Tonight begins Israel’s Independence Day. We celebrate Israel’s 67th birthday. Here’s an abbreviated story for you about that ‘independence’. It’s from an essay by Miriam Elman (“1948 – How American Jewish Pilots Helped Win Israel’s War of Independence”, Legal Insurrection, April 21, 2015). I’ve edited it—and re-written portions of it:
On May 30, 1948—fifteen days after the fledgling Jewish state was invaded by the armies of five Arab nations—Milton Rubenfeld, a former stunt pilot who served in the British Royal Air Force and the U.S. Air Force in World War II, flew on a critical combat mission that stopped the advancing Iraqi army.
When his plane was hit by enemy fire, he bailed out, landing in the field of an Israeli kibbutz. Since no one at the time knew that Americans were flying for Israel in its War of Independence, Rubenfeld was mistaken for an enemy pilot by the rifle-brandishing kibbutz members. Hands raised in the air, Rubenfeld—who spoke not a word of Hebrew—identified himself to the Israelis and saved his life by shouting what little Yiddish he knew—“Gefilte fish”, “Shabbos”, and “Pesach”!
This little-known true story is recounted by Rubenfeld’s widow and his son, the actor Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-wee Herman), in a remarkable new feature-length documentary “Above and Beyond”.
Produced by Nancy Spielberg (sister of Steven Spielberg—yes, that Spielberg) and directed by the accomplished Roberta Grossman, the 87 minute film tells the tale of the American airmen who, just three years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, volunteered with Rubenfeld in the 1948 war.
“Above and Beyond” has won rave reviews and multiple awards on the festival circuit. It’s scheduled for an April 28 VOD release including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.
It features the mostly Jewish American pilots who at great personal risk smuggled planes and war materials out of the U.S., trained on old Me-109 fighters (the mainstay of the German Luftwaffe) in secret behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, and flew dozens of missions in the summer and fall of 1948 for the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) newly created 101 Squadron.
In mid-May 1948 the Jewish defense forces (the Haganah) had roughly 35,000 troops, no air force, almost no artillery, and very few tanks.
There can be no doubt that the Arab armies had a major edge in weaponry.
The Israelis had nothing.
Except that they had Al Schwimmer.
Schwimmer worked for TWA and had been a flight engineer for the U.S. Transport Command in World War II. When he learned of Israel’s need for aircraft, he single-handedly bought some thirty surplus Messerschmitt fighters and recruited the pilots to fly them.
The U.S. State Department’s hostility toward the new Jewish state and the arms embargo [by the US and Britain] of the entire Middle East made his activities a chancy business. These all had to be clandestine flights. Schwimmer formed a bogus Panamanian airline and had pilots hopscotch around the globe to get to Israel.
The U.S. government threatened to revoke the citizenship of anyone who participated in the war. But Schwimmer wasn’t intimidated.
To evade detection by the authorities, he resorted to scouring military records for former World War II airmen in the N.Y. area with “Jewish-sounding names” and sending them cryptic telegrams. Mysterious instructions for secret rendezvous would include “meeting a guy with a flower in his lapel on 57th street”.
Schwimmer was indicted after the war for violating the U.S. Neutrality Act. He lost his U.S. citizenship and stayed in Israel. But that loss was his gain: he made a fortune as the founder of Israel Aerospace Industries. In 2001, he was pardoned by President Clinton.
The movie, “Above and Beyond”, includes archived war footage and stunning aerial reenactments, accomplished with special effects created by Industrial Light and Magic, which reportedly donated its time and expertise to the project.
But it’s the interviews with the still cocky nonagenarian airmen that make the film exciting to watch (Nancy Spielberg noted in an interview that the youngest was 88 at the time of filming). As one movie reviewer put it, “the film’s heart is the interviews with the pilots themselves who recall their exploits with infectious bravado”.
With the exception of Lou Lenart, the pilots were all second-generation Americans who knew little about Zionism and weren’t particularly proud of their Jewishness.
