Overdue respect

The Mahal exhibit in New York honors the North Americans who volunteered in the War of Independence.

Mahal 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mahal 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Recognition in their own countries has been a long time in coming for the nearly 1,500 Americans and Canadians who volunteered in Israel’s Independence War in 1948; but thanks largely to the efforts of one man, Ralph Lowenstein, the story of their contributions and sacrifices is about to get exposed to a much larger audience.
Lowenstein was a featured speaker at the official opening on January 19 of an exhibit called “Heroes from Abroad: The Mahal-Aliya Bet Legacy.” The exhibit, at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City, tells the story – in text, photos and artifacts – of the men and women from the US and Canada who fought in the 1947-49 War of Independence and who served on Aliya Bet ships that brought refugees to Palestine from DP camps in Europe between 1946 and 1948.
Lowenstein volunteered in Israel in the summer of 1948 after his freshman year at Columbia University, serving as a half-track driver for the 79th armored battalion of the Seventh Brigade in the Galilee. Starting in 1982, he began collecting memoirs, letters, photos, documents and artifacts from many of the Mahal and Aliya Bet volunteers (Mahal is a Hebrew acronym for mitnadvei hutz la’aretz, “volunteers from abroad”).
That archive had been stored at the University of Florida-Gainesville, where Lowenstein is dean emeritus of the College of Journalism and Communications. It will now have a permanent home at AJHS. For at least the next year, the Mahal exhibit will occupy a prominent ground-floor space at AJHS, after which it may travel to other locations around the country, says Jonathan Karp, acting executive director of AJHS.
Lowenstein will be honored at a dinner on May 4 as the recipient of the AJHS’ Emma Lazarus Statute of Liberty award.
Besides Lowenstein, other speakers at the January 19 ceremony were Samuel Klausner, an ex-Mahalnik who is professor emeritus of sociology, University of Pennsylvania, and Derek Penslar, Samuel Zachs professor of Jewish History, University of Toronto. The moderator was Deborah Dash Moore, professor of history and director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, University of Michigan. do Aharoni, acting Israeli consul-general in New York, welcomed attendees and said the Mahalniks had a special place in the hearts of Israelis of his generation, whose parents fought for the creation of the state. About 20 Mahal and Aliya Bet volunteers attended the opening The contribution of the Mahal volunteers has long been recognized in Israel, where former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and others praised their role, especially in manning the Israeli air force and navy and in organizing the Air Transport Command that ferried planes and arms from Czechoslovakia to Israel. But their activities have been little known or celebrated in the US and Canada.
Americans returning from the fighting in Israel in 1948 and 1949 often did not speak about their activities for fear of being prosecuted for serving in a foreign army. It even took a presidential pardon in December 2008 from outgoing president George W. Bush to erase the stigma of a jail sentence for Charles Winters, who served 18 months in prison for selling three surplus B-17 bombers to Israel. Winters, a Christian, was the only American actually jailed for such activities.
Fewer than 20 percent of the volunteers are still living. Lowenstein estimates. In all, 29 Americans and 12 Canadians died helping to create the State of Israel.