A Personal Essay:
Why the Experiences of North American Volunteers are Largely Unknown
by Ralph Lowenstein
Over the years, veterans of Aliyah Bet and Machal have had one common refrain: “No one in America knows about us. Israel pretends we never existed.”
There is some truth and much misunderstanding about both statements.
We were and are largely unknown in the United States and Canada. Out of a population of more than 5 million Jews, we numbered only 1,250. It is safe to say that very few North American Jews know about the volunteers. During my own lifetime, no American Jew or Christian who discovered that I had volunteered for Israel in 1948 had ever met another American Jew who did the same. The odds against their knowing someone like me were about 4,000 to 1.
Immediately after the 1948 war, there was absolutely no publicity about our experience. All American volunteers had violated the terms of their passports, and perhaps other laws then extant, risking at best fines and jail time, and at worst loss of their citizenship. Canadian laws, if applied strictly, could punish volunteers from that country severely.
We did not want publicity.
Yet, pound for pound, American and Canadian Jews contributed more to building the rock-solid foundation of the Israeli armed forces than any other volunteer group. Consider these facts:
-- The first man to hold the rank of aluf (general) in the Israeli army was David "Mickey" Marcus, a West Point graduate with a brilliant World War II record. He wrote the Israeli Army's first field manual and directed the battle to open the way to surrounded Jerusalem. He was tragically killed by one of his own sentries.
-- The first man to hold the equivalent rank of "admiral" was Paul Shulman of New York City. Shulman was an Annapolis graduate and directed the purchase of most of the 12 Aliyah Bet (clandestine immigration) ships purchased in the U.S. to rescue Holocaust survivors. He was the first commander of the Israeli navy.
-- Al Schwimmer of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was second-in-command of the Israeli air force. He directed the purchase of all the heavy aircraft that provided the air bridge to bring arms from Czechoslovakia to Israel. Without that air bridge to bring in huge amounts of rifles, machineguns, ammunition and fighter planes, Israel might not have won the war. Schwimmer later founded and led Israel Aircraft Industries, Israel's largest employer, with 20,000 employees.
-- Ben Dunkelman, a Canadian with combat command experience in World War II, was brigadier of the 7th Brigade, one of Israel's 12 fighting brigades.
-- Some 59 per cent of all the 186 pilots in the Air Force with World War II experience were American and Canadian. These experienced fighter pilots halted the Arab bombing of Israeli cities; they played a key role in stopping the advance of Egyptian armored columns as they neared Tel Aviv.
-- Rudy Augarten of Philadelphia, a Harvard student, shot down three enemy planes, trained Israel's first sabra fighter pilots, and was then brought back to Israel in 1950 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel to become commander of Ramat David Air Force Base.
-- Israel's entire heavy bomber squadron came from America and was piloted mostly by Americans.
-- All five fighting ships in the Israeli Navy were purchased in America, initially as Aliyah Bet ships. Americans and Canadians with World War II experience trained Israeli crews in command and maintenance.
-- Exodus 1947, the ship credited with tipping the 1947 United Nations Partition vote in favor of Israel, had a Palestinian Jewish captain, but a mostly-American volunteer crew.
-- The ten American "big ships" that ran the British naval blockade between the end of World War II and May 15, 1948, brought to Palestinian waters 43 per cent of all the Holocaust survivors rescued in that period of time. The ships were purchased by American philanthropists. The crews were mostly American and Canadian.
Most of the American and Candian volunteers in the Israeli armed forces had World War II experience, and could contribute badly-needed military skills to Israel. The clandestine recruitment process sought young men and women between the ages of 20 and 26 -- old enough to have had military experience, but not old enough to be burdened with responsibility for spouses and children.
Our parents were not among the movers and shakers in American Jewish life. With only one or two exceptions, we were first generation Jews on at least one side of our family. Our fathers had not yet “made it.” In my research, I found only four volunteers from Ivy League schools. The Jewish representation in the student body at Columbia University was significant in 1948, perhaps as high as 20 to 30 percent. Yet I was the only undergraduate at Columbia to volunteer.
Only two published novels were written by volunteers about their experience; neither was a best-seller. The non-fiction books over the years about this general subject concentrated on the effort to rescue Holocaust survivors or acquire arms for Israel, not on the critical role of the volunteers, including some Christians, in actual combat service. The one exception to this was "I Am My Brother's Keeper," by Craig and Jeffrey Weiss, a book that gave many vignettes of Machal experience.
In short, we were never “forgotten,” because we were never known in the first place.
American veterans of Aliyah Bet and Machal have criticized Israel for not giving more public credit to these North American contributions.
But I think that in making such criticism, we fail to take the larger perspective. We fail to see ourselves as Israelis see us.
