In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human. — Rabbi Hillel the Elder
Seventy years ago (to the day in fact), thirty-five Israeli soldiers made a fateful decision. On January 15, 1948, the Mountain Platoon of the Palmach, one of the forerunners of the modern Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), received word that Kibbutz Gush Etzion near Jerusalem had been attacked by Arab forces. They decided to leave immediately, as the cover of dark would mask their movement to the beleaguered kibbutz. As they made their way through the Judean hill country in the early morning hours, they crossed paths with a young, unarmed Arab shepherd boy. They quickly detained him. They knew he would slow them down if they took him along with them. They had two choices: (1) kill him right then and there to ensure that they would go undetected but have the blood of a child who had not demonstrated any proof of hostile intent on their hands, or (2) let him go and pray he didn’t tell any of the myriad Arab units in the area about them. Ultimately, they chose the latter, let the youth go, and continued on with their mission. Sadly, their suspicions were right. The young shepherd ran right to a nearby Arab militia camp and raised the alarm. Within hours, hundreds upon hundreds of Arab irregulars fell upon the Mountain Platoon. The thirty-five Palmach Soldiers were butchered to a man, many of their bodies desecrated beyond recognition against all rules of civilized warfare and moral behavior.
For members of the United States military, this episode sounds hauntingly familiar to Operation Red Wings and the immortal sacrifice of Navy SEAL LT Michael P. Murphy in Afghanistan in 2005. Murphy and three SEALs were on a reconnaissance mission when they were discovered by a small group of unarmed Afghan shepherds. Letting them go, the shepherds quickly informed a local insurgent warlord and his sizable militia. After a heroic gunfight, Murphy, Petty Officer Matthew Axelson, and Petty Officer Danny Dietz were killed along with a sixteen-man quick reaction force sent to rescue them. Only Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell survived.
We always say “this is how I’d act if it were me,” “this is what I’d do if I were there,” and “that’s a no-brainer” when confronted by theoretical ethical issues. It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback when we look at history and moral questions. However, when you’re actually on that battlefield, on that gridiron, arena, or basketball court, or in that courtroom or surgical suite, theory goes out the window and real life takes over. The Palmachniks of 1948 and the SEALs of Operation Red Wings lived, fought, and ultimately died al kiddush HaShem by a moral code of honor. To them life wasn’t worth living if it couldn’t be lived out ethically.
The deeds of the thirty-five Palmachniks in 1948 and the Navy SEALs of Operation Red Wings were never meant to be relegated to the pages of history. Rather, their moral behavior and ultimate sacrifices are a reminder and benchmark of what it truly means to be Jewish, Israeli, American, and even human. This year I have had the honor of teaching two classes — “Jewish Strength” and “Jewish Resiliency” — at the Kulanu Reform High School in Cincinnati. I am humbled that Kulanu’s director Rabbi David Burstein has encouraged me to pass on the legacy and values of these Jewish and American heroes to our next generation. May the spirit of Murphy, Axelson, Dietz, and the thirty-five inspire these adolescents to lead lives of integrity, selfless service, and devotion to others.
Aaron Rozovsky is a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR who will be ordained in June, a veteran of the War in Afghanistan, and an Army National Guard Chaplain with the rank of captain. This year he is serving as a rabbinic fellow at Kulanu Reform High School in Cincinnati.