The State of Israel and its citizens this week remember their fallen soldiers and pay homage to those who sacrificed it all for the continued independence of the one and only Jewish state. The amount of wars, military operations and terrorist attacks provide all too many heroic stories of Israel Defense Forces’ soldiers whose courage on the battlefield saved many, but cost them their lives.
Among them is the story of Joseph Levi, short and seemingly uneventful, yet whose impact had a significant effect on future U.S.-Israel relations.
U.S. Gen. Alexander Haig was known as a great friend of Israel. As Secretary of State, during President Ronald Reagan’s first two years in office, he was the only one who defended Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. He went even further, saying not only should the United States refrain from criticizing Israel, it should thank Israel for taking action. In front of a Cabinet more than ready to condemn Israel, Haig said to Reagan, “One day you will get on your knees and thank Israel for doing that [attacking Iraq].”
Whether that scenario ever happened is unknown, however, 10 year later after the United States defeated Iraq in the Gulf war, U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney made two phone calls. He writes in his memoirs that he called Reagan to thank him for building up the U.S. armed forces throughout the 1980s, and he called David Ivri, commander of the Israeli Air Force during the bombing of Osirak, to thank him for making the war much easier for America.
Thus, it was only natural that Alexander Haig’s resignation as Secretary of State worried Israel’s friends. Moreover, his replacement was George Schultz, an executive at Bechtel—an oil company associated with various Arab countries—and thus it seemed Israel would be at odds again with the State Department. However, Schultz turned out to be a friend.
Many people recall events in their lives that significantly impacted who they are and how they think. Sometimes, these events can change a person’s opinion from one extreme to the other. Schultz, during an event at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2007, told a story about a young Israeli soldier who had a deep influence on him, exemplifying how one man’s actions can influence a country’s policy.
“Here I am in 1967, dean at the University of Chicago. As dean, after the end of each quarter, I held a party at my house for students who were at the top that made the dean’s list; they could bring their girlfriends or wives. And always, there was a young man there named Joseph Levy; he was on the dean’s list all the time. He wasn’t just smart, he was savvy; you could just see that this young man had it all, just had a way about him, wonderful!
“And I had hardly heard that the Six-Day war started when I heard that Joseph Levy had been killed. He had somehow understood what was happening; he went right back to Israel; he was a tank commander, and he was killed. I remember it so well, and it made a deep impact on me because I said to myself, ‘What kind of a country must this be that can command that kind of loyalty from such a talented young man?’ I think probably a lot of people in the U.S. had experiences at that time, and they stay with you and have an impact on your feelings.”
Some try to influence events and processes through speaking, writing and various types of activism. And sometimes, the greatest impact is made by the person who doesn’t try to influence, but rather lives faithfully according to his ideals and values.
Gideon Israel is the director of the Jerusalem Washington Center.