Mickey Marcus: Israel’s American General

After a distinguished career in military and public service to the United States, the 46-year-old Marcus wrote his name forever in the annals of Israeli history.

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David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus, a tough Brooklyn street kid, rose by virtue of his courage and intelligence to save Israel in 1948 and become it first general.

Born to immigrant parents in 1901, Marcus grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where, to defend himself against neighborhood bullies, he learned to box. His high school athletic and academic record earned him admission to West Point in 1920, where he graduated with impressive scores. After completing his required service, Marcus went to law school and spent most of the 1930’s as a Federal attorney in New York, helping bring “Lucky” Luciano to justice. As a reward, Mayor LaGuardia named Marcus Commissioner of Corrections for New York City.

Convinced that war was imminent, in 1940 Marcus voluntarily went back into uniform, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, served as executive officer to the military governor of Hawaii. In 1942, he was named commander of the Army’s new Ranger school, which developed innovative tactics for jungle fighting. Sent to England on the eve of D-Day, he decided to voluntarily parachute into Normandy with the troops of the 101st Airborne Division. Marcus helped draw up the surrender terms for Italy and Germany and became part of the occupation government in Berlin. Admiring colleagues identified him has one of the War Department’s “best brains.” He had a bright future ahead of him as a member of the Army.

In 1944, Marcus’s consciousness of himself as a Jew took a dramatic turn when he was put in charge of planning how to sustain the starving millions in the regions liberated by the Allied invasion of Europe. A major part of his responsibilities involved clearing out the Nazi death camps. Here, Marcus met the survivors of Nazi atrocities and saw the piles of uncounted Jewish corpses in Europe’s death camps. Marcus was subsequently named chief of the War Crimes Division with responsibility for planning the procedures used at the Nuremberg trials. Through these experiences, Marcus came to understand the depths of European anti-Semitism. Though never previously a Zionist, Marcus became convinced that the only hope for European Jewry lay in a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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