Israel and the USS Liberty

Israel and the USS Liberty

David Rocker tells the story of the spy ship during the Six-Day War – and his own story

David Rocker remembers the USS Liberty
David Rocker remembers the USS Liberty

David Rocker has had a life packed with surprising choices and turns; his logical decisions have taken him to unexpected places.

He’s a lifelong Jersey boy — yes, he and his wife, Marian, live in Key Biscayne, Florida, now, but their roots, their history, their family, their philanthropy, and their story are deeply connected to Essex and Union counties. But Mr. Rocker’s maritime adventures have taken him far from the Jersey shore.

Mr. Rocker was born in Elizabeth in 1943; his grandparents grew up there, and so did his parents. When he was in third grade, the family moved to West Orange, and he graduated from West Orange High School.

He and Marian Kadish, who was born in Newark and also moved to West Orange with her family, met when he was in eighth grade and she was in seventh. Their first date was a bus ride to Manhattan to a Steve Allen show. (Steve Allen was the comedian and musician who also was the creator and first host of the Tonight Show. He was a major big deal.) They dated others but by his junior year, they were a serious couple, as they’ve been ever since.

Mr. Rocker’s other long-time love is the water — saltwater, boats, the romance of the sea and the specifics of sailing on it. He learned about boating at a YMCA camp in Kittatinny Valley State Park in Andover, and then, as a counselor, he taught it.

“And I was in love with the Navy when I was a child,” he said. “I also was fascinated by naval history, by naval battles. I knew the names of the ships involved in them.”

He was the president of his high school class — Marian was secretary of hers . He considered applying to Annapolis but his father convinced him to to go to a college that offered Naval ROTC instead, and required a shorter post-graduate time commitment –  so Mr. Rocker applied to Harvard. West Orange High School was not a major Harvard feeder back then; he was the only kid in his class to be admitted that year, or any other year for quite some time.

(Mr. Rocker is no longer as pleased with his alma mater as he was when he went there. The recent contretemps over its former president’s congressional testimony and the uneasy acceptance of antisemitism as a function of fighting intersectionality have soured him on it. But that’s for later in the story.)

At Harvard, Mr. Rocker joined the Naval ROTC. The Reserve Officers Training Corps, to be formal, isn’t usually a magnet for Jewish students; to leaf through the booklet showing Harvard’s ROTC cadets during Mr. Rocker’s time is not to be looking at a group of Jews. But it was a logical move, given his love of the Navy and the sea, and the driving curiosity that made him always want to know more. “I joined ROTC when I was a freshman, and I took courses in naval history,” he said. Although he majored in economics, “my senior thesis was on U.S. shipbuilding laws and practices.”

Because he was in the ROTC, he spent the summer between his junior and senior years on a Navy ship. “It was the flagship of the American 2nd Fleet; a beautiful cruiser called the Newport News,” he said. “We went to Sweden and England and Holland, and then I went back to school for my senior year.

Mr. Rocker sailed on the USS Little Rock, then the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet.

Before his senior year ended, Mr. Rocker was assigned to a ship. “But just before graduation, I got a message that I shouldn’t go straight to the ship. Instead, I was told to go to Newport, Rhode Island. I was going to a seven-week program about criminal law at the Naval Justice school.”

He loved it. “Newport is one of the sailing capitals of America, and I could go sailing any time while I was there,” he said.

Then, seven weeks later, he went from Newport to Newport News, Virginia, where he joined the USS Little Rock.

The Navy was formative for him, Mr. Rocker said. He might have been drawn to the romance of the sea, but the reality “was very practical. It taught a lot in terms of understanding the entirety of American culture, not just what you know on the East Coast. Or as a Jew. When I was on board ship, there weren’t a lot of other Jews there.” The few Jews in the Navy then tended to work with communications, computers, or similar departments, he said.

