I chose the theme of Jewish fighters because I got tired of listening to stories of Jews being persecuted and being the under-dogs. I selected 3 men who were American Jews, who made significant contributions to their country. They all were impressive and victorious – in their own way.
First, Haym Solomon. If it wasn’t for him, we would all be talking with British accents, so which war did he help? The American revolutionary war.
Haym Solomon came to this country as an immigrant from Poland. America was the first country in the modern era to give Jews equality. Much better than Poland. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War there were only about 1,000 to 2,500 Jews in America. That’s about 1/10th of 1% of the population. They were concentrated in a handful of cities, and were educated and influential. When the British arrived they arrested Haym as a spy. Very soon after, the British recognized that Haym’s ability to speak 6 languages would be useful to them, so they freed him and used him as a translator instead. Around this time there were German-speaking Hessian soldiers working with the British. Haym spoke to these soldiers in secret and convinced many to leave the British Army and, with the promise of free land, fight for the Revolution. Hmm – maybe the original British theory that he was a spy wasn’t so far wrong after all. He was forced to flee and went to Philadelphia where he became quite wealthy. Philadelphia, as you all remember, was essentially the capitol of the country and Congress met there. Yet these were early days in a new country and the government didn’t always pay the Congressmen. Haym Solomon often paid them. He continued in his generous role by helping to finance the war. But we aren’t talking $50 and a fancy hat; we are looking at over $600,000.
Legend has it that George Washington asked Haym Solomon on Yom Kippur to help finance his raggedly clothed army. A religious Jew, he realized that serving his country was part of his religion, and he stopped the service until he collected enough pledges of support from the congregants, and THEN carried on with the service.
“Give till it hurts” – Haym Solomon gave so much that when he died at 45, he was broke.
Even back in 1780, the government couldn’t repay people and today the money he provided is worth today approximately; hold on to your chair now, over $39 billion dollars. His descendants tried to recover it in recent years – but were unsuccessful. Our government did make a stamp in his honor though. And there is a monument in Chicago, with him standing next to George Washington. (Others would argue it is a statue of George Washington, with some other dude next to him… but we know the real story).
By the way – one piece of Jewish-Revolutionary trivia I learnt during my research is that the Liberty Bell is inscribed with this quote: “"Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof". It is significant that a verse from the Torah appears on this American icon since Jews played an important role in the Revolutionary War. What do we learn from Haym Solomon ? That you can help win a war without picking up a sword or gun. And that you can use your brains, intellect and other resources to achieve great things.
Next we move from a giver, to a man who wouldn’t give up.
Uriah P. Levy was the first Jewish Commodore of the United States Navy and a veteran of the War of 1812. But a Jewish sailor ?? Oy Gevalt !
There is a link between Haym Solomon and Uriah Levy – and that is George Washington. Yes, the same General that Haym helped fund, was a guest at the wedding of Uriah Levy's maternal grandparents. Who knew ?
Uriah started his naval career when he was 10 and ran away to be a cabin boy, returned for his barmitzvah as promised and went away again at 14. At the start of the 1812 war, he was the assistant sailing master of the Argus. This ship sank or captured over 20 British ships. When he took the last captured ship back to Philadelphia for the new United States navy to recycle it for their navy, the British captured him after a battle at sea. He was 22 and jailed in England till the end of the war of 1812. He returned to America and was promoted to Lieutenant in recognition for his bravery. But others were jealous and angry that a Jew should have such a rank. One time, a fellow officer made an anti-Semitic remark to him, and Uriah challenged him to a duel. The other officer was killed, and Uriah was court-martialed. In fact, he was court-martialed and dismissed from the Navy a total of 6 times, but each time he was cleared and reinstated. He must have really loved the Navy, because he didn’t get any promotions for 20 years. But he helped get rid of piracy in the Caribbean, slave trading in Honduras so he did eventually become a captain. He fought against a common but cruel punishment he had seen – flogging. Thanks to his efforts though, Congress abolished corporal punishment in the Navy. What a huge accomplishment! Apparently some of his fellow officers didn’t think so, and a few years later he was discharged from the navy. Why? Because he spoke out against this inhuman punishment and because he was Jewish. Uriah did what anybody would do – he went public, and demanded that his case be reviewed. After the review, he was once more exonerated, reinstated as captain and a couple of years after that, achieved the highest rank in the Navy – Commodore.
