Speech to Jewish War Veterans of the USA Post 180, Jerusalem

Memorial Day Luncheon, 31 May 1993
First, I want to thank you for inviting me to speak at the Jewish War Veterans Memorial Day luncheon. It is a great honor to have the opportunity to meet you, especially on this day.
Dan suggested that my topic be the question of what motivated me to write my book, Saigon to Jerusalem. But in thinking about that, I’m not sure that my motivation is really the most interesting thing I can talk about.
I will begin by saying a little bit about myself and my background. I’d like to speak also, in very general terms, about the book I wrote.
People often ask me how I came upon the idea of writing about Jewish Vietnam war veterans who came to Israel, so I’d like to comment on that as well.

The question also comes up, sometimes – how did I find the Vietnam veterans. And how did I know that the men I interviewed really were Vietnam vets and that their stories are true?
I’ll also say a few words about veterans who refused to be interviewed, and about others who opened their hearts to me and poured out what they had previously kept inside.
And how many Vietnam veterans are there in Israel? I’ll try to answer that as well, though I can tell you right now that I really don’t know.
I’d like to tell you about some of the things that I learned, though this can only be a small sample, otherwise I’d just stand up here and read to you from my book.
I’ll talk about the importance of their story, the story of Israel’s Vietnam veterans, though I think that this audience probably understands that better than most.
And finally, I’m going to end on a note of real chutzpah. I intend to tell you what I think the Jewish War Veterans Post 180 should be doing about all this.
Who I Am
I should start off by saying that I am not a Jewish War Veteran of the U.S.A. In fact, I am not even a Jewish War Veteran of Israel, unless you count the Intifada as a war. I do. I’ve served in Jenin and Tubas, in Bethlehem and the Daheysha refugee camp, in Kalkilya and starting next Tuesday, 32 days in the Gaza strip, in Rafiah. So my only claim to military service is some eight years of duty as an Israeli army reservist, where I’ve risen to the esteemed rank of corporal, and where I serve in an artillery unit.
I was born in New York City ten years after the end of the second world war. My father was a Jewish War Veteran of the U.S.A., serving as a medic in the Pacific theater. He was wounded on the beaches of the Philippines and was decorated with a bronze star for valor which I keep to this day in my home in Israel. By the time I was draft age, the draft had ended and the peace agreement ending the Vietnam war had been signed.
At the time the Vietnam war was raging, I was an activist in the anti-war movement. In America today, it’s fashionable to say this. President Clinton is proud that he ducked military service. I am not proud that I protested against the Vietnam war.
By 1972, as the war was winding down, I began for the first time (I was still quite young) to read about it and to think about it. I joined the youth section of the Socialist Party, which had for many years been headed up by Norman Thomas. And that Party, strangely enough, was deeply divided over the issue of the Vietnam war. There were actually socialists, even Marxists, who were saying: Communist totalitarianism must be resisted, even if it means fighting wars. I was hearing for the first time the argument that the corrupt, authoritarian regime in Saigon was vastly preferable to the efficient, ruthless Communist regime in Hanoi.
And I have to admit that by the time the war ended in 1975, I was genuinely saddened to see the collapse of any possibility for freedom and democracy in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Cambodian Holocaust which followed the Communist victory�and Holocaust is an appropriate word here, I think�only confirmed my fears. So looking back it, no, I am not proud that I carried the Viet Cong flag in student protest parades and that I chanted “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh” with the others. I was wrong and we were wrong.
I came on aliyah in early 1981 and have been a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor, which is a largely American kibbutz of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, ever since. There I work part of my time as a computer programmer in our factory, which produces wire and cables, and part of my time as a journalist and author.
