How a Pacifist Rabbi Came to Join the Marines on Iwo Jima

Dec. 31 2021

“In relation to the late war,” wrote George Orwell in 1949, “one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: ‘What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated?’” Such a question appears to have occurred to Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, who was the first Jewish chaplain to serve with the Marines in World War II. Jonathan Bratten reviews Gittelsohn’s memoir of his service, written just as the war was ending and recently published for the first time.

As a pacifist, Rabbi Gittelsohn was an unlikely chaplain, and, in fact, he cautioned the Jewish community against calling for U.S. entry into World War II—until Pearl Harbor. His dramatic change of heart did not happen overnight; it took eleven months of soul-searching for Gittelsohn to don the uniform of the U.S. Navy. Like any good scholar, he laid out the reasons for his change: pride in Jewish military service, worries over the fate of Jews during the war, a desire to be there for the service members who would need the comfort of religion in the darkest of places, and last—the need to silence his conscience. “And what are you doing about all this?” he asked himself day after day once the United States entered the war. Did Gittelsohn remain a pacifist? The best he offers his readers is this statement: “Our mistake as pacifists was that we held peace up as our God and forgot that peace can come only along with the rest.”

While Gittelsohn does write about combat and the suffering it brings, often in great detail, he is surprisingly focused on life. When these young men in the most difficult of life circumstances had no one else to turn to, there was the chaplain. Much of the book is devoted to vignettes about working with young marines to help improve their lives and show that they were not alone.

It is Gittelsohn’s frank self-awareness and candor that make his memoir so exceptional. He chides his readers toward the middle of the book for expecting a work on religion in uniform. “Religion is a part of life,” he tells us, “not apart from life.” He lived alongside his marines through the Battle of Iwo Jima.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish History, Jews in the military, Pacifism, World War II

Will America Invite Israel to Join Its Multinational Coalitions?

From the Korean War onward, the U.S. has rarely fought wars alone, but has instead led coalitions of various allied states. Israel stands out in that it has close military and diplomatic relations with Washington yet its forces have never been part of these coalitions—even in the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraqi missiles were raining down on its cities. The primary reason for its exclusion was the sensitivity of participating Arab and Muslim nations. But now that Jerusalem has diplomatic relations with several Arab countries and indeed regularly participates alongside them in U.S.-led joint military exercises, David Levy believes it may someday soon be asked to contribute to an American expedition.

It is unlikely that Israel would be expected by the U.S. to deploy the Golani [infantry] brigade or any other major army unit. Instead, Washington will likely solicit areas of IDF niche expertise. These include missile defense and special forces, two areas in which Israel is a world leader. The IDF has capabilities that it can share by providing trainers and observers. Naval and air support would also be expected as these assets are inherently deployable. Israel can also provide allies in foreign wars with intelligence and cyber-warfare support, much of which can be accomplished without the physical deployment of troops.

Jerusalem’s previous reasons for abstention from coalitions were legitimate. Since its independence, Israel has faced existential threats. Conventional Arab armies sought to eliminate the nascent state in 1948-49, 1967, and again in 1973. This danger remained ever-present until the 1978 signing of the Camp David Accords, which established peace between Egypt and Israel. Post-Camp David, the threats to Israel remain serious but are no longer existential. If Iran were to become a nuclear power, this would pose a new existential threat. Until then, Israel is relatively well secured.

Jerusalem’s new Arab allies would welcome its aid. Western capitals, especially Washington, should be expected to pursue Israel’s military assistance, and Jerusalem will have little choice but to acquiesce to the expeditionary expectation.

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Read more at BESA Center

More about: IDF, U.S. military, U.S.-Israel relationship