Uriah Levy loved his country so much, and had such admiration for Thomas Jefferson, that he commissioned a statue of Jefferson for the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. This is the only statue provided for by private funds. He then purchased Monticello – Jefferson’s former estate and renovated it with the goal of opening it up for visitors. And when he died, he left $300,000 to the Federal Government. A remarkable officer and a generous citizen.
By the way, last year I visited the Naval Academy and saw his ceremonial sword and the beautiful chapel that is named in his honor.
Uriah Levy was a Jew who was a fighter – not just in the military sense, but also a fighter for his own religious identity and for the rights of other sailors. He never gave up and his perseverance paid off. A destroyer named in his honor served with distinction in WW2 - and in fact hosted the surrender ceremonies of the Japanese navy. And this is the connection to my 3rd selection.
During World War 2, 550,000 men and women of Jewish faith served in every branch of the armed forces of the United States. Twenty-two Jews attained senior rank in the armed forces — 18 were generals, 6 were major generals, 12 were brigadier generals,1 was vice admiral, 2 were rear admirals, and 1 was a commodore.
Samuel A. Goldblith was a 2nd Lieutenant (or ‘left-enant’ as they say in England) in the US Army during World War 2. He was a food scientist and which proves my theory that Jews and food go together hand in hand. I think this guy was a little odd because he studied food. Anyway, he was captured by the Japanese in the Philippines, and was forced to march in the infamous Bataan Death March where 10,000 POWs died. Whilst he was in the detainment camp he continued his studies of diet and malnutrition. If you were starving and in his place, would you:
a. Try to eat the guy next to you while he’s asleep
b. Draw pictures of food on the wall
c. Do your job which you had before you were captured
d. Get into the fetal position and cry?
Well, he chose(c). As a food scientist, he studied many diseases such as Vitamin A deficiency and beri-beri. He used his knowledge of botany and chemistry to help save his own life and the lives of his men by squeezing the juice out of grass to get vitamins, for example. He also figured out that he could use iodine from his medical kit to clean the dirty water he had to drink. Goldblith was awarded two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star for his military service. But the story doesn’t end there. He went back to MIT as a professor and worked on food technology for the space program, such as freeze-dried foods -. I’ve tried freeze-dried ice-cream and I’ve got to tell you that it’s not that great. However, there are no “Mr, Softee” trucks in space, so it’s better than nothing.
If you had endured terrible conditions under the Japanese for 3 years, how friendly would you be to them afterwards ? It wasn’t easy, I’m sure. Samuel’s first graduate student was a Japanese man which proved to be a way for him to recover from his bitterness of the war. This student was Yaichi Ayukawa, whose father founded Nissan. Goldblith wrote in one of his books:
"It's not so much a matter of forgiveness. It's whether you look to the past or you look to the future. The difference is, if you look to the past, it's hate, and that brings on war. If you look to the future, it's love, and that brings on peace." How come more people don’t get this ?
In 1984, in recognition of his contribution to the advancement of food science and to the promotion of friendly relations between the US and Japan, Goldblith received the Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor of Japan. He was only the second non-Japanese person to receive this high honor.
Samuel Goldblith used his knowledge and training to help his comrades survive, and then went on afterwards to help strengthen the peace. He wasted no time on hate.
Yes – there have been notable modern battles fought by Jews with weapons too. The Hagganah and Irgun fought the British (again with the British) to help form the State of Israel. I could talk for hours on their overall bravery and heroism of those people. Instead, I just chose to focus on 3 men.
What is interesting to me is that none of the 3 people I’ve mentioned so far picked up weapons in their fights to help others – they used their perseverance, intellect and their ability to lead to make positive changes. There is a lesson to be learnt here, and that is to win a battle or a war you need to be dedicated, committed but not necessarily violent. Much can be, and has been, accomplished by better means.