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Jewish Journal

Retracing History

Books explore role played by foreign volunteers during Israel's War of Independence

by Tom Tugend

September 17, 1998 | 8:00 pm

Israel's 50th anniversary celebration has brought forth a stream of reminiscences, not the least by American veterans seeking recognition for the contributions of overseas volunteers in the fledgling state's 1948-49 War of Independence.

A useful overview of the role played by the men and women of Machal (the Hebrew acronym for Volunteers from Outside the Land) is presented in "I Am My Brother's Keeper" (Schiffer Military History Press, $29.95).>Some 3,500 volunteers from English-speaking and other Free World countries fought in the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces, including 1,400 from the United States.

Most were World War II veterans, including a number of Christians, and their impact was greatest in the branches the Haganah had to create from scratch -- foremost in the air force and Air Transport Command, as well as in the small but aggressive navy.

The scanty literature on the Machal's role has until now focused mainly on the air force, whose dashing pilots, flying an odd assortment of fighter planes and bombers, lent themselves most easily to exciting stories of genuine derring-do.

It is the special merit of this book that it pays equal attention to the Machalniks who fought in the less glamorous infantry and other ground forces.

Also receiving their due are the sailors of Aliyah Bet, who braved the sea and the British blockade in rickety vessels to smuggle Europe's refugees into pre-state Palestine.

The American authors of the book are Jeffrey Weiss, an attorney, and his brother Craig Weiss, a law student. They have tried to make up for their lack of both military and writing experience with conscientious research and interviewing no less than 160 participants in the 1948-49 war.

The authors succeed only partially. With enough exciting stories for a dozen Hollywood action pictures -- from the clandestine airlift of German Messerschmitt fighters to the kidnapping of an arms ship destined for Syria -- the writing is largely pedestrian, as are the accompanying photos.

It is difficult to judge the accuracy of the material, since the Weiss brothers had to rely on the memories of veterans reliving their glory days 50 years later.

A sampling of the American volunteers cited in the book, whom this reviewer contacted, seemed broadly satisfied with the authors' narrative.

However, one of the book's principal characters, flying ace Rudy Augarten, whose photo graces the cover, is more cautious. "The reporting is fairly good," he said, "but there are lots of little things I would question."

This evaluation is borne out in the section on the "Anglo-Saxon" 4th Anti-Tank Unit (not "Squad"), in which this reviewer served.

While the basic facts check out, they are frequently overlaid by a patina of romanticism. This holds particularly for the persona of Jesse Slade, an enigmatic half-Native American from Texas, whose deeds have taken on near mythical proportions with the passage of time.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has written a foreword to the book, in which he praises the contributions of the American and Canadian volunteers, noting that "they brought with them World War II experience, Western efficiency, exemplary dedication and infinite courage."

The creation of Israel's Air Transport Command in early 1948 is chronicled with considerable gusto by novelist and screenwriter Harold Livingston in "Destination: Israel" (Gates & Bridges, $14.95).

Livingston was among the American World War II veterans who ferried barely airworthy C-46s and Constellations, with desperately needed guns and ammunition, to Israel, via adventuresome stops in Panama, Brazil, Africa, Italy and Czechoslovakia.

Running parallel to the action is Livingston's search, to define his identity as a Jew.

Toward the end of the book, regrettably, much space is devoted to the author's battle with the commanding brass to keep the independence-minded air transport unit from being integrated into the regular military structure.

Such battles were earlier fought -- and lost -- by the left-wing Palmach and the right-wing Irgun. They seemed matter of high principle then, but should merit little more than a footnote now.

Yet, looking back, Livingston defines the emotions of the small band of overseas volunteers, including the non-Jews, as well as anyone.

"To a man," he writes, "that year in Israel was the penultimate experience. Nothing before or since can equal it. A true life-changing experience. Nothing afterward was ever the same."

"Destination: Israel" is a paperback and was previously released in hard cover under the title "No Trophy, No Sword."

An interesting and constantly evolving project is the self-published "Volunteers in the War of Independence" by Orange County resident Dr. Jason Fenton.

The London-born Fenton was the youngest recorded Machal volunteer and his book has expanded from a slim unit history into a full-fledged 500-page work.

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