the United States Navy and currently on the staff of the Naval War College. Pete is also the Jewish lay-leader for Naval Station Newport. Pete blogs regularly for 401j. He resides in Jamestown with his wife, Morgan, their son, Logan and dog Cider.