By: General Robert Magnus, USMC (Ret)
Freedom is the antithesis of tyranny. It is the exercise of individual rights within a legal system and culture that constrains government authority and the power of groups or individuals. During our country’s founding and to this day, American society continues to evolve and refine our concepts and laws defining freedom and the limits of authority. But it is our people’s Exodus from Egypt that represents the first international intervention in the name of human rights.
It is perhaps ironic that “freedom is not free.” Freedom requires more than obedience to laws. It requires continuous, conscious, and sometimes dangerous efforts to respect oneself, others, and protect the laws and way of life that sustains freedom. The writings of European philosophers of the 16th and 17th centuries helped shape the early American concepts about the rights of individuals and powers of government and religious authorities. These concepts were strongly influenced by English history as well as Hebrew, Greek, and Latin writings. The American search for the interrelationships of individuals, authority to the governed, and rule of law was plowing further into the essence of the Jewish experience in the Sinai.
Jews see Passover as a commemoration and celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, flight from Pharaoh’s army, redemption through the trials of two generations crossing desert wastelands, and dedication to G-d. The liberation from Egypt forced the tribes to rely on faith in G-d, their leaders and their determination to survive, free to exercise their religious observance and to reach the lands promised to Jacob and his people. The escape from the tyranny of slavery under imaginary pagan deities, including pharaohs who were worshiped as if they were gods, was not an easy choice. Starvation, hostile tribes, lack of water and shelter in the untracked wasteland ahead with a pursuing Egyptian army behind caused many Israelites to have second thoughts as they fled the harsh certainties of slavery into the new and terrifying prospects of life on their own in the desert. The Covenant at Mount Sinai was a commitment that the People of Israel made to G-d and His laws that defined human conduct and relationships. It was essentially our constitution, binding us individually and as a society to G-d and to each other.
Freedom was neither a gift from G-d to the Israelites, nor is it a gift to people today. It had to be continually earned and nurtured. It required real sacrifices in the known world and acceptance of individual and communal responsibilities to survive in the harsh unknown lands and times ahead. The pledges of faith to G-d did not guarantee safety. Effectively, the Exodus experience created a continuing bond between the children of Israel, then and now, a determination to survive terrors and enemies as well as freely and openly practice their faith.
In our generation, as warriors we have willingly accepted our roles as defenders of our society and legal system. This is in addition to our responsibilities as citizens and includes the obligations that our nation has undertaken to help protect allies and people whose existence is threatened by disasters and by criminals or forces that do not accept the international laws that protect nations and human rights.
America’s Jews have accepted such responsibilities in times of peace and war from our own beginnings in the War of Independence to the present times. This is noteworthy because Jews, like other minorities, were often treated harshly by fellow citizens and denied basic rights and opportunities under our laws. Although this article is not about heroism, here are some examples of Jews who made sacrifices in their time to protect the freedom of future generations:
Born in Poland in 1740, Haym Salomon joined the Sons of Liberty in New York after immigrating from England in 1775. While the American Revolution was heating up, he was imprisoned by the British for spying in 1776. He was pardoned after 18 months to serve as an interpreter for Hessian soldiers. Arrested again for espionage and sentenced to death in 1778, Solomon escaped to Philadelphia where he worked as a fundraiser and broker for Robert Morris, who was our Congress’s Superintendent of Finance. In 1781, General Washington desperately needed funds for the army but was told that no credit was available. Washington had said, “Send for Haym Salomon.” Haym Salomon then raised $20,000, which provided essential funds for the 1782 victory at Yorktown.
Born in Hungary in 1929, Tibor Rubin was a Holocaust survivor liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp by US Army soldiers. After immigrating to America in 1948, he volunteered for the US Army. In July 1950, he fought in several Korean War actions in the 8th Cavalry Regiment, First Cavalry Division, as it withdrew under the pressure of the invading North Korean Army. He was recommended four times for the Medal of Honor for single handedly defending a hill position, protecting his company’s retreat. Unfortunately, the officers who recommended his award were killed in action before signing the recommendations. In October 1950, he was wounded and captured by Chinese forces, along with survivors from his regiment. He spent 30 months as a POW, stealing food and caring for his fellow soldiers. Fifty five years later, President George W. Bush recognized Rubin’s uncommon valor and awarded him the Medal of Honor.
Born in Hungary in 1921, Lajos Lenovitz (Americanized as Lou Lenart) immigrated with his family to Pennsylvania, where they opened a small store. After high school, he enlisted as an infantryman in the US Marine Corps and volunteered for flight training. As an F4U Corsair pilot, he fought in the battle of Okinawa. Discharged from the Marine Corps, he learned that fourteen of his relatives had perished in Auschwitz. In 1948, he decided to volunteer to fly the Avia S-199 fighter for the Sherut Avir, the air service that became the Israel Air Force. At the beginning of Israel’s War of Independence, on May 29, 1948, he led a flight of four aircraft which attacked an Egyptian armored column, stopping what could have been a disastrous attack on Tel Aviv.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1945, Jack Jacobs became a Second Lieutenant in the US Army. He was a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, battalion executive officer in the 7th Infantry Division, and commander of the 4th Battalion, 10th Infantry Division, in Panama. In March 1968, while serving as an advisor to the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, First Lieutenant Jacobs was wounded several times. Under heavy enemy fire, he directed air strikes, assumed command of his Vietnam Army company, organized a defensive perimeter, and repeatedly led the evacuations of 14 US and South Korean soldiers wounded from exposed, fire-swept areas. In 1969, he received the Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon.
These extraordinary individuals volunteered to protect freedom and others by risking their lives. Regardless, whether we serve as uniformed warriors or in civilian roles, our responsibilities include defending our freedoms as well as the Constitution and laws which are the framework for our society and ways of life. Undefended, whether at home or overseas, liberty is a frail, vulnerable thing. It must be courageously protected.
Today, we remember and pass onto future generations the lesson learned by Israel’s escape from slavery: that freedom, once gained, must be ever guarded both by individuals and by society. As then-Governor Ronald Reagan said in 1967: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
We are the children of the generations of the Sinai experience. Our concepts of individual liberty and rights are clear and evident in the Preamble to our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The freedom of individuals and minorities from slavery has been contested by tyrants and enemies ever since. It has been successfully defended by those who came before us. We must ensure that future generations are ready, willing, and able to protect that legacy. That we must do.
Chag HaPesach Sameach!
General Magnus served as the 30th Assistant Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.
Originally published in the Pesach 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.