The Priest, the Rabbi and the Beirut Terrorist Attack of 1983
While the current Israel-Hamas war rages: a tale of interfaith respect from an earlier conflict in the Middle East
“I had been brushing my teeth, when the building shook, windows exploded, and the doors came off their hinges. I ‘hit the deck,’ thinking it was our building that had been hit by a mortar or a shell. I got to my feet and took a moment to give thanks that the building had withstood the attack. Only then did we begin to hear the screams from the other building and realized what we had experienced had been a result of the explosive force of the blast next door.”
It is Sunday, Oct. 23, 1983.
Location: Beirut, Lebanon.
And these are the words of Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a U.S. Navy chaplain.
Still stunned, the rabbi heard the words “Follow me!” from Father George Pucciarelli, Catholic chaplain to the Marine Amphibious Unit. As the two men started to run, Rabbi Resnicoff noticed the priest placing a purple stole around his neck.
The rabbi and priest soon emerged to a scene of almost unbelievable destruction and carnage.
Speaking to the Register from his home in Washington, D.C., Rabbi Resnicoff began, “I have many, many memories of this terrible attack. For one thing, when we ran outside our building to see what had happened, it was the first time in my life that I truly understood the expression ‘I could not believe my eyes.’”
“The giant four-story building that I expected to see was so demolished that it seemed as if it had just disappeared,” he said. “Somehow, I thought that I was looking in the wrong direction or had made a wrong turn, until slowly, finally, I could begin to focus; and through the smoke and the air filled with dust, I could see the rubble, the bodies and, worst of all, the pieces of bodies strewn throughout the area.”
At this point, the rabbi recalled thinking that nothing had prepared him for what he witnessed that morning in the Lebanese sunlight.
“I remember lessons in Chaplains’ School, when we engaged in discussions about what we should do if we found ourselves ministering to the wounded and dying of faiths other than our own,” he said. “What if someone Catholic asked me to administer the last rites? But on that day no one I cradled in my arms, or tried to comfort by saying medical help was on the way, ever asked me for any specific religious rite. Instead, they asked me to promise that, if the worst should occur and they did not survive, I tell their family that they loved them.”
It was early that morning when bombs struck buildings housing U.S. and French service members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF) stationed in Beirut. These troops were part of an international military peacekeeping operation deployed the previous year in the midst of the still-raging Lebanese Civil War.
The 1983 attack killed 307 people: 241 U.S. and 58 French military personnel, six civilians, as well as the two suicide bombers who drove the trucks with the bombs concealed inside. This would be the deadliest single-day death toll for the U.S. Marine Corps — 220 Marines — since the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II. It was also the deadliest single-day death toll for any U.S. military personnel since the 1968 Tet Offensive amid the Vietnam War.
Born 1946 in Washington, Resnicoff had first experienced military service with the Naval Reserves during that war in Vietnam, while patrolling Vietnamese waterways for the Viet Cong. After his time in South-East Asia, Resnicoff left to join Naval Intelligence in Europe. Later, he would attend rabbinical school, and, in 1976, he was ordained rabbi. By October 1983, he was stationed on the U.S. Sixth Fleet flagship, then the USS Puget Sound, in Gaeta, Italy, as one of the chaplains on the staff of the Sixth Fleet commander. It was from there he had traveled to Beirut to perform the funeral service for the first Jewish Marine to die during the peacekeeping operations in Lebanon.
A group called Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the 1983 Beirut bombings, stating that its aim was to force the withdrawal of the MNF from Lebanon. The explosives used in the U.S. bombing alone were estimated to be the equivalent of 12,000 pounds of TNT. Subsequently, an FBI report deemed the explosion “the largest conventional blast ever seen by the FBI's forensic explosive experts.”
On that Sunday, the situation was made worse by the fact that, of the 18 Navy fatalities, 16 were medical personnel: one doctor and 15 corpsmen. Rabbi Resnicoff looked on as around him lay dead almost an entire medical battalion.
“Navy medical personnel, like Navy chaplains, serve Marines,” he observed, “and the loss of our medical battalion made the situation even worse, as we tried to deal with the scores of wounded personnel. We didn’t know how long it would take for medical help to arrive, but it seemed like an eternity. We did what we could, literally tearing our clothing apart to use pieces to wipe blood and dirt from the faces of wounded Marines. At one point, after tearing my T-shirt to shreds, I used the small black kippah that I regularly wore.”
A kippah or skullcap, is a brimless cap, usually made of cloth, traditionally worn by Jewish men to fulfill the religion’s requirement that the head be covered at all times. The Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law (halakha), stipulates, “Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you.”
In the aftermath of the explosion, working alongside him, the priest had seen what Rabbi Resnicoff had done: used his kippah to bandage the wounded. The priest then tore off his Marine camouflage cap and brought it to Rabbi Resnicoff. This was so that the rabbi could wear it as a kippah and thus cover his head, in accordance with the laws of his religion.
Rabbi Resnicoff picked up the story. “Father Pucciarelli told me that in that area of the world, where every religious group seemed to be gunning every other group, he wanted our personnel to remember not only that we, chaplains, helped everyone — regardless of religion, and regardless of whether any of the wounded claimed a religion — but also that we did this, side by side, Christian and Jew.”
For both this Catholic priest and Jewish rabbi, he suggested, “interfaith cooperation” was not some academic theory. “It was,” said Rabbi Resnicoff, “and continues to be, our mission and our way of life.”
But, that morning, “the way of death” had not yet finished. Minutes after the first deadly attack, the chaplains heard the noise of a terrific blast in the nearby French military compound. Another suicide bomber driving a vehicle laden with explosives had detonated his load — killing 58 more men.
Four days after the attack, U.S. Vice President George Bush led a delegation to the site of the slaughter to mourn the victims and show solidarity with the survivors.
“I remember wondering what the vice president would say,” Rabbi Resnicoff recalled, “because so much of what he might say could sound hollow. But his actions were perfect. He stood in front of the body bags, bowed his head, and mourned with us in silence. Immediately, I thought of the Bible story of the death of Aaron’s sons and the biblical words, ‘And Aaron was silent.’ Sometimes when there are no right words, no words become the most powerful response of all: We speak through silence in a language far beyond what we might say in human words.”
All constituent units of the Multinational Force were withdrawn from Lebanon by March 1984.
The Lebanese Civil War, which had started in 1975, continued until 1990; by then, it had claimed an estimated 120,000 lives.
And yet, the significance of what the priest had done witnessed by the rabbi on that calamitous morning was to impact others in unforeseen ways.
Two years before this Beirut attack, the U.S. Congress had been debating a “religious apparel amendment.” This would allow Jewish military personnel in uniform to wear “neat and conservative” head coverings. The proposed change was rejected by Congress: The general rule that all military Jewish chaplains could keep their heads covered — most of the time — but not other Jewish military personnel, was to remain in force.
After the attacks of 1983, U.S. Rep. Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y., who had proposed the original amendment, heard what had happened in Beirut between the rabbi and the priest. The congressman had the story of what had become known as the “camouflage kippah” read into the Congressional Record. Later, the politician told Rabbi Resnicoff how he thought that this story was the tipping point for the subsequent successful passage of the amendment, allowing the wearing of the kippah under DOD Directive 1300.17.
“Suddenly, the idea of a kippah in uniform was not just a question of uniformity; instead, it became a symbol of unity,” explained Rabbi Resnicoff. “Despite all the religious and ethnic backgrounds of our military personnel, we were unified, working side by side, when the chips were down. That kippah became a symbol of how we were united in our fight for freedom, for religious freedom.”