My cousin was among them in 1948 and was killed in 1951. Ted Belman
by Steve Kramer (www.encountering israel.com)
Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People on the Tel Aviv University campus, is more than a museum. This unique global institution tells the ongoing and extraordinary history of the Jewish people. Beit Hatfutsot connects Jewish people to their roots and strengthens their personal and collective Jewish identity. Beit Hatfutsot conveys to the world the fascinating narrative of the Jewish people and the essence of the Jewish culture, faith, purpose and deed while presenting the contribution of world Jewry to humanity. (www.bh.org.il)
My friend Ros and I recently visited the museum to see its new exhibit about Machal: Overseas Volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence. (You can see the pertinent video on Youtube.) We were accompanied by Murray Greenfield, one of those volunteers who fought for Israel before its declaration of independence. Late in 1946, he was planning to attend Hunter College in New York City, after finishing his World War II service in the US Merchant Marine. Murray was approached in his New York synagogue by a man who asked him if he would be willing to utilize his naval experience and feelings for his fellow Jews to help the nascent Jewish state.
Having been raised “a real Jew,” Murray made a snap decision. He agreed to join the clandestine movement to expedite illegal immigration to Palestine – known as Aliyah Bet – despite hearing that he might be hanged by the British if he were caught. When he asked what the pay would be, Murray learned that there would be no pay involved for his efforts. The latter fact clinched it for Murray. He figured that no remuneration meant that the operation must be worthwhile!
Murray’s mother was mollified by his decision not to attend college on the G.I. Bill by the fact that, as he told her, he was doing something to help the Jewish people. (You can read all about Murray’s adventures and Aliyah Bet in his book, “The Jews’ Secret Fleet” or watch the DVD “Waves of Freedom.” Both are available from Gefen Publishing House. [www.gefenpublishing.com] (Murray was a founder, officer, and all around “macher” of many organizations and enterprises in Israel, including the Machal in Israel group of volunteers.)
Murray explained to us that British forces intercepted his ship, Hatikvah, arresting the crew and 1,500 “illegal immigrants” (mapilim in Hebrew), before they reached Palestine. They were incarcerated in Cyprus by the British until January, 1949. Only one of the ten Aliyah Bet ships from America were initially successful. Nevertheless, 50,000 mapilim eventually made it to Palestine and many fought in the War of Independence, which began immediately after Israel proclaimed itself the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. (Read my 2011 review of the book at http://www.jewishtimes-sj.com/news/2011-01-21/Columns/The_Jews_Secret_Fleet.html)
On the ship Hatakvah, Murray had spoken in Yiddush to the mapilim, helping to boost their morale when they learned that American Jews were helping them. Although the Machalniks were never very numerous, they were morale-builders for the many new immigrants and for the sabras, the native born Jews. (Today, so-called Lone Soldiers from around the world provide the same type of boost to the morale of Israeli army recruits.) The Machal forces were not necessarily crucial, but they were important to the war effort and to Israelis personally, reminding them of the Jewish world beyond the Mediterranean.
Murray, in his inimitable way, told us about the start of the Aliyah Bet operation and the buildup of Israel’s Army, Navy, and Air Force. We learned about Samuel Zemurray, nicknamed “Sam the Banana Man,” a Russian-born businessman who made his fortune in the banana trade. He founded the Cuyamel Fruit Company, and later became head of the United Fruit Company, the world’s most influential fruit company at the time. Both companies played highly controversial roles in the history of several Latin American countries (hence the term “banana republics”) and had a significant influence on their economic and political development. (www.wikipedia.org) Sam was instrumental in building Israel’s navy through his connections in the shipping industry.
One of the many Jewish “junk dealers” who helped the budding state was a certain Mr. Hill, who supplied materiel, such as two tanks and some artillery pieces, for the nascent Jewish army. Many Jewish recyclers in the junk business innocently bought up American army surplus and shipped bits and pieces to Israel, where they were reassembled. Other equipment came from soldiers who had deserted the British army with their trucks or other materiel.
Al Schwimmer, a former U.S. aircraft engineer who later founded Israel’s aerospace industry, smuggled three American cargo planes to Israel via Mexico. The planes were unwittingly fueled midway in the Azores by the British, who had no idea that the planes were bound for Israel. “In 1948, Schwimmer and his friend Hank Greenspun (later a Las Vegas newspaper publisher) stole into a military surplus base stacked with weapons and ammunition from World War II– and through a daring series of events, arranged for this stolen material to reach Israel.”
Schwimmer also heard about ‘Messerschmidt’ fighter planes left in Czechoslovakia, acquired them, took them apart and shipped the parts to Israel where they became the core of the Israel Air Force. Otherwise, it would not have existed.” (www.forbes.com)
Mahal pilots, mostly American and British Jews, ferried the dismantled fighter aircraft, Avia S-199s, which were modified Messerschmitts, from the base in Žatec, Czechoslovakia to Israel, in an operation codenamedOperation Balak. One of the pilots was Gordon Levett, a non-Jewish volunteer who refused payment, unlike some of the other non-Jewish fighters. Levett later was made a Lieutenant Colonel in the Israeli Air Force.
Consisting of more than 4,500 Jews and non-Jews from 58 countries, Machal members fought valiantly and served with distinction in every branch of the IDF, including Air Force and Navy, Artillery, Armored Corps, Infantry, Medical Corps., Engineers, Communications, Radar, Anti-Tank, etc. Many Machalniks held key positions of command, such as Col. Mickey Marcus, portrayed by Kirk Douglas in “Cast a Giant Shadow,” the 1966 Hollywood action film.
Murray related to us that former IDF Chief of Staff Mordechai “Motta” Gur personally told him that Machal’s role in the War of Independence was very significant. The Machalniks made a huge contribution, not only towards winning Israel’s independence, but also, in laying the foundation on which the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is based. David Ben-Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel, said: “The Machal forces were the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel.” See the website for the whole story: www.machal.org.il, which includes hundreds of personal stories, many of them riveting.
Examining the Machal exhibit at Beit Hatfutsoth, with Murray as our guide, was a remarkable experience. Murray says that Jews are an impossible people – they build, they create, they do. The Machalnicks are a perfect example of just that.
pictures: The Hatikvah crew; One of the cargo planes used by Machal; the Machal Memorial; 3 Machalniks; Machal reunion
Stephen Kramer, Author
“Encountering Israel – Geography, History, Culture”