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Purity of Arms

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The Story of the Machal Nachal Volunteers  E-mail


In 1955, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser began to import arms from the Soviet bloc to build his arsenal for the confrontation with Israel.
From August 31, 1955 he began sending Arab terrorists (Fedayeen) trained and equipped by Egyptian intelligence, to engage in hostile action on the borders and to infiltrate Israel to commit acts of sabotage and murder. Because of these actions the young State of Israel was now threatened and felt internationally isolated.

As a result, Israel appealed to World Jewry to show their support in the face of these new dangers .

South African Jewry called on its youth to volunteer to the IDF for a period of 18 months. For youngsters this could mean placing their lives in danger and also putting on hold careers, studies and other plans. Early in 1956, Aubrey Hurwitz , Secretary of the Zionist Youth Council, approached the different Zionist Youth Movements and requested that Aliyah dates be advanced as part of a general effort to send volunteers to the IDF in Israel.

parachutecaptionWithout fanfare, in March 1956, the first group assembled and left by plane for Israel. The journey for this group of 20, as Joe Libner recalls, was long and tedious but quite uneventful. Two weeks later Doddie Gordon , Bobby Heldenmuth, Boetie Shifrin and 12 more, were part of the second group to leave by plane.

So began a pattern for many more small groups to fly to Israel over a period of almost ten years.

The South African Zionist Federation in Israel (Telfed) took overall responsibility for this project and Simie Weinstein acted on behalf of Telfed acting as the " Father Figure " for all the volunteers who kept arriving every few weeks. The Ministry of Defense was represented by Ben Moshe.

The volunteers were absorbed by the Nachal Battalion of the IDF and soon a large group of South Africans were now at Machane 80, the camp where most volunteers underwent basic training. Approximately 10% concluded their basic training at Bet Daras (near Kiryat Malachi). Towards the end of basic training, a few volunteers contracted yellow jaundice and were hospitalized for two weeks.

Soon an "Actions Committee" was set up in South Africa to promote volunteering and was made up of the following:
Chairman: Leo Kowarsky
Vice Chairmen: Lou Kotzen and Inez Gordon
Machal (1948) Members: Geoff Stark, Sydey Langbart, Manfred Hermer
Ex Nachal 1956 representative: Les Amdur
Liaison: Simie Weinstein (Israel)

During the first years, Nachal training included bayonet practice and parachute jumping courses.

On completion of basic training, the South Africans were split into two groups for their kibbutz period of 3-4 months, One group (mainly from Bnei Zion) joined the Nachal platoon on Kibbutz Hasolelim in Lower Galilee, while the other (mainly from Habonim) proceeded to Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Hula Valley. At this point a few individuals were allowed to transfer from the Nachal framework to other IDF sections. Thus Foxy Bernstein and Doc joined the Paratroop Brigade, Harry Shaer the Air Force and Percy Buntman and Rafi L. transferred to the Navy.

It was now October 1956 and Mivtza Kadesh (the Sanai campaign) had begun .

Foxy Bernstein, Doc (Ernest Finberg), Harris Perloff, Julien Ellenbogen and Geoff Sossen were amongst the Pararoopers who parachuted with Raful in the battle for the Mitla Pass. The Nachal platoon at Hasolelim were transported to the Sinai and took up positions opposite the Gaza strip near Dir-El Balach. They were engaged in rear guard actions such as guarding UNWRA Food Depots, destroying enemy installations etc.

For almost ten years, some 500 volunteers kept arriving almost exclusively from South African Jewry and after completion of their service , many decided to return and make Israel their new home.

With the advent of the Six day War (5th June, 1967), Jewish volunteers were now enlisting from all over the world. Arriving from Europe, North America and many other countries they were now dispersed amongst kibbutzim all over the country.

Months after the aftermath of the War, the IDF resumed absorbing the volunteers once more into the Nachal Brigade framework.

Since the year 2000, between150 to 200 Jewish Volunteers arrive every year from countries all over the world. They continue to be absorbed by the Nachal section of the IDF and have participated and excelled in Israel's subsequent wars with its neighbors.

Written by Doddie Gordon: April 2009