Something very strange happens when people face an imminent threat to life and livelihood. The strange thing is unity such as would never have been possible otherwise. History provides countless examples, such as the defense of New Orleans in January 1815. When a veteran British force attacked the city, an odd assortment of people turned out to defend their home. They included Regular soldiers of the American army under Major General Andrew Jackson, as well as Creole gentlemen and their American merchant rivals, common laborers, farmers, militia men from far away states, black slaves and free men, and even pirates and smugglers affiliated with the infamous Jean Lafitte. Once the threat was past, these disparate segments of society returned to their separate lives and the circumstances that divided them, but for one glorious moment they experienced the joy of being a people united in a common cause.
We might consider as well the example of our Jewish brethren in World War II. Immediately before the war, an Arab revolt in British Palestine compelled His Majesty’s government to issue a White Paper in 1939 which closed the door on Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. This was a political and military necessity for the British; another Arab revolt would threaten their hold on Egypt, their link to India and the Pacific, and the lifeline of the Empire. When faced with war against Hitler’s Germany, Great Britain could not afford to lose that lifeline, and thus European Jews in peril of their lives in the Shoa (Holocaust) lost their last and best chance at escape from the death camps.
One might suppose the Jewish response to the White Paper – particularly among those living in the Land – would be violent rejection and revolt. Some did respond that way, but the most memorable response was by David Ben Gurion, at that time among the most prominent leaders of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish settlers in the Land. He expressed his position this way:
Ben Gurion’s pragmatism was instrumental in establishment of the Jewish Brigade, the only regular military unit of any Allied army in World War II comprised entirely of Jews. The Jewish Brigade served with distinction in the British forces in Egypt, Italy, and Northwest Europe, and it also served as a training ground for Jewish warriors who carried the fight for Israel’s independence after the British Mandate over Palestine ended in 1948.
In recent days I had the great honor and pleasure of delivering the keynote address to my nephew Daniel on the occasion of his attaining the rank of Eagle Scout. Those familiar with the Boy Scouts of America and with Scouting around the world understand that earning the highest rank in that organization is no small accomplishment. In pursuing this goal to the end, Daniel, like his older brother Austin and his father, proved at an early age that he is worthy of honor and of great responsibility. That is a large part of the message I gave to Daniel and to those gathered for the occasion. I publish it here in hope that this message may be an encouragement and exhortation to others.
For Daniel Victor McCarn at His Eagle Court of Honor
February 27, 2015
Daniel, this day of recognition has been long in coming. All of us rejoice with you that it has come at last. We recognize you for your considerable accomplishments in attaining the rank of Eagle. Those accomplishments are worthy of celebration and remembrance, but I will let others speak of them. What I want to address with you is something greater than what you do. I would like to consider who you are.
By way of introducing this subject I invite you to consider three men who have become legendary in the annals of Texas history. Today the names of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barrett Travis exist in a space far removed from the reality these men occupied in their lifetimes. We know them as the great heroes of the Alamo, men who stood bravely against overwhelming odds in the noble cause of freedom. It is fitting to remember them at this time, the anniversary of the Siege of the Alamo which began on February 23, 1836, and ended thirteen days later on March 6 in the great battle that claimed the lives of these heroes.
Like barnacles on a ship, legends have encrusted the names of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis. After 179 years it is hard to distinguish myth from truth. Those who remember them at all remember them either as heroes or as villains, depending on the point of view. There is enough of both in each man to justify each perception. But who were they in reality? When we strip away the layers of time and legend, what do we find? We find flawed men like all of us whose ordinary lives played out in the crucible of extraordinary times.