Last week I had the privilege and honor to be invited to give a lecture about the Israel Navy to a very interesting group of fellow immigrants from the US and Canada at the offices of the American and Canadians Immigrant organization in Jerusalem. This, one of the foremost and oldest immigrant aid organizations in Israel, has a stellar reputation for assisting new immigrants (olim chadashim) in their absorption and integration into the life cycle of their homeland. The staff and volunteers at AACI are dedicated and honorable people who work tirelessly for the benefit of their clients and all praise is due them for their indefatigable spirit and elan.
The program at the AACI in which I participated is one of weekly lectures of interest that brings many topics and speakers that serve to enlighten and entertain the members . I was asked to present a short history of the Israel Navy and through this venue, I was lucky to meet several gentleman who had served in various branches of the US military during World War Two , Korea and the Cold War. All of these gentlemen were in their 80s and one was about to celebrate his 95th birthday.
One of these delightful guys was in the US Navy and had arrived at Pearl Harbor only 3 months after the devastating Japanese surprise attack on Dec. 7th, 1941. He described to me the chaos that still reigned over that base when he arrived. The hospitals were still full of badly wounded servicemen, bodies were still being searched for in the muddy waters of the harbor, the battleships that had been sunk or beached were still, in some cases, smoldering wrecks and one of his recollections was speaking with some of his fellow sailors who said that they were expecting a Japanese invasion and that they were ill-equipped to repel it if one had occurred. The Hawaiian Islands, he was told, would have, indeed, ended up in Japanese hands.
Another gentleman had served with the United States Marine Corps in the Korean War (entitled a UN police action) as a radar technician. The fact that he originally hailed from my beloved Bronx, made me very happy as he knew many of the neighborhoods that I had known as a kid. Anyway, he told me that many of the men he served with had never ever met a Jew before and one of his problems was that, as a youth, he was raised in a kosher home and having to eat foods that were, in his words, “indescribable to a Jewish boy from the Bronx,” was a challenge that he had to make peace with-even eating his first slice of bacon! However, he did say that even these farm and country boys from the Deep South, some of whom couldn’t read a comic book could still, “shoot the eyes out a skunk at 200 feet.”
The third veteran served with the US Air Force during the mid to late 1950s when the horrible uncertainty of nuclear war with the former Soviet Union kept everyone in one state of alert or another. He told me that after his service, he made aliyah, met his wife (which pleased his Baltimore mother greatly) and eventually served in the IDF during the Six Day War on the Jordanian front. He recalled the horrific shelling of the city by Jordanian artillery and that he narrowly escaped death when a shell hit directly in front of the car he was in on Jabotinsky Street.
My point here is to demonstrate that as proud as we are of the courage and dignity of the IDF, these older men, who served with honor and distinction in the armed forces of the United States, deserve our gratitude and thanks, for many of these men serving during World War Two and afterwards, were of the first generation born too Jewish immigrants to America. They faced challenges of being thrown into a vastly different society from which they had been raised and they accomplished many great feats of valor and heroism that brought pride to their families and honor to their country.
Over 500,000 Jewish men and women served in all branches of the American military during World War Two-the largest, single percentage of any ethnic group at the time. Among them was my late father, Alex, Z”l, who served in the US Coast Guard and saw action in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Salerno and D-Day as a pharmacist mate on the USS General Richardson, a troop transport that carried soldiers from the US to the African and European battlefronts and brought back dead and wounded to American shores.
American Jews have served in all of that country’s conflicts from the Revolutionary War where Major Samuel Franks served as George Washington’s Aide-de-Camp, in the War of 1812 where Commodore Uriah Philips Levy served as the first commander in chief of the US Navy and both the Union and Confederate armies had Jewish generals on both sides and the Confederate Army was the first to have Jewish chaplains and actually gave southern Jewish soldiers leave for the High Holy Days. During World War One, Jewish soldiers served in the trenches with the 69th New York, later to become part of the famous Rainbow Division and the only General officer of World War Two to be killed in combat was Gen Maurice Rose of the Third Armored Division. In Vietnam, Desert Storm and presently in all branches of the American military, Jewish men and women are serving proudly.
These facts put to bed the canard that Jews cannot be soldiers which has been an anti-Semitic rant for centuries. The history of Jewish gallantry in battle, from ancient times to today, wherever they have served, they have done so heroically. Our own Israel Defense Force has covered itself with glory. You know, it was always a given that a Jewish state would be a foundation of great financial acumen and skills-who would have thought that Jews could be great soldiers, sailors, pilots and commandos? In Israel, we have restored the Hebrew warriors of Israel to their rightful place in the pantheon of armed struggle.
It is only fitting that we, former Jews from the United States, living today in our homeland, remember these men and women, some of them our parents and grandparents, who faced the horrors of battle on many fronts during that cataclysmic war that ended 70 years ago. Perhaps their heroism is a beacon for our youngsters here, today who wear the uniform of the IDF.
On a personal note, whenever I have the opportunity to shake the hand of an Israeli in uniform, give up my seat on a bus or train to one of them encumbered with a huge pack, or simply say “Todah rabah ” for their sacrifice, honors, for me, the memory of my father, and two of my uncles who never came home from their battlefronts. All of us. not just now, but for always, should salute those of our people who served their respective flags and who, today, serve to preserve, defend and protect our beloved State of Israel.