Here in Israel I’ve been politically active just as I was in the U.S. I’ve served as a member of the central committee of the Mapam party and I’m a rank-and-file member of the Peace Now movement. I think one of the really attractive things about Israel is that at the end of every Peace Now demonstration I’ve ever attended, even when our criticism of the government was sharp and severe, the whole crowd stands at attention and sings “Hatikva.” There are Israeli flags on the stage and Israeli flags in the hands of demonstrators. In America, in the sixties, we burned the national flag and no one�no one�ever sang the national anthem at a peace demonstration. I hope you understand that whatever your own thoughts and feelings about the American peace movement of the sixties and the Israeli peace movement of the nineties, they are not the same thing, and the differences are striking and profound.
What the book is about
Saigon to Jerusalem is, simply, a series of interviews I conducted in 1990 with nineteen American Jewish veterans of the Vietnam war who have permanently settled in Israel. I should tell you that I was not planning exactly on that formula when I began the book.
I would have liked very much to find, for example, an Australian Vietnam veteran who had settled here, but despite the great help of the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv�and they were much more helpful than the American embassy�the closest I came was an Israeli who had claimed to serve for a couple of weeks with Australian forces. I decided not to interview him.
I was also not confining myself to Jews. I thought that if I could find, for example, a Vietnam veteran from among the Black Hebrews in Dimona, or from among the Vietnamese boat people who Menachem Begin brought here in 1978, that would have been an interesting addition. But despite efforts in both directions, I was unsuccessful.
I also wanted to interview both men and women, to find representatives of the many thousands of women veterans of the Vietnam war who served as nurses and in other positions. I was not successful with that as well.
So what I came up with was a collection of interviews with nineteen American Jewish men. And the interviews cover their whole experiences from childhood, through the Vietnam war, their return to the States, and their aliyah to Israel. The men came from nearly all the services� army, navy and marines; they served throughout the Vietnam war, from its very beginning in 1965 right up until the early 1970s when the American forces began to withdraw.
When I was looking for a publisher, the one I found�McFarland and Company of Jefferson, North Carolina�publishers who had never gone near a Jewish subject but had an excellent backlist of Vietnam memoirs, they told me: put the emphasis on the “Saigon to Jerusalem” theme. Make the connection between the war experience and the decision to come live in Israel. So I did. And that is really what the book is all about.
How I Came Upon the Idea
People ask me, where did you get this idea? And that’s an easy question to answer. Where? In the shower, of course. The shower is one of the very best places to get ideas. Ask any writer.
But I guess the point of the question isn’t really geography; it’s psychology. Where in my own mind and memories did the idea come from?
I can point to a couple of things.
First, the Vietnam war was the central event in the lives of Americans of my generation. Period. To this day that is true. I recently heard a commentator on television talking about President Clinton’s hesitation to use American troops to end the genocide in Bosnia. And he was explaining the role of the Vietnam war�the Vietnam trauma�in the process. Clinton, as President, does not intend to become embroiled in the same kind of war that he avoided serving in while a student at Oxford.
Second, I have been doing a lot of reading on the Vietnam war in recent years. There are a lot of good books out there, and living here in Israel all through the 1980s, I didn’t really realize that. I discovered some years ago that my home library was filled with books on the second world war, on Israel’s wars, even on the American civil war — but Vietnam, which was my generation’s war, was not represented by even a single volume. So on a trip back to the States five years ago, I began collecting books and reading them.
I bought and read books about the experience of Blacks in the Vietnam war. I read an oral history of Oklahomans�which, by the way, was one of the very best oral histories done on the war. There are now books on the experience of women in the war and even on Native Americans — American Indians�in Vietnam. There are books on Marines and on pilots, on every conceivable division and subdivision of the more than three million Americans who served in Vietnam. But there is not, I have never found, a single book on the experience of the Jewish veterans of that war. Not one book. Not as far as I can tell.
Finally, I had the idea because two of my best friends at my kibbutz, are Vietnam veterans. One served as a cable splicing specialist and then as a company clerk in the U.S. Army. The other was a Navy man; he helped land the first Marines at Da Nang in 1965. Talks with them convinced me that if I could find others, there could be a book in this.
