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For Israeli war volunteers, service was most important act of their lives

In May 1948, I was walking down Market Street in San Francisco when I passed a small movie theater with a marquee that announced “The Jews Fight for Their State.”

For the first time, it fully hit me that the Jews were actually taking on five vastly superior armies. I took the train back to Berkeley but had a hard time focusing on my studies at the University of California. With the school year nearing its end, I decided to join the fight.

I was among some 4,000 volunteers from 57 countries who volunteered during Israel’s War of Independence, a group collectively known as Machal, the Hebrew acronym for volunteers from abroad. Some of their stories are told in two recent films focusing on the wartime contributions of the airmen who, to a large extent, gave birth to the Israeli air force.

As far back as 1966, with Melville Shavelson’s film “Cast a Giant Shadow,” movies have rubbed layers of Hollywood gloss on these events. The macho flyboys featured in “A Wing and a Prayer” and “Above and Beyond” are celebrated for their ingenuity and courage in smuggling the first combat planes to the nascent Jewish state, and then using the aircraft to scare the wits out of the surprised Arab forces.

But while these overseas volunteers certainly played a role in Israel’s victory, I believe that the major contribution of these volunteers was to lift the morale of the Israelis by showing them that their diaspora brethren — along with a fair number of non-Jewish volunteers — were with them, atoning in a small way for their elders’ inaction during the Holocaust.

As with all men who go to war voluntarily, our motives were mixed, and not always idealistic. After the emotional intensity of fighting as a U.S. infantryman in France and Germany during World War II, I found it hard to settle down. My early exposure to Zionism in Berlin in the mid-1930s had also left an imprint. And since a new Jewish state is established only every 2,000 years or so, I figured I probably wouldn’t be around for the next one.

My first step was to figure out how to get there. The U.S. State Department, which did not share my enthusiasm for Israel, stamped most passports “Not good for travel to Palestine” and warned that serving in a foreign army might well entail loss of American citizenship.

My journey took me from the butchers’ union in San Francisco, whose business agent doubled as a secret recruiter, to Israel’s so-called “Land and Labor” headquarters in Manhattan, and then by ship across the Atlantic to the French port of Le Havre. There we were met by an Israeli contact who put us on a train to Paris, and from there on to Marseilles where another contact conveyed us to Camp Grand Arenas, a transit point for North African Jews and European Holocaust survivors waiting for boats to take them to Israel.

At the time, a temporary armistice had been declared between Jewish and Arab forces, supervised by a U.N. contingent, which was to ensure that neither side brought in reinforcements. Nevertheless, we set out under tight security on the Pan York, a creaky former banana carrier. When the ship arrived in Haifa, the genuine refugees passed quickly through immigration inspection, while we foreign volunteers were taken by a circuitous route around the U.N. inspectors enforcing the armistice rules.

My recruiter was Lester Gorn, a Hollywood scriptwriter who had served as a U.S. Army major during World War II. He had persuaded Israel’s army command to let him organize something called the 4th Anti-Tank Troop, which was to consist solely of English-speaking volunteers, or “Anglo-Saxim” in local parlance. The troop would be a “democratic” outfit, Gorn said, with no ranks or saluting and with all major decisions by majority vote — except in combat.

For a lowly ex-GI with little fondness for military punctilio, I found the offer too good to turn down, so off I went in Gorn’s jeep. We soon arrived at the unit’s encampment and I quickly noticed that something was missing: There were no anti-tank guns, only one wooden replica of a cannon. When I pointed out the omission, Gorn assured me that as soon as the Israeli infantry captured a gun from the enemy, we would be in business.

Indeed, within a short time, the unit welcomed a 17-pound artillery piece that had been seized from the Jordanian Legion. We made do with this venerable weapon until the battle of Faluja, where Israeli troops surrounded a sizable Egyptian force under the command of one Col. Abdel Nasser, later to become president of Egypt.

The beleaguered Egyptians fought stubbornly, but one day our unit, part of the encircling Israeli force, received a perfect present — a shipment of anti-tank guns from Czechoslovakia that was originally destined for Germany’s Wehrmacht. The weapons were so new, they were still wrapped in the original oilcloth, which we quickly ripped off to discover a curious emblem stamped into the side of the gun barrel — a big fat swastika.

Irony doesn’t get much better than that — a bunch of Jewish guys firing a swastika-emblazoned gun at the enemy.

In what proved to be the last major action of the war, on March 11, 1949 our unit drove down the eastern edge of the Negev, along the Jordanian border, to the village of Um Rash-Rash, consisting of two mud huts and a flagpole — the site of the future bustling city of Eilat.

After the war, historians largely ignored the role played by the foreign volunteers. Hollywood had the opposite problem — movies tended to exaggerate their contribution.

Still, for most of us, our small part in the creation and survival of the Jewish state represents, I believe, the most important act of our lives.

Tom Tugend is a Los Angeles–based correspondent for JTA.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent