June 22 marks the 73rd anniversary of the G.I. Bill, the first major piece of legislation dealing with the post-World War II challenges to come.
With veterans coming home to fully staffed factories, the G.I. Bill, officially known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, helped prevent another recession by providing education and housing opportunities to veterans, enabling them to create jobs and businesses in America’s new booming economy.
The Jewish effort behind the G.I. Bill is little known to the public.
In 1944, large groups of World War II veterans were already living in the United States — discharged for either disability or family reasons. A column in The Jewish Veteran said: “Vets are being discharged more than 8,000 a week. More than a million have been honorably discharged since Pearl Harbor.”
Many of these veterans brought with them postwar challenges similar to the war-related disabilities we see in today’s veterans.
With over 50,000 Jewish World War II veterans discharged in 1944, the Jewish War Veterans of the United States was one of the first veterans organizations to anticipate the needs of the returning soldiers.
The national headquarters had staff working on job placement, vocational training and treatment for veterans with disabilities. It was no surprise that when the American Legion announced its “GI Bill of Rights,” JWV was one of the first organizations to join in supporting the legislation.
JWV was most effective in its campaigning and behind-the-scenes work with members of Congress.
Not only did JWV leaders meet with congressional leaders, but the organization also started a vigorous phone and letter campaign after the national commander, Archie Greenberg, called the membership to action: “JWV favors S. 1767, the so-called GI Bill of Rights, for World War II Veterans sponsored by the American Legion and VFW. Contact your local congressman immediately and urge them to support this vital bill for veterans. Send National copies of all congressional letters.”
JWV is credited with starting the first letter-writing campaign. “After a while, all the other (veterans) organizations started picking it up,” said Jerry Cohen, a past national JWV commander. The campaign was so successful that the G.I. Bill passed in the next two months.
The director of the American Legion’s National Rehabilitation Committee recognized the JWV in an article, saying, “The American Legion is indebted for many contributions in men and ideas — namely, the Jewish War Veterans of the United States!”
JWV’s greatest contribution to the G.I. Bill was aggressive campaigning for racial and religious protections in the bill, a result of a vast concern among American Jewry of a resurgence of anti-Semitism after the war.
Those concerns mainly stemmed from published newspaper columns that blamed American Jews for the United States’ involvement in World War II. Not only did JWV want to show that American Jews shared in the burden of the fighting, but it also gave credit to other minorities, particularly members of the African-American community.
The G.I. Bill entitlements opened jobs and educational opportunities that would otherwise not be available to those groups.
None of this would not have been possible without the vision and direction of Greenberg. As the national commander, he helped safeguard protections for veterans in the future.
As the debate continues around the G.I. Bill and veteran benefits, it is nice to reminisce about where we started, but we also need to look forward to all the work that must be done.
JWV National Commander Carl Singer has made strengthening the G.I. Bill one of his priorities this year. He and fellow JWV members met with congressional representatives in February to talk about their views on the G.I. Bill.
“Some schools have been taking advantage of veterans with the G.I. Bill because someone else is paying the bill. We need to provide them with guidance on good schools to pick,” Singer said. JWV also co-signed a letter with 37 other veterans organizations, urging members of Congress to take action on modernizing the G.I. Bill.
“JWV exists for our soldiers and veterans. Whether it’s visiting a single veteran at a nursing facility or going to Congress to speak on behalf of all veterans, we are there, and we will be there,” Singer said. “It is vital that we get our message out — not for recognition, but for support from the many people and organizations that endorse our mission.”