How I Found Them
I used everything I had learned in years of working as a freelance journalist in an effort to find the veterans. It was not easy. In America, all you have to do is show up at a conference of Vietnam veterans, at, say, the Vietnam Veterans of America, and there they are. I envied those whose books were on topics like, Black Vietnam veterans. They are everywhere, so easy to find.
But Jewish American Vietnam veterans? I called up the U.S. Embassy and they told me, well, we don’t know. We send out some VA checks every month, but there’s the question of privacy. (The Australian embassy overcame that problem by writing about my book in their newsletter, which reached every Australian citizen living in Israel.)
There is one organization which certainly knows who are the Vietnam vets here�that’s the Israeli army. Every new immigrant when he appears before the army the first time has to declare if he has served in other armies. So the Israeli army does know, but despite the cooperation I was getting from one of the top military correspondents, they would not provide me with any names or even numbers.
The Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel was more helpful. They ran notices about my project in all their regional newsletters.
I sent a couple of letters to the Jerusalem Post and they ran one of them. And my Hebrew-speaking son suggested that I also send notices to Yidiot and Maariv and all the others. He was right; I even located one veteran through the pages of the religious Zionist daily, Hatzofe.
I sent a letter to the secretary of each and every kibbutz, on the assumption that there were Vietnam veterans on kibbutzim, and I turned out to be right about that.
And I approached veterans organizations in the States, including the Jewish War Veterans, for help. I’m happy to say that the JWV’s magazine did run an announcement with my address, and they even took the trouble to notify your Post here in Israel.
The veterans I spoke with told me about more veterans, and friends of mine told me about friends of theirs.
Sometimes I was just lucky. While serving in army reserve duty in Bethlehem three years ago, I was riding a bus into Jerusalem. I overheard the man in front of me talking with his kids in English. We struck up a conversation. I asked him if he knew about a Vietnam vet whose story I had heard about, a settler somewhere in the West Bank who had shot up a whole squad of Israeli soldiers one night, thinking they were Arabs. Sure, he knew the guy and happened to have his phone number handy. That was, as I said, a real stroke of luck.
I hope you’re taking notes here, because the result of my work was to build up a list of names, addresses and phone numbers of some thirty Jewish War Veterans who had served in Vietnam and now live in Israel. That was how I found them.
How many vets in Israel
This is perhaps the time to raise the question: how many Jewish Vietnam veterans live in Israel?
In the three decades since America got involved in Vietnam, some 60,000 Americans came on aliyah. A certain percentage of these are Vietnam veterans. How many? There are something like 245 million Americans, and more than 8 million of them are Vietnam-era veterans. So in America, one out of every thirty people is a Vietnam-era vet. Of our 60,000 American new immigrants, we could be talking about something like 2,000 Vietnam-era vets among them. That sounds way too high, of course. Many of the American olim are older people, who retired to Israel. Many, like myself, were too young to have served in Vietnam. And of the Vietnam-era vets, fewer than half actually were sent to South-east Asia. So let’s be more realistic: not 2,000, but maybe 200 of these are Vietnam vets. The thirty I found are, in any evident, only the tip of the iceberg.
Refusals to be interviewed
There were veterans who refused to talk with me. There were a handful who I contacted, and who were not interested in telling their stories. I can understand this, and naturally made no effort to cajole people into being interviewed.
I used to tell people this, and they’d draw the conclusion that the vast majority of Vietnam vets were, in fact, eager to talk. After all, I did talk with 19 men, and only three or four said no.
But you’d have to add to them all the vets who knew about the work I was doing�the Jerusalem Post readers, the AACI members, the kibbutzniks�and who did not contact me and offer to talk. So really, the vast majority did not want to talk.
The men who agreed to speak with me and tell me their stories are, therefore, a minority. I would say, a brave minority. Because they told me things which it took courage to tell.
Vets who opened up
I’ll give an example. I heard at Ein Dor that a Vietnam vet named Mickey Sobel had once lived on the kibbutz. He had since moved to another kibbutz. People who knew him told me, go talk to Mickey. He’s got some interesting stories.
