LOS ANGELES – Nearly 70 years after volunteers from five continents left homes and jobs to fight for the newly proclaimed State of Israel, a memorial will be dedicated in their honor in Jerusalem.
During the War of Independence, 4,922 volunteers from 59 countries joined Machal (the Hebrew acronym for volunteers from abroad), 123 of whom died in the line of duty.
Fewer than a dozen survivors are expected to attend the December 17 ceremony, which will take place across from the Ammunition Hill National Heritage and Memorial Site.
Afternoon events will include a torch relay from the city center to the dedication site, honor detachments, music from the armed forces and a Hanukka lighting ceremony.
Expected dignitaries include Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Construction Minister Yoav Gallant, American Veterans for Israel Legacy Corporation president Jeffrey Margolis and World Machal chairman Harold “Smoky” Simon.
The three-meter-wide and 2.4-meter-high memorial is made of stone, concrete and steel. It has inscribed on it in Hebrew the words of Yitzhak Rabin: “You came to us when we needed you most, during those dark and uncertain days of our War of Independence.”
The largest contingents of Machal volunteers hailed from the United States, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Canada and France. Almost all, including 168 gentiles, had fought for their home countries during World War II and brought valuable experience and skills, particularly to the air force and navy, which had to be built from scratch.
Over the decades, the contributions of the volunteers to the outcome of the war have been either ignored in Israel and their home countries or overblown “Hollywood style.”
A blunt and slightly exaggerated description came from California novelist Harold Livingston, who flew for the Israeli Air Transport Command. He wrote: “Ben-Gurion’s Foreign Legion. They took anyone. Misfits from America, English communists, South African Zionists, Soviet army deserters, Polish noblemen, ne’er-do-well soldiers of fortune. If you want excitement and adventure, come on over... If you want to write a book. If you’re running from the police. If you want to get away from your wife. If you want to prove that Jews can fight. If you want to build a new land.”
Motives for enlistment were mixed. This reporter was one of the soldiers who volunteered from the United States.
My time as an American infantryman in France and Germany during WWII had left me restless; my early exposure to Zionism in a Jewish school and youth organization in Berlin during the mid-1930s had left an imprint; and since a new Jewish state arises only every 2,000 years or so, I figured I probably wouldn’t be around for the next time.
This past experience qualified me to serve as squad leader in an “Anglo-Saxon” anti-tank unit, composed entirely of English-speaking volunteers, who spoke the mother tongue in a variety of often-incomprehensible accents.
In this unit, the men from the highly organized and supportive Jewish communities of South Africa formed the most stable element; the Americans, Canadians and Brits were somewhere in the middle; while two teenaged Australians arrived fairly late in the game after a slow boat ride from Down Under.
“Machalniks,” as they were called, served in all branches of the IDF: ground forces, the air force, Palmah shock troops, medical corps and Aliya Bet, composed of men and women who ran the British blockade from 1946-47 to bring “illegal” Jewish immigrants to pre-state Palestine.
The single largest Machal contingent came from the US. Reported figures vary, with some as high as 1,400. But in the most current compilation, Simon estimates that there were 805 American volunteers, of whom 263 served in the air force.
But given the size of the American Jewish community at the time, proportionally, this number lags well behind the contribution of every other English-speaking country. For example, the South African contingent was almost as large as the American one, with a Jewish population a 50th the size of the US colossus. And from the UK, there were 762 enlistees.
Americans gave freely of their money and a few even lost their citizenship for illegally sending arms and planes to Israel.
But the disparity in the number of American volunteers reflected the differences in communal attitudes and civic courage. South African Jews, and Britain’s to a slightly lesser 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 the dreaded accusation of double loyalty, generally averted its collective eyes and prayed silently that those crazy kids going over would not prove an embarrassment.
Whatever the Machal contributions, on the ground – where ultimately wars are still won – the Israelis did most of the job themselves and paid a high price. The War of Independence claimed the lives of some 6,200 Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Perhaps Machal’s most important contribution was to boost the morale of Israelis, knowing that their Diaspora brethren were with them.
One of the key initiators and backers of the Machal memorial has been Jerry Klinger, a son of Holocaust survivors, retired first vice president of Merrill Lynch and president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.
Klinger, who lives in Boynton Beach, Florida, has made it his mission to cut through red tape and affix signposts and markers across the US and other parts of the world to draw attention to Jewish contributions and pioneering enterprises.
He was instrumental in erecting a memorial in Haifa to the fabled refugee ship Exodus as well as 66 historical markers throughout the West and the US.
For Klinger, the historical marker honoring the men and women of Machal may be most important. “If we let them be forgotten, we are denying their tomorrows and our yesterdays,” he said.