Washington Week

Jewish World Review March 1, 2001 / 6 Adar, 5761

Bill before Congress calls for a review of American-Jewish vets' war records

By Aaron Leibel
Washington Jewish Week

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- TAKE some numbers that don't seem to add up. Stir in an old friendship and incredible perservance. Let stand for four decades.

The result is a proposed piece of legislation, just introduced in Congress, to correct an injustice that might have been done to some brave American Jews who fought in this country's wars.

The Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act of 2001 -- introduced by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) with support from Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) -- instructs the Pentagon to review the records of Jewish war veterans who were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross or Air Force Cross to determine whether their acts of bravery should have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the country's highest award for bravery.

The rationale for the bill are those peculiar numbers. According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History's Web site, more than 3,400 Congressional Medals of Honor have been awarded since the decoration's inception in 1861.

The number of Jewish recipients, of course, depends on how you define Jewish. Al Lerner of Silver Spring, Maryland, who is commander of JWV Harold Greenberg Post #692, puts that number at 44. Pamela Feltus, curator National Museum of American Jewish Military History, says there are only 13 "confirmed Jews" --- people who identified themselves as Jewish.

The Pentagon doesn't keep track of numbers of different minority groups serving in the military, but studies have shown that Jews have served at a higher proportion than their percentage of the United States' population, historically at around 5 percent. At that figure, the number of Jewish Medal of Honor recipients should be around 170, if those medal winners were proportional to the percentage of Jews serving in the U.S. Army.

There were no Jews among the 136 recipients of that award in the Korean Conflict.

Those figures seem to indicate a discrepancy.

"There has been discrimination, but not only against Jews," says Lerner.

However, Mitchel Libman of Hollywood, Fla., wasn't interested in numbers but in his old friend, Leonard Kravitz. The two had grown up together in Brooklyn, N.Y., and they had been together in 1951 the day before Kravitz had been shipped to Korea.

Kravitz died in combat. About eight years ago, more than 40 years after the event, Libman decided to find out the details of his boyhood friend's death.

After a bureaucratic battle, Libman learned that his friend had died valiantly. On March 7, 1951, Kravitz's platoon was attacked by a large number of Chinese soldiers. The machine gunner was killed and Kravitz took his place.

The unit was ordered to retreat, but Kravitz refused to leave his machine gun, providing cover for his fellow soldiers and drawing Chinese fire down on him, instead of his retreating comrades. When the hill was retaken, Kravitz was found dead on his machine gun, surrounded by dead Chinese troops.

Kravitz, whose nephew and namesake is the popular rock singer Lenny Kravitz, had been nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor, but the award was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. "I couldn't understand why Lenny didn't get the higher award," Libman remembers.

To get justice for his friend, Libman began a campaign that has lasted for years. He has written innumerable letters and talked to countless people on Kravitz's behalf.

Lipman enlisted Wexler, his representative, in his cause and succeeded in forcing an official review of his friend's record. The army sent a letter saying the Distinguished Service Cross was "appropriate."

"When I saw that letter, I knew something was wrong," says Lipman. "Over the years, many people told me 'They don't give the Congressional Medal of Honors to Jews.' I was in Korea and experienced no prejudice. But that has to be the reason he [Kravitz] didn't get the Congressional Medal of Honor."

Although his campaign was on Kravitz's behalf, he has heard from many Jewish veterans throughout the country who read his letters, especially one published in The Jewish Veteran. It appears as if the apparent injustice done to Kravitz was not unique.

Josh Rogin of Wexler's office says it is impossible to know how many American-Jewish soldiers were denied the Congressional Medal of Honor due to prejudice. But he notes that a law similar to the one introduced last week was passed in 1996 on behalf of Asian Americans. Following a review of their records, 21 Asian-American veterans were granted the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But Libman finds it difficult to forget his friend's bravery --- and the men who survived because of his valor. "I just think about those men who lived because of Lenny and got married and had children and grandchildren," he says.

An exhibit, Hall of Heroes: American Jewish Recipients of the Medal of Honor, will open at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in May.

Aaron Leibel is a writer with Washington Jewish Week. Comment by clicking here.

© 2001 WJW