My favorite pilot is Gideon Lichtman. He was a former U.S. Army Air Force pilot. He shot down an Egyptian Spitfire on June 8, 1948 and went on to fly more than 30 missions during the war.
“I was risking my citizenship and possibly jail time,” he says of fighting for Israel. “I didn’t give a sh*t. I was gonna help the Jews out. I was going to help my people”. Other pilots had similar feelings. They came to Israel to help their people.
While Jewish forces were often successful in the fighting, they suffered painful defeats. At one point in the fighting, this is what David Ben-Gurion reported to the Zionist Action Committee that:
Hebrew Jerusalem is partially cut off all the time. For the past 10 days, it has been completely isolated and faces a serious danger of starvation. Almost all other roads are in disarray. Jews cannot set out without risking their lives”.
Across most of the fighting lines, the Arabs often took the initiative with forces greatly superior to the defending Jewish army. The war was, quite literally, a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of Jews.
When General Yigal Yadin, the Haganah’s chief of operations was asked by members of Israel’s provisional government about the chances of standing up to the expected Arab attack his reply was a sobering “Fifty, fifty”. Most company commanders at the time also saw this as a grave assessment based on truthful calculations.
To defend itself, Israel had meager forces along strung-out lines utterly vulnerable to Arab attack. But while the Jewish armies struggled to survive, these airmen pulled off miracles. In one incident, a Jewish American pilot and his buddies flew four “junk airplanes” for a country that had no actual air force, and managed to convince a large Egyptian force, encamped only 30 miles outside Tel Aviv, that there was enough “competition in the sky” to warrant aborting their advance.
There can be no doubt that these volunteers helped turn the tide of the war.
Most of the American volunteer pilots featured in “Above and Beyond” survived the 1948 war. Those who survived went on to lead productive lives in the U.S. and Israel.
Two of the airmen—U.S. Army Air Force pilot Coleman Goldstein and Lou Lenart, a U.S. Marine who served in the Pacific theater during World War II— became pilots for El Al Airlines.
Harold Livingston, who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps’ transport squadron, became a novelist and a Hollywood screenwriter, authoring Star Trek: the Motion Picture (one of the best films of all time, in my humble opinion).
But two from this courageous band of brothers didn’t make it. Stan Andrews and Bob Vickman—both UCLA art students in 1948 who had been stationed in the Pacific in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II—were killed when their IAF planes were shot down in separate incidents in July and October 1948.
As told in “Above and Beyond” by the pilots who fought with them, Andrews and Vickman came up with the logo for the 101 Squadron, scribbling the Angel of Death on a cocktail napkin at a Tel Aviv bar in June 1948.
It’s a design that still appears on Israeli F-16s today.
My comment: read the full essay. Get the movie when it comes out.
Happy 67th Israel Independence Day.
Here's a special Independence Day offer-- You might be interested in a new Yom Haatzma'ut and Yom Yerushalayim Machzor (prayer book especially for these two days) published by Koren.
This Mahzor is the first-ever English-Hebrew prayer book for Israel's national holidays. It includes complete services for Israel's Independence Day and Jerusalem Day according to the practices established by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The mahzor features an introduction by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, translation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, commentary by Rabbi Moshe Taragin and Rabbi Binyamin Lau. It includes a collection of essays by leading scholars in the world of Religious Zionism.
To receive a gift along with this Mahzor, contact Pomeranz Booksellers in Jerusalem. Tell them you saw this offer on the Tuvia Brodie blog. With your Mahzor purchase, you’ll get a unique gift—a Yom Ha’Atzmaut pamphlet written for Israel’s 25th Anniversary, in 1973, before the Yom Kippur War. You’ll get a perspective of Israel-Zion-Redemption written by our fathers you may not have seen before.
Contact Pomeranz at Pomeranzbooks@netvision.net.il (if the link doesn't work, please type it manually (or copy-paste)into your search engine)
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Their Israel phone number is 972-2-623-5559