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Volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence

Dusty Sklar
December 6, 2016

by Dusty Sklar

THEY WERE CALLED Makhalniks, Makhal being an acronym for Mitnadvei Khutz Le’Aretz, or volunteers from outside the Land -- the Land being Israel, the volunteers being mainly U.S. and British World War II veterans. They totaled close to 4,000 men and women, and represented fifty-eight different countries. The year was 1948, when a military coalition of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq fought the first war against the newly formed State of Israel.

Even before independence, the Haganah, Israel’s first army, realized that they needed professionally trained soldiers who had experienced battle. The first volunteers, some 240, both Jews and non-Jews (and both Zionist believers and mercenaries), were mostly illegal immigrants from America recruited by an organization named Land and Labor for Palestine, which used employment agencies at which former naval and merchant-marine officers were looking for work. Most were first-generation Americans or Canadians from five or six cities. Families of these recruits, happy to have their sons back intact after World War II, often objected most strenuously to their sons risking their lives yet again.

The search for these recruits was clandestine, because if the British found out, they would have urged the United States government to put a halt to it and to the sale of ships. The Makhalniks would have been arrested and imprisoned for up to eight years and/or fined 10,000 pounds sterling for violating Britain’s Emergency Regulations forbidding illegal immigration. Not yet the military ally Israel that it would later become, the U.S. had issued an embargo on military weapons to the Middle East -- and U.S. passports all bore a stamp declaring, “This passport is not valid for travel to or in any foreign state for the purpose of entering or serving in the armed forces of such a state.” Americans were in danger of losing their citizenship if they disobeyed.

AT THE END of World War II, there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees living in European Displaced Persons Camps. Nobody wanted them. David Ben-Gurion came to America to plead with philanthropists to provide ships to carry them to Palestine. F. & B. Shipping Company bought five ships. “F. & B.”, it turned out, stood for “Fuck the British.”

Getting to Israel was no picnic. Ten ships were ultimately bought in the U.S. The British navy captured some of them, and Bill Bernstein, a third mate on the Exodus, was beaten to death by British soldiers, the first of some 123 volunteers, including four women, killed between 1947 and 1949. (The photo at top of the article shows Bernstein, at left, with other Makhalnik members of the Exodus crew.)

Most Makhalniks were first sent to France or Italy, where they spent weeks in Displaced Persons Camps, often under assumed names. The ships that eventually took them to Israel were most likely to be old, brimming with Holocaust survivors, sharing limited supplies of food and water, and risking either collapse or coming under Arab fire.

Weapons and supplies were brought from Europe, and thousands of Jewish refugees came from Arab countries. In the 1948 Egyptian Army siege of the Negev area, Makhal pilots were able to airlift thousands of tons of supplies to communities behind enemy lines, landing large cargo planes, usually at night, on makeshift, unpaved sand runways lit by oil lamps.

Makhalniks, writes Andrew Esensten at Haaretz, describing a 2012 exhibit about the Makhalniks at the Beit Hatfutsot (Museum of the Diaspora) in Israel, “served in all branches of the Israeli military and held key positions of command, often despite speaking little Hebrew,” but “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.” A former American colonel and West Point graduate, Mickey Marcus, led the air force as its first brigadier general. He would die at age 47 a few hours before the ceasefire, shot one night by friendly fire when he was taken for an enemy infliltrator. He was immortalized by Kirk Douglas in the 1966 movie, Cast a Giant Shadow.

When the ceasefire came January 7, 1949, most of the Makhal went back to their homes. New Prime Minister Ben-Gurion said, “The Makhal Forces were the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel.”

On the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a monument was erected to honor them. It is inscribed with a verse from Joshua 1:14: “All those of valour shall pass armed among your brethren, and shall help them.”

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Two of her recent articles for us dealt with David Ben Gurion and the Arabs, and Louis Brandeis, the “Jewish Jefferson.”

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.