“I joined the ship as a legal officer, because I had gone to Naval Justice school,” he said. “Obviously I was not a lawyer” — when he was asked if his experiences in school and then in the Navy made him want to become an attorney, he laughed and said no, not at all — “but I assisted in courts martial and dealing with the personal legal problems that are abundant for young sailors who have gone ashore.” Those legal problems, he elaborated, are a result of what they do ashore — “they get drunk and do stuff.” Often that stuff is bad.

But Mr. Rocker wasn’t happy. Personnel on a ship are divided in two. The line division runs the ship, and the staff division supports them. As a legal officer, he was staff, but he didn’t want to be. “I wanted to be directly involved with sailing the ship,” he said.

He pled his case to his executive officer often — “We had a very nice relationship, and I kept saying ‘Get me out of here,’” he reported. “He finally came to me one day and he said, ‘All right, Rocker, you want the line. I’m gonna give you a third division.’ Third division basically was responsible for the maintenance of the after-third of the ship. That included refueling, rearming, cleaning, painting, cleaning latrines. It’s low-skilled maintenance work.”

‘It was a tough division. It was a rough group of guys. But I thought I could work with them because I’d already defended about half of them. And it was a great experience and a big change from my prior life. It exposed me to a whole new facet of the world.

“Some of these guys had never seen a Jew before. They didn’t know anything about Jews. Some of them wanted to see my horns.

“When the ship is underway, the caption is not always at the helm. Some officers are specially trained to be officers of the deck who could run the ship in the captain’s absence.

David Rocker, then and now.It wasn’t an easy position to get. “You had to go to a bunch of schools to train for that. Navigation schools, combat information centers, other kinds of schools. The Navy sent me to those schools while I was on active duty, and I qualified to be one of the rotating group of officers of the deck.”

Even then, he said, “there are strict rules of the road. One ship is called the privileged vessel, which has to maintain its course of speed, and the other is the burdened vessel, which has to maneuver to avoid a collision.

“So you’re out in the middle of the Atlantic, and you think you’re in the privileged vessel, and the burdened vessel is some Greek tanker. But it’s obvious that this guy is on a collision course with you and he isn’t doing anything. It’s the middle of the Atlantic. You call the captain, but you have to decide what to do.”

This happened to Mr. Rocker. Everything ended up okay, and with his other Navy experiences, he learned a great deal from it.

The Newport News was part of the Navy’s 6th Fleet; its home port was Gaeta, a lovely little Italian town. About a year after he joined the Navy, David Rocker and Marian Kadish got married, back in South Orange, and then Marian joined David in Gaeta. She lived there from early 1967 until he was released that July, and he lived there with her when he wasn’t onboard the Newport News. “It was a challenging experience for us,” he said. “I had never really been anywhere before. I didn’t speak Italian. Marian couldn’t drive a stick shift.” They learned.

During that time, though, he lived through history.

On June 8, 1967, “the ship went out on what was supposed to be a three-port cruise.” (Yes, that is the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island” that might be running through your head just now.) The fleet had been out for about a month, and it was close to Cyprus then.

“It was right before the war began.” That was the Six-Day War that Israel fought and won against a group of Arab countries that had aggressively threatened Israel.

“While we were cruising, we learned that the USS Liberty had been attacked.”

This is part of the USS Little Rock’s third division, posing by its missile house. Mr. Rocker was in charge of the division; he’s the officer in front, fourth from right.

The Liberty was basically a spy ship, part of the 6h Fleet. On June 8, 1967, it was attacked by Israeli Navy boats and an Israeli Air Force jet fighter. Thirty-four members of its crew were killed and 171 of them were wounded.

The attack was a mistake and a disaster, and the Little Rock was the American ship closest to the Liberty.

“We go to general quarters, which is in full combat readiness,” Mr. Rocker said. “My job is to go into the deep part of the computer room for the ship’s guns, set up the computers, utilize the computers, and fire the major weapons that we have on board.”

Even then, he explained, guns were computerized, because “the ship is on the sea. It’s rolling to the side and pitching forward and bouncing around. So you have to make corrections; otherwise,  you’re going to shoot into the sky or the water.” Back in the 1960s, some computers were sophisticated enough to make those calculations, he said. “There’s an enormous amount of physics involved, even though you don’t realize it when you watch a movie of a naval battle.”