I went to Mickey’s kibbutz and talked with him for an hour and a half. The interview was recorded. Most of it appears in my book. Mickey told me about what he did in Vietnam, where he served with the first Air Cavalry Division, working as a LRRP�Long Range Reconnaisance Patrols. Mickey talked about, among other things, atrocities.
He cut off heads of dead Vietnamese, put them on stakes, as a sign that his unit had been there. And after a year of living through the Vietnamese hell, he began to like it. It was exciting. At this point, Mickey was badly injured and airlifted out. He says it was a good thing that this happened, because he was going crazy. Getting to like the war. He was going to get his buddies killed if that went on.
When my friends at Ein Dor read the book, they told me that the stories which Mickey told me�he never told anyone. Not even in all-night long conversations about the war. To me he�there is no better word�confessed.
The wife of another veteran told me not long ago that until we talked, her husband had never opened up about Vietnam. Never even to his wife. Only now, after the interview, after reading the book and meeting the other vets, can he talk.
William Northrop, a veteran of the Special Forces (Green Berets) sat up with me at him home in the Negev well into the night, and I could feel his heart opening up and the memories pouring out. All the pain, all the pride, everything that was a tour of duty in Vietnam.
I think that Vietnam veterans who came to Israel, who often married Israelis, who live separated one from the other, have simply not had the chance to get this off their chests. My book gave them that chance.
Why I believed their stories
There was a question in my mind about whether I should believe what I was being told. Were all these men who had stepped forward and offered to bare their souls to me in fact Vietnam veterans?
Were their stories true?
I had two means, and only two, of answering those questions. I could ask them for documentary proof of service in Vietnam. That I did. Nearly everyone showed me (and often photocopied for me) their DD-214 papers, proving their service. Others showed me other documents, letters, memoirs they’d written, medals, photographs.
My other test was simply a sense of smell. I’d been reading about Vietnam for some time, and knew something about the language and facts of the war. I was pretty confident that I could smell a tall tale.
One vet told me about his escape from a Viet Cong prison camp in Cambodia. It sounded a lot like Rambo. I left the story out of my book.
But the rest sounded true, and I’m convinced that every man I spoke with served in Vietnam and that their stories are true, even when they are amazing.
What I learned
Going around Israel for a few months talking with nineteen Vietnam veterans was an education.
I learned that each and every veteran has his own Vietnam war. It depended on when they served, and in which units, and where in Vietnam. Men who served early on, in 1965-66, for example, couldn’t tell me much about drug abuse. But the vets who were there in 1970-71, would tell me that everyone�everyone�got high.
A vet like Arthur Regev represented the Inspector-General’s office at interrogations of Communist prisoners. He personally witnessed executions of prisoners, torture, things like that. Jack Pastor, who served as a company commander in the infantry, saw nothing of the kind. To the contrary, he would order his men to cease fire when there was a danger of hitting civilians.
Michael Chai, the cable splicing specialist, came back from Vietnam and joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, marched in protest parades. But Jeffery Gunsburg, who walked point with the First Air Cav, returned to the U.S. and proudly wore his Air Cav patch on his jacket. Some were proud to have served and some were not. Dr. Jed Goldstein, who served as a doctor with the 101st Airborne, told me that while he opposed everything about the war, was proud to have served.
Every veteran had his own Vietnam war.
I learned a lot about the Jewish experience in Vietnam too. In fact, I didn’t know that there had been a Jewish experience in Vietnam.
I asked the men to tell me what they remembered about the Jewish holidays. Israel Hartman organized a Passover seder for 1,000 servicemen at the USO in Saigon. Lewis Alster recalled what it was like to try to preserve kashrut and observe the shabbat at the base at Long Binh. Kuzriel Meir taught himself how to ritually slaughter a chicken, preparing for himself kosher meals in the jungle.
