Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner on the set of "Cast a Giant Shadow," the film made about Mickey Marcus in 1965. (Israel GPO)

Mickey Marcus: Israel’s American General

After a distinguished career in military and public service to the United States, Marcus helped Israel win its War of Independence.

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 1930s as a federal attorney in New York, helping bring mobster “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.

In 1947, Marcus returned to civilian life. A few months later, the United Nations authorized the partition of Palestine and the eventual creation of a Jewish state. Within days, David Ben Gurion asked Marcus to recruit an American officer to serve as military adviser to Israel. Failing in his attempts to recruit one of his friends, Marcus decided to volunteer himself. The U.S. War Department consented reluctantly, with the conditions that Marcus not use his own name and rank and disguise his American military record.

In January 1948, one “Michael Stone” arrived in Tel Aviv to assume command of the Israeli forces and confront an apparently impossible situation. The older, widely separated Jewish settlements in Palestine were surrounded by a sea of hostile Arabs surrounded the newly created Jewish settlements. Israel would have seemingly indefensible borders. Its military had no air power, a few tanks and ancient artillery pieces, and almost no arms or ammunition. The Haganah and Irgun were effective underground organizations, but had no experience as a regular national army. The Israelis faced well-supplied Arab armies that were determined to drive the Jews into the sea. The pro-Arab British administration in Palestine tried to prevent the Israelis from receiving imported military supplies.

Undaunted, Marcus designed a command structure for Israel’s new army and wrote training manuals, adapting his experience from Ranger school to the Haganah’s special needs. He identified Israel’s weakest points as the scattered settlements in the Negev and the new quarter of Jerusalem. When Israel declared independence and the Arab armies attacked in May 1948, Israel was ready, thanks to Marcus. His hit-and-run tactics kept the Egyptian army in the Negev off balance. When the Jewish section of Jerusalem was about to fall, Marcus ordered the construction of a road to bring men and equipment to break the Arab siege just days before the United Nations negotiated a cease fire. Israel had withstood the Arab assault with its borders virtually intact. In gratitude, Prime Minister Ben Gurion named Mickey Marcus Lieutenant General, the first general in the army of Israel in nearly 2,000 years.

Tragically, Marcus did not live to see the peace. Six hours before the cease-fire began, while headquartered in the village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, Marcus could not sleep. He walked beyond the guarded perimeter wrapped in his bed sheet. A Jewish sentry saw a white-robed figure approaching and not understanding Marcus’s English response to his challenge, fired a single, fatal shot. Marcus’s body was flown to the United States for burial at West Point, where his tombstone identifies him as “A Soldier for All Humanity.” Hollywood would later immortalize Marcus (played by Jewish movie star Kirk Douglas) in a movie, Cast a Giant Shadow. Ben-Gurion put it simply: “He was the best man we had.”

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