Al Schwimmer, a New York native whom David Ben-Gurion described as the Diaspora’s single most important contribution to the survival of Israel, died Saturday (6/11) on his 94th birthday at Tel Hashomer hospital near Tel Aviv.
As his initial contribution, Schwimmer used 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, mostly World War II veterans, became the nucleus of the Israel Air Force. Among the smuggled planes were a few beat up B-17s, which dropped some bombs on Cairo on their way to Israel.
He returned to America in 1949 and the following year was indicted, tried and convicted of violating the U.S. Neutrality Act by smuggling weapons to Israel. He was stripped of his voting rights and veteran benefits and fined $10,000, but escaped a prison sentence.
Schwimmer never sought a presidential pardon because he refused to admit any wrongdoing, but was nevertheless pardoned later by President Bill Clinton through the intercession of friends.
Schwimmer was running an aircraft maintenance company in Burbank in the early 1950s, when Ben-Gurion asked him to come back to Israel and establish an aircraft company for commercial and military purposes.
When Schwimmer retired 30 years later, in 1988, Israel Aircraft Industries was the largest company in Israel, valued at $1 billion.
In the mid-1980s, Schwimmer took on a side job as special advisor for technology and industry for then Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who became a close friend.
In this capacity, Schwimmer 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.
During this assignment, which Schwimmer declined to discuss during an interview, he met with President Ronald Reagan and then Vice President George H.W. Bush, who either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were dealing with a convicted felon.
In 2006, Schwimmer was awarded the Israel Prize for Life Achievement and Contributions to Israeli Society.
In his eighties, Schwimmer began to focus his energies on a different Israeli cause, the movement to give the country its long-delayed constitution, together with a bill of rights guaranteeing equality to all branches of Judaism, prohibiting state interference in religious practice, and providing the options of civil marriage and divorce.
During an American fundraising tour for this effort in 2001, he stopped in Los Angeles and during an interview with The Journal warned that without such a bill of rights “relationships between Israel and the Diaspora will wither away.”
Throughout his life, Schwimmer, who for understandable reasons never used his given birth name of “Adolph,” resisted all entreaties to write his memoirs, asking, “Who would be interested?”
He is survived his wife Rena, son Danny, daughter Daphna, and grandchildren.