March 8, 2001
Whom Pardons Are “Made For”
President Clinton pardoned Al Schwimmer for violating Neutrality Act to help Israel build air force.
The list of pardons granted by President Clinton on his last day in office included fugitive financier Marc Rich and convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali -- and then there was Al Schwimmer.
Nobody has paid much attention to the pardon for the 83-year-old former smuggler and aircraft executive, including Schwimmer himself.
"The pardon won't change anything for me. I don't feel any different," Schwimmer told The Jewish Journal during a phone call to his Tel Aviv home.
So indifferent was Schwimmer that when Brian Greenspun, an influential Las Vegas newspaper publisher and longtime Friend of Bill, broached the subject, Schwimmer said he would never sign a paper admitting to any wrongdoing.
"My service to Israel was one of the proudest things I have ever done," Schwimmer told Greenspun.
What Schwimmer did was to use his contacts and experience as a World War II flight engineer for the U.S. Air Transport Command, and similar civilian service for TWA, to smuggle some 30 surplus war planes to the nascent Jewish state in 1948.
He also recruited the pilots and crews to fly the planes by circuitous routes to Israel where the men, mainly World War II veterans, became the nucleus of the Israeli Air Force.
So crucial was Schwimmer's role in the days when America and all other countries imposed a weapons embargo on the Middle East that David Ben-Gurion described his actions as the Diaspora's single most important contribution to the survival of Israel.
In the eyes of federal law enforcers, however, Schwimmer had violated the U.S. Neutrality Act and faced charges when he returned to America in 1950.
With him was an even more colorful arms smuggler, Hank Greenspun, later to form a publishing and real estate empire in Las Vegas and to do battle with Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Greenspun pleaded guilty, while Schwimmer demanded a trial and was convicted. Both were fined $10,000 (paid by the Jewish Agency). They were also deprived of their civil rights, which meant they couldn't vote, run for office or be employed by the government.
Greenspun later obtained a pardon from President Kennedy, but Schwimmer couldn't be bothered.
He was running an aircraft maintenance company in Burbank when Israel again called for his services in the early 1950s. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion asked him to come back and establish an Israeli aircraft industry for commercial and military uses.
When Schwimmer retired 30 years later, in 1988, the company was worth $1 billion. Its value now is $2 billion, with 20,000 employees, making it the single largest industry in Israel, Schwimmer said.
In the mid-1980s, Schwimmer took on a side job as special advisor for technology and industry for then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
In this capacity, he found himself an intermediary between Washington and Tehran in the ill-fated attempt to trade American and Israeli weapons for U.S. hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.
In this special assignment, which Schwimmer still won't discuss, he met with President Reagan and Vice President George Bush, who either didn't know or didn't care that they were dealing with a convicted felon.
Schwimmer's old friend and fellow smuggler, Hank Greenspun, died in 1989, but the aircraft executive kept in touch with the son, Brian Greenspun. The younger Greenspun had been a classmate of Clinton's at Georgetown University and was a frequent visitor at the White House.
About a year ago, Greenspun broached the idea of seeking a pardon, and when Schwimmer evinced little interest, Greenspun decided to go ahead on his own.
When the pardon was announced, Schwimmer was as surprised as anyone, and so far he has not received any official notification.
Greenspun is not concerned that the controversy surrounding the pardon for Rich and others will reflect on him or Schwimmer. "A case like this is what pardons were made for," he told a reporter. "I have no qualms about what I did."
Schwimmer is now focusing his energies on a different Israeli cause, the movement to give the country its long-delayed constitution.
A pillar of the constitution would be a Bill of Rights, guaranteeing equality to all branches of Judaism, prohibiting state interference in religious practice, and providing the option of civil marriage and divorce.
"Without such rights," he warned, "relationships between Israel and the Diaspora will wither away."
So far, Schwimmer has resisted all entreaties to write his memoirs. "Who would be interested?" he asked.