A special breed

Telfed pays tribute to the Southern African veterans of 1948 & 1956.

mahal feature 88 (photo credit: )
mahal feature 88
(photo credit: )
They left jobs, interrupted their studies, and some even postponed weddings. Literally rescheduling their lives, they dropped everything to come and fight for the fledgling Jewish state. In cockpits and on board ships, in tanks and armored vehicles, treating the wounded in hospitals and on the front lines, these young idealistic men and woman - Jews and non-Jews - helped change the tide in Israel's War of Independence. Most of them veterans of World War II, they brought their experience and expertise to the makeshift armed forces of the new state: Machal - Mitnadvei Chutz La'aretz - 3,500 overseas volunteers from 43 countries across the globe. Among this special breed were some 810 South Africans, representing 23% of the total complement of overseas volunteers. The South African Zionist Federation in Israel (Telfed) recently paid tribute to these veterans at Beth Protea, a South African retirement home in Herzliya. "We are an endangered species; and while many of us are still around, we need to tell our story, particularly to Israeli youths who know very little about this chapter in our history," Smoky Simon, chairman of World Machal, told Metro. In firm agreement was former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat, who served with the South Africans. Addressing the gathering of veterans in Israel, he called for more education about Machal, "starting by including it in the school syllabus." Asked about the contribution of women Machalniks, Simon smiles. "The first that comes to mind is my wife, Myra. We got married in South Africa so that we could come to Israel together, and spent our honeymoon fighting for the country. She was the first meteorological instructor in the Israeli Air Force. Many of her graduates became squadron and base commanders." An exhibition of photographs and memorabilia was put together by David "Migdal" Tepperson who, at age 79, is still doing reserve duty. Tepperson is the longest serving soldier in IDF history and enjoys the rare distinction of having served in all of Israel's wars. On the day that David Ben-Gurion solemnly declared the establishment of the Jewish state, Tepperson was arriving by ship off the coast of Tel Aviv. "Standing on deck, I watched as if it were a movie. Egyptian spitfires came over, strafing and bombing the city. Fortunately they didn't attack our ship, but it was my induction - this was my first day in Israel on Israel's first day and, clearly, we were at war." Tepperson served in the Negev brigade that captured Beersheba, and participated in raids in jeeps often lasting two to five days. "On one occasion," he relates, "we passed a heavily outnumbered group of Egyptian soldiers who thought we were fellow Egyptians. They never believed we would move at night, and we shouted 'Salaam' as we passed them." As people mingled among the exhibits, stories were recalled that became part of the war's folklore. One person related that on May 30, 1948, "A Messerschmitt flown by an American pilot, Milton Rubenstein, was hit by enemy fire and was downed in the Mediterranean off Michmoret. The pilot swam to shore, but as he could not speak a word of Hebrew and was afraid that he would accidentally be shot by friendly fire, he proclaimed his identity by screaming, 'Gefilte fish, gefilte fish!'" Another related how the late Boris Senior, the South African commander of the base at Sde Dov, received orders to bomb Amman. The target selected was King Abdullah's palace, where Arab leaders were to meet. Fellow South African Dov Judah was Senior's navigator. He records that as Amman was "pretty well lit up and my navigational experience was not needed, I deposited the bombs. We made two runs on the palace, trying to hit it with 50-kilo bombs pushed out with the help of special handles affixed to the bombs. I never saw them explode - only the lights of Amman going out. We later learned that the bombs that had failed to explode drew curiosity among the enemy - bombs with handles? Some of these bombs were collected and transported to laboratories in England in an attempt to explain 'What the Jews were up to.' Clearly in the RAF, they had never come across the position of bomb chucker-outer!" Stanley Medicks, chairman of Machal in Britain, Europe, and Scandinavia and instigator of the Machal memorial at Sha'ar Hagai, recalled an incident during the battle of Tamra, which opened the campaign to the north. "I was a platoon commander of No. 1 platoon scaling a hill. Suddenly I hear shouting, 'Medicks, Medicks!' I immediately handed over command and said, 'Something has happened and they need me.' And through a hail of bullets from the Jordanians, I dashed to the top of the hill and was met by 'Where the bloody hell are the stretcher-bearers?'" The guest of honor was Reuma Weizman, wife of late president Ezer Weizman, who had been one of the few Israelis in the fledgling air force comprising 95% Machalnikim. Simon recounted an incident when Weizman and four Machalnik fighter pilots, including Boris Senior, shot down four British planes piloted by members of the RAF. A fifth plane was shot down by Machalnik ground fire. This incident, which received major publicity in the British press at the time, involved South Africans both in the air and on the ground. Concerned about possible political flack resulting from this incident, Air Force commander Aaron Remez called an emergency meeting of staff officers. Coming out of the meeting looking very somber was a Machalnik from the US, Danny Cravitt. He immediately reported to British Machalnik Morrie Mann waiting in the anteroom. "What is going to happen?" asked a worried Mann. Kravitz replied, "This is top secret and please, not a word to anyone." "Of course," said Mann. "We have just taken an operational decision to bomb London," revealed Kravitz. Unfazed, Mann replied, "Danny, I couldn't care less. I come from Manchester." While stories and anecdotes were amusingly and proudly recalled, on a more somber note Telfed paid honor to all Southern Africans who fell in the defense of Israel. Two young soldiers of South African parents laid a wreath for the 75 men and women who died in uniform. Of concern to Maurice Ostroff, who commandeered a radar mobile station during the war, was "to set the record straight." He believes that the job of the Machalniks is far from over. There is one more battle to fight, in the arena of public relations. Alluding to Simon's statement that the Machalnikim are an 'endangered species,' Ostroff asserts that "We, who were there and know the facts, have one final mission - to correct the damaging distortions of our 1948 history by Israel's new historians." He cited examples of Ilan Pappe of the University of Haifa, "who accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing in 1948"; Noam Chomsky of MIT, "who portrays Israel as a terrorist state"; and Norman Finkelstein, "described by the Washington Post as a writer celebrated by neo-Nazi groups for comparing Israel to Nazi Germany." "We ignore the new historians at our peril," Ostroff warns. "We Jews are often accused of being paranoid, but there is much truth in the maxim 'Just because you are paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't after you.'" Churchill's apt depiction after the Battle of Britain that "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" could equally apply to the debt the state owes to the overseas volunteers who came to fight in Israel's War of Independence. The Machalniks' contribution represents one of the proudest chapters in modern Jewish history, when ordinary people behaved quite extraordinarily. As Ben-Gurion said, "This was a war not won by heroes. It was won by ordinary men and women rising above themselves." In the Jewish spirit Telfed also paid tribute to NACHAL, the South African volunteers who came in 1956 during the Suez campaign. In 1955, the Jews of South Africa were the first to react to the possibility that war was looming, and in early 1955 the South African Zionist Federation set in motion a program to dispatch volunteers to relieve kibbutzniks should they be called up for active service. Les Amdur was one the more than 150 South Africans who volunteered their services. Like many of the other Nachalniks, he would later immigrate to Israel. Addressing Telfed's tribute, Amdur said, "The people who volunteered were not all Zionists, some knowing very little about Israel or Judaism, but they all had one thing in common - a Jewish spirit to contribute to their fellow Jews in their hour of need."