They were the American and Canadian volunteers who had fought in Israel's War of Independence in 1947-1949 and manned the "illegal" Aliyah Bet ships carrying refugees to the Jewish state.
The veterans, their bodies aged but memories undimmed, brought their children and grandchildren to the University of Judaism last Sunday to inaugurate the first permanent West Coast exhibit to honor their services.
Film producer Lou Lenart and attorney Mitchell Flint marveled at the silhouettes of patched-up Mustangs and Messerschmitts from which they "bombed" Egyptian armies advancing on Tel Aviv with hand grenades lobbed out of their cockpits. Norman Zimmerman of Sun City, Ariz., and I saw again the jam-packed refugee ship Pan York, which had brought us from Marseilles to Haifa, despite a United Nations ban on the entry of men of military age.
The exhibit consists of cabinets framing eight large and eight small panels. In documents, graphics and text, the display documents the history of Zionism and American support, arms acquisition, recruitment of volunteers, Aliyah Bet and navy service and Machal (the Hebrew acronym for Volunteers from Abroad) service in the Israel Defense Forces.
One of the panels commemorates the 40 North Americans, among them seven Christians, who were killed in action. Another focuses on the specific contributions of some 450 volunteers from the West Coast, as well as of those who risked prison by smuggling desperately needed arms and aircraft to the embattled state.
The dedication program was exemplary in the brevity of its speeches, and the high spirits of the songs from the 1948 and 1967 wars, presented by vocalist Ayana Haviv and pianist Amir Efrat.
UJ President Robert Wexler welcomed the audience of 200 and said that the exhibit will remind future generations of the linked destiny between Israel and American Jewry.
Yaron Gamburg, Israel's deputy consul general in Los Angeles, noted that the Machal spirit of 1948 was revived during the recent fighting against Hezbollah in Lebanon, when his office was swamped with calls from volunteers seeking to help Israel.
Max Barchichat, president of the Los Angeles-based Machal West, lauded the service of his fellow volunteers by paraphrasing Winston Churchill's tribute to the Royal Air Force that "Never was so much owed by so many to so few." Keynote speaker was Dean Ralph Lowenstein, director of the Machal Archives and Museum at the University of Florida, who created the original exhibit at his university's Hillel House, with the support of the New York-based American Veterans of Israel.
He paid tribute to Jason Fenton, who initiated the West Coast version of the exhibition, Sharona Benami of Machal West and a Yom Kippur War veteran, and Iris Waskow of the University of Judaism.
Some 1,400 North American volunteers, mostly World War II veterans, participated in the War of Independence, and played particularly crucial roles in the nascent Israeli air force and navy, Lowenstein said.
A joyous dedication is usually not the time for critical analysis, but as a combat infantryman in World War II, a squad leader in an anti-tank unit in Israel, and an army editor during the Korean conflict, I ask the reader's indulgence if I step out of my reportorial role.
Without diminishing the contributions of the volunteers from abroad and the arms "smugglers," it must be said, first, that it was the Israelis who won the war itself and paid by far the highest price in military and civilian casualties.
Secondly, the role of the American Jewish community was perhaps the least glorious among the 43 nations who provided volunteers, In proportion to the size and power of their Jewish communities, every other English-speaking country sent much larger, and better prepared, contingents than the biggest Jewish community in the world, and it was one of the few to emerge from the war with greater strength than before.
The difference lay mainly in the communal attitude and civic courage of the different Diaspora communities. South Africa's Jews, and Britain's to a slightly smaller degree, set up their own selective service systems, complete with physical and psychological testing, and rallied fully behind their young men and women heading for the battlefield.
By contrast, organized American Jewry, fearful of accusations of double loyalty, generally averted its collective eyes and prayed silently that those crazy kids going over would not prove an embarrassment.
Happily, the flip side of this sorry record is that in the last half century, American Jewry has largely left behind the shameful timidity of the 1940s and the Holocaust era. It is my hope that should American Jewry ever face a challenge similar to 1948, we will acquit ourselves with greater honor.