In 1945, Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, the first Jewish chaplain in the history of the United States Marine Corps, was asked by his senior Protestant colleague to deliver the sermon at a single, interdenominational service dedicated to the fallen after the historically bloody Battle of Iwo Jima — which cost the lives of nearly 7,000 Marines, including 150 Jewish Marines. But there was opposition from other religious quarters, both to the ecumenical nature of the service and to a rabbi's giving the sermon over overwhelmingly Christian graves. Many boycotted the event.
To his everlasting credit, the senior Protestant chaplain, Warren Cuthriell, insisted that Rabbi Gittelsohn speak. Gittelsohn ended up giving a sermon at a Jewish memorial service on Iwo Jima for the Marines; however, his words were widely circulated. This is what Gittelsohn said: "Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago, helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and enlisted men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor, together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews. ... Among these men, there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy. ... Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates an empty, hollow mockery."
Remember that this was in 1945, when the entire U.S. military and too much of the nation was segregated by race and when to be white, Protestant and male was the ticket to privilege and power. War is a cruel teacher. The lessons learned are painful: Death and pain are truly democratic; sacrifice and suffering are not the exclusive franchise of any faith or nationality.
Some of us were reminded of this truth last week, when we listened to one of those whose ancestors were not here for the founding of America but who instead "escaped from oppression to her blessed shores." He came from the Middle East some 36 years ago to Silver Spring, Maryland, to raise and teach his three sons. And teach them he did. As Stephanie McCrummen of The Washington Post reported 11 years ago, Khizr Khan, a lawyer by training, took his sons to the Jefferson Memorial, where they were instructed to read the inscriptions about swearing resistance against tyranny over the minds of men.
The middle son, Humayun, perhaps inspired, went to the school Thomas Jefferson founded, the University of Virginia, where he joined the ROTC. After graduation, he became an Army officer who was sent to Iraq, where he gave his life protecting his troops. So when a grieving American father in Philadelphia rhetorically addressed Donald Trump with "Have you ever been to Arlington (National) Cemetery?" and told him to "go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending (the) United States of America" — people of "all faiths, genders and ethnicities" — he had the moral standing to do so. He added to Trump, "You have sacrificed nothing — and no one."
Marine chaplain Roland Gittelsohn could not have said it better than Khan: "Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son 'the best of America.' If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America." From Iwo Jima to Philadelphia in 71 years — it's a short trip.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.