Mr. Rocker was a lieutenant junior grade then; it’s the equivalent of an Army first lieutenant, he said.

It’s important to understand that the attack on the Liberty happened while the fleet was in international waters, he said. That means that ships from other nations are free to come in between U.S. ships. It’s everybody’s water. And there were Russian ships among the American ones that day.

“The presence of the Russians became a very, very important part of the story,” Mr. Rocker said. “Because on the first day of the Arab Israeli war, Israel had launched a surprise attack on the Arab nations’ air forces, and they basically destroyed most of the Egyptian air force on the ground.

“At that time, Egypt had a mutual support agreement with Russia. If one was attacked, the other would come to the other’s aid. And Russia was a major arms supplier to Egypt.

“So when Egypt’s air force gets wiped out, it goes to Moscow and says you’ve got to help us. America has destroyed our Air Force. You’ve got to come in on our side.

“But, thank God, the Russians were in our fleet, and they told Moscow that the American carriers never launched, so the Russians basically told the Egyptians to get lost. The fact of the Russian ships’ presence prevented Russia from coming to the aid of the Egyptians.

The USS Little Rock, as seen from the shore at twilight.

“So then suddenly the Liberty gets attacked. And we go to general quarters,” a high state of readiness for war. “I’m down in the bowels of the ship. All I know is that an American ship has been attacked. My fear is that this is a trap, that the Egyptians, who now are desperate because they’re losing the war, attack an American ship, elicit a response from us, and then go back to Russia and say, ‘See, we’re fighting the Americans. You have to help us.’

“I was sure that the Third World War was about to start.

“It was a long distance to the site of where the Liberty was attacked. We’re steaming there for hours. And the carrier at that point did launch a protective group of planes to protect us.

Mr. Rocker was terrified, he said. He had family in Israel; this would not be good for them.

“I think that we’re walking into a trap, we’re going to wind up attacking the Russians, the Russians are going to get sucked into this thing and we’re in trouble.

“And then it seemed like forever, but really it was relatively soon, maybe a half an hour later, that Israel has apologized for the mistake.

“And we’re still steaming at maximum speed toward the ship.” The Liberty.

“Finally, we went to a lesser state of readiness, not general quarters but still higher than the normal state of readiness. And we continue to steam at maximum speed toward the Liberty.

“During that time, there was a change of the watch. So as we approached and ultimately closed on the Liberty, I was the officer of the deck. Ibrought the Little Rock alongside the Liberty. Then I ordered a whale boat to be lowered into the water and sent over to the Liberty to take off some of the less seriously wounded. That’s because the only ship in the fleet with an operating theater was the carrier, so it got the most seriously wounded. We took in about 10 guys.

Some of the Little Rock’s officers and men. Mr. Rocker is the back row, fifth from left.

For years, Mr. Rocker was sure that Israel had hit the Liberty on purpose.

“In the last days of the Six Day War, Israel realized that they had an opportunity to go after the Golan Heights,” he said. “So they called back a substantial part of their force, which was in the Sinai, to prepare for that.” But because there are only a finite number of troops, bringing them to the Golan reduced the number in the Sinai — and because there still was a risk that the Egptians could attack there, Israel did not want the Egyptians to know about the reduced forces.

“The Liberty was the most sophisticated spy ship in the world at that time,” he continued. “It took information of a tactical nature, amplified it, and transmitted it to two places — Rome, for the United States, and Cyprus, for the British. And everybody knew that anything that went to the British went to the Arabs. And the view was that Israel did not want the Brits and the Arabs to know about the troop movements, and so they wanted to eliminate the potential source of that information.” The Liberty.

“It’s incredibly risky to attack your major allies — but it was plausible.”

For years, that was the standard view.

About 10 years or so ago, Mr. Rocker went to a book fair in Miami, where he met Jay Cristol, a bankruptcy judge who was so fascinated by the story of the Liberty that he wrote a book on it. “The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship” was published in 2002.