But most of the men were completely cut off from their Jewishness that year. Some had uniquely Jewish experiences that were chilling.
Samuel Hilburg told me how, when his buddies in the Marines found out that it was Channukah, decided to celebrate the holiday in his honor. On the first night, they set fire to one Vietnamese thatched hut. On the second night, two huts. And so on until the eighth night, when they set the whole village ablaze. Channukah in Vietnam, 1968.
I could go on, but it would probably cut into sales of the book.
The importance of their story
All of this is very interesting, you might say, but does it matter?
To this audience, I think the answer is clear. Of course it matters.
A situation existed where Blacks and Indians and women and Oklahomans and others could find books recounting their own Vietnam wars. For Black people, I imagine that this was very important. The struggle to remind Americans of the Black contribution to America’s wars has been long and difficult. For Jews, this is no less important. America has never fought a war in which Jews did not participate, and give their lives for their country. Vietnam was no different from any other war in this sense. The story of the Jewish experience in Vietnam has not been told. I have only told part of it.
Vietnam was different from all other wars in the sense that the men returned to a country which rejected them. Men I interviewed were spat upon, insulted, hit, refused jobs, alienated and estranged from the very country which sent them off to war.
This experience was shared with other, non-Jewish Vietnam vets. But here’s the difference. A Jewish Vietnam veteran who had, as Jeff Gunsburg put it, “divorced America,” who couldn’t stand the reception he received upon coming back to “the World” as they called it�had another choice.
He had another country. Israel.
The trauma of Vietnam took ordinary American Jewish young men and made them extraordinary. It made them ready to pack their bags and leave the United States, and to come settle in the Jewish homeland. How many normal Americans are ready to do that? Not very many.
They came here and they were once again drafted, all of them, into another army. Most of them served in another war�Lebanon. Some saw real combat again. A couple even became officers in the Israeli army. And this was true even of men who hated Vietnam, and who swore they would never again fight in a war.
Do they hate America? Some do, yes. But even one of the vets I spoke with, David Ramati, a former Marine, would tell me that in spite of all the harsh things he had to say, that he never stopped loving America. America rejected us, he would say. We never rejected America.
Things have changed in America in the last few years. During the Reagan years there were belated parades in honor of the Vietnam vets. The memorial wall in Washington was finally built. The nation went through a catharsis, a process of healing began. As President Bush put it, at the end of the Gulf War, the Vietnam trauma had finally ended.
But the Vietnam veterans who settled in Israel were cut off from all that. They had no parades in their honor. They were not part of the books and magazines and movies which flooded America in recent years, in which Vietnam veterans are finally looked at differently, not just as baby killers but as human beings who were called upon to serve their country.
Our Vietnam veterans here in Israel are frozen in a kind of time capsule, living with the pain of the war and the rejection which followed. One of them would even complain to me�in 1990 — that Americans didn’t want to hear about the war, and this at a time when Vietnam, with its movies, TV shows, magazines, books, T-shirts, had become big business in America.
The Israelis know nothing about Vietnam. This is one of the reasons why Israel’s Vietnam veterans still feel the pain so sharply. I hope that the Hebrew edition of my book will help change that situation a little bit. Perhaps the story of Israel’s Vietnam veterans will be one way of teaching Israelis about America, its wars, its war in Vietnam.
That is the importance of the subject to Americans and to Israelis and we who are sitting today in this room are both. Americans and Israelis.
A Continuing Project
The book Saigon to Jerusalem is only a beginning. An American edition was published at the very end of 1992. An Australian publisher is today reviewing the possibilities for an edition in that country. Two Israeli publishers are also weighing the question of publishing a Hebrew edition here. A French publisher and an Argentinian one are looking at the book, trying to decide to publish it or not. A group of film-makers in Tel Aviv want to make a documentary out of it for Channel Two.
I’ve found that over time, my phone number has been circulating among journalists and I’ve become a one man press agency for the Vietnam veterans. When President Bush decided to send U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia�Desert Shield�I was asked by one newspaper to put them in touch with a Vietnam vet who could comment. Ronnie Cohen, formerly of the 101st Airborne, gave them unforgettable answers to their questions.
