Israel's foreign defenders

On Israeli Independence Day, IDF website honors Mahal volunteers from around the world who helped defend the newly formed state 64 years ago and today

Date: 26/04/2012, 2:07 PM     Author: Adam May

64 years ago, Israel was founded as a homeland for all Jews. The Jewish Diaspora has always been a fundamental element of the nature of Israel. The State of Israel has welcomed Jews from all over the world with open arms, and they have in return helped build the nation. But during Israel's infancy, a very special group of visitors answered Israel's cries for help.

A group of mostly Jewish veterans, many of whom fought through the horrors of World War II, came to the aid of Israel's fledgling army. This group of roughly 3,500 volunteers was the foundation of Mahal, a Hebrew acronym meaning volunteers from abroad. Unlike the many immigrants fleeing to Israel, these visitors were permanent residents of other countries with lives of their own that they had only recently returned to from their service in Europe. Volunteers came in droves from 43 countries, using their expertise to help found the various corps of the nascent IDF. These volunteers became soldiers, sailors, smugglers, advisors, pilots, and ultimately played an integral part in the War of Independence.

These volunteers and heroes play part in all of the greatest stories from the War of Independence from the push to Jerusalem, to the effort to arm the forces. They fought in all corners of Israel and paid an especially heavy toll with over 119 Mahalnicks falling in action. Two of their most vital contributions came in their assistance on the seas and in the skies.

Aliyah Bet - An exodus by sea

In the days before Israel was founded, the British Mandate of Palestine had severe restrictions on influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe. Under the nose of the British, the Jewish underground orchestrated the secret transport of thousands of holocaust survivors to future Israel. A huge portion of these Jewish refugees were transported by a small group of American and Canadian sailors, who volunteered and risked their lives to smuggle them out of war ravaged European countries.

Beginning in 1947, a group of 240 Americans and Canadians began purchasing the rusty remains of discarded World War II ships. In the end, 10 ships were purchased and used to conduct the operation of clandestine immigration that has come to be known as Aliyah Bet.

Old merchant marine vessels and antiquated warships packed with refugees attempted to run the blockades set up by the Royal British Navy. The British intercepted most of the ships and their passengers were held at internment facilities in Cyprus or Palestine until the founding of the State of Israel.

One notable exception was the Exodus 1947, which attempted to make landfall on the shores of Palestine. British soldiers attempted to board the ship and lead it back to Europe. Standing in their way was second mate Billy Bernstein, one of the volunteers from America. Billy Bernstein attempted to defend the Holocaust survivors on the ship and help them to reach land. British soldiers beat Billy to death, making him the first volunteer to die in service to Israel.

The efforts of these volunteers helped rescue 31,000 refugees from the ruins of Europe and bring them to Israel where they helped found the future state. They braved untold dangers and harsh consequences to bring some measure of hope and dignity to the survivors of the unspeakable horrors of the holocaust. Many of the volunteers and crewmembers went on to serve in the IDF during the War of Independence.

An air force from scratch

A key element of Israel's victory during the War of Independence was its ability to control the skies, a common element in most of Israel's conflicts. But what makes this initial victory so stunning is the speed with which Israel developed an air force from nothing at all. Such an astonishing feat was made possible by the effort of volunteer pilots from all over the world.

Though there were a small number of Israeli pilots who had been trained by the British Royal Air Force in World War II, there was a huge dearth of individuals with the skill to fly planes in Israel. Of the roughly 600 soldiers serving as the aircrew of the newly formed IAF, over 400 were volunteers from overseas. These volunteers became technicians, commanders, and pilots, and included World War II heroes such as the acclaimed Royal Canadian Air Force ace George "Buzz" Beurling and South African Air Force Veteran Boris Senior. The number of volunteers was so large that the IAF's operational language was English by necessity.

The story of the Israeli Air Force's founding is an astounding one. In the span of a few months the State of Israel acquired numerous outdated transports, commercial planes, and fighters, cobbling together an air force that managed to attain air superiority during the War of Independence. Without the expertise and experience of the volunteers, it is unlikely Israel would have obtained these planes, let alone have the pilots to fly them.

Beyond turning the tide of multiple battles and maintaining control of the skies, many these brave volunteers worked in secret to arrange the transport of war supplies and planes from all over Europe to Israel. During Operation Balak, thousands of tons of supplies - including the German Messerschmidts that became essential to the IAF - were surreptitiously flown from Czechoslovakia. In addition, the British technician Jack Freedman used his expertise to restore the decrepit RAF Spitfire remnants abandoned in Israel, contributing to the IAF's growing fleet.

Perhaps the greatest contribution these volunteers made was in the knowledge they bestowed upon Israel's aspiring pilots and technicians. Mahal volunteers trained crewmen to do everything from building and maintaining Israel's planes to operating Israel's secret radar installations. The volunteers even laid the foundations for Israel's illustrious pilot training program. Members of Mahal instructed all Israeli pilots, and even conducted training programs at airfields in California, Italy, and Czechoslovakia.

Since the War of Independence, Mahal has continued its mission of helping foreigners who wish to join the IDF. Even today, hundreds of volunteers from abroad come through Mahal every year filling positions throughout the IDF. There are several additional programs, such as Garin Tzabar, which help people from abroad join the IDF with or without making Aliyah. The IDF has continued to welcome with open arms all those who wish to help the State of Israel, and they continue to make meaningful contributions.