A Fighting Spirit
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
Let’s examine the life of Mickey Marcus, a proud Jewish U.S. hero who became a leader of Israel’s armed forces during the 1948 War of Independence. Marcus made such a huge impact during his brief tenure in Israel that streets in several cities, the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve David and Kibbutz Mishmar David were named for him.
David – nicknamed Mickey – Marcus was born in 1901. Growing up in New York City, Mickey learned to box at a young age to protect himself from the neighborhood thugs. That moxie became Marcus’ hallmark and fueled him throughout his remarkable life.
Mickey attended West Point Military Academy and was a strong student athlete, where he won the Intercollegiate Welterweight title. After completing active service, Marcus studied law and, as a government lawyer, crusaded against the mafia and put famous underworld leaders behind bars. Marcus quickly moved up the ladder and became New York City’s Commissioner of Corrections.
During and after World War II, Marcus held numerous prominent positions in the U.S. Armed Forces. After an illustrious thirteen-year army career in which he rose to the rank of colonel, Mickey pledged to his wife that he would finally settle down.
That promise was quickly broken. Shortly after the November 29, 1947 United Nations vote to partition Palestine, the Israeli provisional government beseeched Marcus to help them identify and hire senior military officers. He contacted many high-ranking retired officers, but everyone refused to assist, fearing that, without government permission, they may lose their army status and U.S. citizenship. Mickey, however, had no such qualms: as the chief of the War Crimes Division, he witnessed firsthand the piles of Jewish corpses in Dachau and other death camps, and understood how urgently a Jewish homeland was needed.
The U.S. War Department granted Marcus permission to accept the assignment, provided he not use his own name or rank. Arriving in Tel Aviv in January 1948 under the pseudonym Michael Stone, Mickey embraced the herculean task of molding a tiny, poorly-armed military into a powerful force capable of withstanding an all-out onslaught from six well-equipped invading Arab armies.
Mickey loved the Israeli solders’ intelligence, ability to improvise, and self-sacrificing spirit - as he probably saw a lot of himself in these young fighters. Notwithstanding his limited Hebrew vocabulary, Marcus immediately gained the soldiers’ confidence and loyalty.
Marcus helped create organizational structure with a streamlined chain of command, emphasizing teamwork between the groups that had, until now, been separate combat organizations. His biggest contribution, though, was to persuade the army to attack the enemy rather than adopt a defensive strategy.
On May 14, 1948, the day he declared the establishment of the State of Israel, Ben Gurion wrote in his diary, "...the whole world was sure that within ten days .... not a soul would be alive in Israel." However, when the Arab armies attacked, Israel was ready, thanks in great part to Marcus’ planning. In the Negev, his hit-and-run tactics, together with equal doses of guile and guts, kept the Egyptian army and air force off balance and paved the way for a miraculous victory.
On May 28th, Ben Gurion honored Marcus with the rank of Aluf, equivalent to Lieutenant General. He was the first general in Jewish history since Judah Maccabee two thousand years earlier.
The next order of business was rescuing Jerusalem. When the Jewish section of Jerusalem was about to fall and the only supply route to Jerusalem became impassable, Marcus devised an ingenious plan to build a bypass road on a mountain trail. The Burma Road transported additional men, equipment and food, which broke the Arab siege just days before the United Nations negotiated a cease fire.
Tragically, Mickey was killed in the early hours of June 11th, just six hours before the cease-fire went into effect. Restless and unable to sleep, Mickey, wrapped in his bed sheet, walked beyond the guarded perimeter. Mistaking the white-robed figure as the enemy, a Jewish soldier fatally shot Marcus.
Prime Minister Ben Gurion summed up Marcus’ influence in a telegram informing Israel’s NY delegation of his demise: “… AS A MAN AND A COMMANDER HE ENDEARED HIMSELF TO ALL THOSE WHO CAME INTO PERSONAL CONTACT WITH HIM AND HIS FAME SPREAD THROUGH ALL THE RANKS OF OUR ARMED FORCES STOP THEY ALL ADMIRED HIS SUPERB COURAGE HIS REMARKABLE MILITARY INTUITION … HIS UNLIMITED DEVOTION AND HIS NATURAL SPONTANEOUS HUMAN FELLOWSHIP STOP… HIS NAME WILL LIVE FOREVER IN THE ANNALS OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE … “
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.