First, Palestinian Jews suffered the brunt of Arab attacks, beginning in November 1947, well before Machal volunteers were anything but a trickle. By the end of the war, in March 1949, some 4,000 Israeli soldiers and 2,000 civilians had been killed, a staggering 1 per cent of the population.
Second, Israel did not want to give us publicity that might have affected our lives in America and Canada adversely. Following the war, almost a dozen Americans involved in arms transfer and/or service in the Israeli armed forces were tried, fined (in one case imprisoned) and lost their civil rights for life.
Third, Israel treated us not as arriving saviors, but as arriving immigrants, just like immigrants streaming into the country from the Displaced Persons camps of Europe and the internment camps in Cyprus. We were given citizenship documents, along with our enlistment assignments. Not counting several hundred thousand Holocaust survivors, we were 1,250 of some 3,500 volunteers from 44 different countries. I think Israelis expected most of us to stay, and were disappointed when we did not. Only about 200 North Americans (16 percent) remained in Israel immediately after the war, although many others immigrated to Israel in their later years.
Fourth, Israel was involved in nation building. It had to form a cohesive citizenry out of a disparate mass. It needed local, not foreign, heroes as models to inspire Israeli youth.
And fifth, the war did not end for Israel in March 1949. The country has been harassed every day of its first six decades by a succession of enemies determined to undo the victory of 1948 -- Fedayeen, the PLO, Hezballah, Hamas, every one of the 22 Arab nations, a politicized United Nations, suicide bombers, academic and economic boycotts, and European nations that have forgotten their sordid history of anti-Semitism and fratricide. Since the armistice that was signed in March 1949, Israel has been engaged in five additional wars for survival of the Jewish state. Israel does not have the luxury of breaking out the flag on Independence Day, watching the parades and looking back at the brave foreign volunteers who helped them to victory in just one of their many wars.
Even so, Israelis of the 1948-49 generation understood and appreciated the contribution of American and Canadian volunteers. Yitzchak Rabin later wrote of us: "You came to us when we needed you most, during those difficult, uncertain days in our War of Independence. You gave us not only your experience, but your lives as well. The people of Israel and the State of Israel will never forget, and will always cherish, this unique contribution made by you -- the volunteers of Machal."
In May 2007, Lt. General Gaby Ashkenazi, the newly-appointed chief of Israel's General Staff, wrote to Harold Simon, chairman of World Machal: "We owe a great deal of Israel's success to Machal and its volunteers. Machal and its volunteers were also among the founders and early trainers of the Israeli Defense Forces, and, as the 19th Chief of the General Staff, I never allow myself to forget who were the people who made it all happen."
An Israeli army colonel once said to me, about the role of American and Canadian volunteers: “We knew we were not alone.”
Israel cannot be blamed for giving too little publicity to this handful of volunteers. But American and Canadian Jewry can be. While 5 million North American Jews were cheering for Israel and providing the financial and political support that Israel needed so desperately, 1,250 of their sons and daughters were putting their citizenship and lives on the line so there could be a Jewish nation where all of our brethren, now and in the future, could find refuge, if necessary.
In risking their citizenship, as well as their lives, the American and Canadian volunteers were unique. In rescuing Holocaust survivors in such large numbers, American and Canadian volunteers were unique. In air-lifting rifles, machineguns and ammunition to weapons-starved Israel in such vast numbers, American and Canadian volunteers were unique. In providing the greatest numbers of pilots for bombers and fighter planes that helped turn back the Egytian advance on Tel Aviv, the North Americans were unique.
But American Jewish historians and museum directors, who should know better, have ignored the role that American Jews and Christians played in combat roles in 1948. It's as if a history of American involvement in World War II could be complete with a review of military production in the U.S. and the successful sale of War Bonds -- but without mention of the Normandy invasion. The American Veterans of Israel tried for years to convince every major American Jewish museum to devote just one permanent museum case to the role of American and Canadian volunteers – to no avail.
The two museums -- one in Florida and another in California -- and the website (www.israelvets.com) that we surviving veterans have built with our own funds and with the help of a few caring foundations are efforts to fill in this shocking gap in North American Jewish knowledge about the War of Independence. We are proud of what we did in the 1948 war, and we believe our fellow North American Jews would be, also – if only they knew.
Ralph Lowenstein is Dean Emeritus of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida in Gainesville. A native of Danville,Virginia, he volunteered for the Israeli Army at the age of 18, while a summer exchange student in Europe at the end of his freshman year at Columbia University. He lived in a Displaced Persons camp in Marseilles under an assumed name, then saw combat with the 79th Armored Battalion 10 days after being smuggled into Israel. He later served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Lowenstein holds two degrees from Columbia and the Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. An award-winning reporter, he was visiting professor and head of journalistic studies at Tel Aviv University from 1967 to 1968. He is author or co-author of five books, including “Bring my Sons from Far,” (World, 1966), a novel about Israel’s War of Independence.