At first, Mr. Rocker was intrigued but not convinced. But eventually, after meeting Mr. Cristol and looking at some of the evidence he’d gathered, including “details of the plane communications, a huge trove of records,” he was convinced. Now, he thinks that the attack on the Liberty was a huge, stupid mistake.

He’s relieved. “As bad a mistake as attacking the Liberty was, it’s less bad than attacking it on purpose.”

David and Marian Rocker are deeply connected to Israel. Mr. Rocker’s great-uncle, Louis Rocker, “was a Wall Street guy, who had successful years and unsuccessful years, and he was a scientist. He was the treasurer of the United States division of the Hagganah. He had a farm in Andover, and that’s where units of the Hagganah trained. If you get a local map of Andover, you will find Rocker Pond.

“He also had a safe in his New York office where he stored donations that were used to buy weapons for Israel.”

The Rocker family — parents, children, and grandchildren. From left, Yahav, Ta’ir, Matar, Abby, Joshua, Ayna, David, Marian, Daniel, Rachel, Grace, and Ruth.

“He emigrated to Israel, helped found a kibbutz, and was an agricultural agronomist. He died in Israel and was buried there. He tried to convince me to move to Israel when I got out of the Navy, but I was accepted to Harvard Business School, and Marian had accepted a teaching job in Framingham to pay for business school, so we went there instead.

“Years later, Marion, Daniel, and Josh spent a summer in Israel on this kibbutz; Marion was working on a dig at Mount Tabor. But they had not realized that it was Louis’ kibbutz, as they were surprised and gratified to learn.”

When they first were married, Ms. Rocker, who had graduated from Kean College with a degree in education, taught in the Head Start program in Norfolk. When they moved to the Boston area after the Navy, she taught in Framingham; after the Rockers moved back to New Jersey, settled in Short Hills, and had two children, she established a business selling high-end Judaica, which lasted for 18 years.

Mr. Rocker went on to have a notable career in finance. He began at a small brokerage firm called Mitchell Hutchins, where he stayed for three years. “I didn’t know if I wanted to do research — I started there as a research analyst — or investment banking. I chose Mitchell Hutchings because they were flexible and willing to let me try my hand at investment banking.”

He tried to do both, but soon realized that he preferred investment banking. “I spoke to a guy who was a client of mine and who I also had a good personal connection with to help make this decision. He was a partner in one of the earliest hedge funds, Steinhardt, Fine, Berkowitz & Co.  and he basically said, ‘Did you ever think about money management?’

“That was the beginning of the hedge fund industry. I stayed at Mitchell Hutchings for three years, and in 1972, very reluctantly, with tears in my eyes, I told the head of the firm that I loved him, he had done everything he promised me, he treated me wonderfully, but I had to take my shot.

“And I took a 30 percent salary cut to go work for Steinhardt, and it turned out to have been the right thing to do. I was made a partner the following year.”

Ten or so years later, he joined Century Capital; in 1985, after Century Capital had been acquired, he formed a hedge fund called Rocker Partners. Mr. Rocker is a proponent of short selling, a strategy in which he believes deeply.

The Rockers are deeply involved in philanthropy, particularly but not exclusively in the Jewish world. They support the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s Rocker Family Jewish Camp Scholarship program and the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, among many other organizations, including many healthcare and public education institutions. Mr. Rocker has supported Harvard until recently, when his anger at how the school has been treating the Jews who go there has led him to withdraw much of it. He has been active in trying to reverse Harvard’s decisions as it considers how to counter antisemitism, protect its students, and preserve the school’s interest in honest intellectual debate.

The Rockers have two sons and two daughters-in-law — Joshua and Abby and Daniel and Rachel — and six grandchildren. They share an abiding love for Israel and the Jewish community, as well as for the United States in all its variety and diversity, with their family.

And Mr. Rocker continues to cherish his time in the Navy. “I never would have given up those two years,” he said.

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