Not Home Alone: Foreigners Came to Israel's Rescue in 1948

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten
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Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion called them "the Diaspora's most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel," and in recent years the volunteers from 58 countries who fought for Israel during its War of Independence have sought greater recognition for the crucial role they played in the struggle for a Jewish homeland.

A new addition to the core exhibition at Tel Aviv's Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, represents a modest step in that direction, said several of the volunteers, now in their late 80s and early 90s, at the opening of the exhibit earlier this month. The exhibit is entitled "By Land, By Air and By Sea: Volunteers from Abroad in Israel's War of Independence."

"Machal is one of the glorious chapters in the annals of modern Jewish history," said Stanley Medicks, 86, using the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz Le'aretz, or overseas volunteers. "I find that Beit Hatfutsot is the ideal place to tell the remarkable, heroic story of what we did in 1948."

Medicks was born in Nairobi to Polish parents, served in the 72nd Infantry Battalion and later founded a branch of the World Machal organization for UK and Scandinavian veterans. He told Haaretz that he petitioned the museum for years to recognize Machal and, after finally getting approval for an exhibit, raised the NIS 120,000 necessary to mount it from donors around the world, including the American Veterans of Israel.

Approximately 4,500 Machalniks - men and women, Jews and non-Jews - served in the Israel Defense Forces and its forerunners (the Haganah, Palmach and other underground organizations ) between 1947 and 1949. Most of them were recently discharged World War II veterans who put their lives on hold to travel to Israel and offer their desperately needed military expertise.

Some, like Murray Greenfield, participated mainly out of Zionist fervor and a sense of Jewish solidarity, especially in the wake of the Holocaust.

"We failed our fellow Jews during the Holocaust," said Greenfield, 85, who was recruited at a synagogue in New York for the clandestine mission to resettle European Jews in Mandate Palestine known as "Aliyah Bet."

"You cannot sit back and think things are going to happen," Greenfield said. "You've got to make them happen."

While Machalniks served in all branches of the Israeli military and held key positions of command, often despite speaking little Hebrew, they may have had the greatest impact as members of the Israel Air Force. Nearly all of the IAF's aircrew and technical personnel were overseas volunteers who helped buy and smuggle planes, train Israeli pilots and lead bombing missions.

Harold "Smoky" Simon, a veteran of the South African Air Force, served as the IAF's chief of air operations and flew 24 missions in 1948. His logbook, which is on display in the exhibit, contains details of raids on Arab cities.

"When we really wanted to start showing our muscle, we attacked Damascus," recalled Simon, 92, who is the chairman of World Machal. "We flew in a DC-3 Dakota aircraft and we loaded her with 16 80-kilogram bombs, boxes of incendiaries and crates of empty bottles, which created a terrifying noise when they fell to the ground. The planes didn't have bomb racks in the early days, so we had a category of 'bomb-chucker,' young Israelis who carried the bombs on their laps and pitched them when we were over the target."

The exhibit features handmade models of the planes flown by Simon and his comrades, as well as black-and-white photographs from the war and line drawings of Machalniks by celebrated Israeli artist Nachum Gutman. A short documentary plays on one wall of the exhibit, which is located in the "Return to Zion" section of the core exhibit.

A number of the Machalniks interviewed expressed muted disappointment with how the exhibit turned out, though they said they took pride in the fact that future visitors to the museum, including newly enlisted IDF soldiers, will know something of Machal's history.

"What is missing that you will get from talking to every single one of us is the passion, the determination, the spirit of mission, the understanding of our place in this moment of history," said Zipporah Porath, 88, a New Yorker who arrived in Israel in 1947, intending to study at the Hebrew University, but who joined the Haganah instead and served as a medic during the Siege of Jerusalem.

"This exhibition is only the beginning," said Medicks.

Shira Friedman, the exhibit's curator, explained that her goal was to incorporate the Machal experience into the larger narrative of Jewish volunteerism and heroism. She commended the Machalniks for pursuing their ambitious vision for the exhibit, even when it clashed with her own.

"If they have one thing in common, it's that personality: I have a target and I'm going to conquer the target," said Friedman, who is part of the team that is completely redesigning the core exhibit at Beit Hatfutsot. (A museum spokesperson said the new exhibit is expected to open in 2014. )

As Friedman came to learn, the Machalniks are proud of their service and protective of their legacy. Their website, www.machal.org.il, contains exhaustive Machal archives and more than 200 personal narratives. They have organized smaller exhibits around the world, including at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City and on Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem. In addition, they erected a Machal Memorial monument near Sha'ar Hagai in the Judean Hills to commemorate the 123 fallen volunteers and gather there every year on Israel's Memorial Day to honor their memory.

At the dedication of the memorial in 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said of the volunteers: "You came when we needed you most, during those dark and 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."

Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister, the IDF's chief education officer, said in remarks at the opening of the exhibit that the Machalniks left a powerful legacy that continues to be felt today. "The foundation that you laid in spirit and action brings to Israel hundreds of volunteers each year to serve in the IDF and participate in the critically important defense mission," said Shermeister.

Simon, of World Machal, said he frequently gives "pep talks" to groups of volunteers from the United States, England, South Africa, Australia and many other places. "It's wonderful," he said, "that we're able to maintain the spirit and the tradition of Machal."

"By Land, By Air and By Sea: Volunteers from Abroad in Israel's War of Independence" is now open as part of the core exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, on the campus of Tel Aviv University. For more information, visit www.bh.org.il.

A re-staging, of a photo taken along the Syrian border in October 1948. Credit: Gilad Ben-Amar

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