When the Gulf War ended, the army radio station once again turned to me, and Jeff Gunsburg, who is a military historian by profession, went on the air to talk about Bush’s comment about the end of the trauma of Vietnam. Army radio has contacted me twice recently, looking for veterans who have recollections of Passover seders in Vietnam and also for veterans to comment on rumors of live American POWs still in Vietnam.
Jack Pastor, the former infantry officer, went on the television program “Erev Hadash” and talked about Vietnam. Reporters from a local paper in the Galilee, the daily newspapers Hadashot and Yidiot Aharonot, even the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yom Shishi and this week, Shas’s new daily newspaper, have sent reporters and interviewed Vietnam veterans here in Israel, always working together with me.
I expect this to continue, and am happy to provide the service. Over time, this might have a cumulative effect. Israelis might understand a bit more about the Vietnam war, having, finally, a source of information other than television and the movies. And the veterans too might understand themselves better.
What you can do
I’m sure the Jewish War Veterans is as interested as I am in continuing to tell the story of the experience of American Jewish veterans of the Vietnam war, especially those who came to live in Israel.
That’s why I’m going to end this talk by making a few modest proposals for things you can do.
As I said at the very beginning, I know this is chutzpah. After all, you invited me as your guest to this event. But I’ve been living in Israel more than 12 years now; chutzpah comes naturally.
The publisher of Saigon to Jerusalem in the States is a small publisher. His budget for advertising and promotion is ridiculous. Promotion of the book has focused on libraries, where the publisher has been successful in the past.
But I don’t only want libraries to own copies of this book. I want it to be read by Jews and non-Jews, veterans and people who are not veterans.
When I read that the Jewish War Veterans and its auxiliary has something like 150,000 members�and I admit that I didn’t know this� my first thought was: these are the people who are going to be most interested in the book. Some of them are, no doubt, Vietnam veterans themselves. Others are not. But it is only natural that they will show interest in the subject.
I know that the Jewish War Veterans will be holding its National Convention at the end of August, in Orlando, Florida. I don’t know if anyone will attend on behalf of your Post here in Israel. I hope so.
If there is any way to sell copies of the book at the Convention, that would be very good.
But more than that, there must be a way to encourage JWV members to buy copies. Posts can buy copies at a discount, and sell them to raise money, for example. The national organization can even decide to buy a large number of copies for its members, or its leading officers.
If the Jewish War Veterans as an organization decides to “adopt” the book, it will reach a very large audience. It will have an impact. The story of Israel’s Vietnam veterans will be told.
Your Post, the Jewish War Veterans here in Israel, should, in my humble opinion, use all its influence�and I’m sure that even though you are a small Post, you have a certain moral weight because you are in Israel�to get the 150,000 members of the national organization involved in this book.
Sometimes it must sound a little bit like I’m on a crusade, doesn’t it?
I remember feeling that way when I was riding busses through the hills around Hebron, returning from interviewing one of the veterans who lives in a small settlement out there. I felt like I was on a kind of mission.
William Northrop, the Special Forces officer, got up at the first meeting ever of the Vietnam veterans here in Israel, in March at my kibbutz, and he said: Because of this book, we’re all feeling a little prouder, and standing a little taller.
Jack Pastor, the infantry commander, sent me a little note after reading the book. He wrote: “I know that one day, perhaps after I’m just dust, someone will read what I thought and what I felt . . . I feel as if I have been granted a small measure of immortality.”
I don’t know how many authors get to hear things like that.
So, yes, I am on a kind of crusade. I have taken on the responsibility of making sure that the American Jewish veterans of the Vietnam war who live here in Israel will get what Jack Pastor was talking about: that small measure of immortality.
I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to talk about this, and look forward to working together with you to bring this book and these stories to the widest possible audience.
Thank you very much.