‘You’re just right for Israel,’ said Ben-Gurion

How Al Schwimmer was persuaded by Israel’s first prime minister to found this country’s aviation industry.

Schwimmer Ben Gurion 311 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Schwimmer Ben Gurion 311
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Al Schwimmer, who died on Saturday at 94 and whose funeral was held on Monday, was branded a “legend” by President Shimon Peres for his vital life’s work in Israeli aviation. This extract from the book Start- Up Nation, the best-seller on Israel’s “economic miracle” by Dan Senor and former Jerusalem Post staffer Saul Singer, describes in vivid detail how Schwimmer first got involved…
The fantasy of an Israeli aircraft industry took shape on a bumpy flight over the North Pole in 1951, inside what was to become the first aircraft in Israel’s new national airline. The conversation was between a pair of opposites: Shimon Peres, the erudite, future president of Israel, who in 1951 was the chief arms buyer for the new Jewish state, and Al Schwimmer, a swashbuckling American aviation engineer from Los Angeles, whose pals included Howard Hughes and Kirk Kerkorian. Schwimmer’s first name was Adolph, but against the backdrop of World War II, he’d opted for Al.
Peres and Schwimmer were on one of their many flights over the Arctic tundra in used planes purchased for Israel’s fledgling air force. Flying over the North Pole was dangerous, but they took the risk because the route was shorter – no small consideration when piloting planes that were falling apart.
Al Schwimmer was a raconteur, who’d been captivated by the airline business in its earliest days, when flying machines were an exotic novelty.
He was working for TWA when the United States entered World War II and the entire airline was drafted into the war effort. Though not officially in the US Air Force, Schwimmer and his fellow fliers were given military ranks and uniforms and spent the war ferrying troops, equipment, and the occasional movie star all over the world.
During the war, Schwimmer’s identity as a Jew meant little to him and had almost no influence on his thinking or way of life. But seeing a liberated concentration camp and the newsreel footage of countless bodies and speaking with Jewish refugees in Europe trying to reach Palestine transformed him.
Almost overnight, Schwimmer became a committed Zionist.
When he heard that the British in Palestine were turning back ships full of European Jewish refugees, Schwimmer came up with what he was convinced was a better way: fly over the British Navy patrols and smuggle the Jews in by landing them at hidden air-fields. He tracked down Ben-Gurion’s secret emissary in New York and pitched him the idea. For months, the representative of the Haganah, the main underground Jewish army in Palestine, sat on the idea. But when it became clear that the British would soon withdraw and a fullscale Arab-Jewish war over Israel’s independence would ensue, the Haganah contacted Schwimmer.
By this time, they had an even more urgent need than smuggling refugees: building an air force. The Haganah did not have a single aircraft and would be completely exposed to the Egyptian air force. Could Schwimmer buy and repair fighter planes and smuggle them into Israel? Schwimmer told Ben-Gurion’s agents that he’d start immediately, even though he knew he would be violating the 1935 Neutrality Act, which prohibited US citizens from exporting weaponry without government authorization.
This wasn’t just chutzpah. This was criminal.
Within days, Schwimmer had tracked down a handful of Jewish pilots and mechanics from the United States and the United Kingdom, for what he told them would be the first civilian Jewish air-line. He was obsessed with secrecy, and did not even want to bring them into the fold about the idea of building fighter planes. Few were even informed that the planes were destined for Israel.
When outsiders inquired, the cover story was that they were building a national airline for Panama and would ferry cattle to Europe.
Though the FBI impounded the largest aircraft he bought – three Constellations – Schwimmer and his gang succeeded in smuggling out other aircraft, some by literally flying over the heads of the FBI agents who’d demanded that the planes be grounded. At the last minute, the Haganah cut a separate deal to buy German Messerschmitts from Czechoslovakia, which Schwimmer was also drafted to fly to Israel.
WHEN THE 1948 War of Independence came, Schwimmer’s aircraft fought off Egyptian planes that were bombing Tel Aviv. In certain battles, the barely trained Israeli pilots were instrumental in ensuring that the Negev desert – a relatively large triangular swath of land starting a few miles south of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, between the Egyptian Sinai and Jordan – became part of Israel.
After Israel prevailed in the War of Independence, Schwimmer returned to the United States, despite being a wanted man. The FBI had figured out the smuggling scheme, and the US Justice Department had built a criminal case against him. His trial, along with those of a number of the pilots he had recruited, was a public sensation. The defendants pleaded not guilty, on the grounds that the law itself was unjust.
Schwimmer got off with paying a fine, which was widely seen as exoneration.
Once Schwimmer was cleared, it didn’t take him long to get back into the smuggling game. By 1950, Schwimmer had joined forces with Shimon Peres, then a young Ben-Gurion protégé working for the new Israeli Defense Ministry. Peres had tried to buy thirty surplus Mustang aircraft for the Israeli Air Force, but the United States had decided to destroy the planes instead. Their wings were sliced off and their fuselages cut in two.
So Schwimmer’s team bought the cutup planes at cost from a Texas junk dealer, reconstructed them, and made sure they had all their parts and were operational.
Then the team disassembled the planes again, packed them in crates marked “Irrigation Equipment,” and shipped them to Israel.
But because of the urgency with which they had to get the aircraft to Israel, a few of the planes were left assembled, and Schwimmer and Peres flew these to Tel Aviv. And that is how they found themselves in 1951 talking about a future Israeli aviation industry.
Peres became captivated by Schwimmer’s ideas for creating an aircraft industry in Israel that would serve a purpose beyond a short-term military strategy. It was part of Peres’s fascination with creating industries in Israel.
Schwimmer insisted that in a world flooded with surplus aircraft from the war, there was no reason why Israel could not buy planes cheaply, repair and improve them, and sell them to militaries and airlines in many countries, while building Israel’s own commercial industry. Shortly after they returned to the United States, Peres took Schwimmer to meet Ben-Gurion, who was on his first visit to America as Israel’s prime minister.
“You learning Hebrew now?” was Ben-Gurion’s first question when Schwimmer reached out his hand to greet him; they had met repeatedly during the War of Independence.
Schwimmer laughed and changed the subject: “Nice girls here in California, don’t ya think, Mr. Prime Minister?” Ben-Gurion wanted to know what Schwimmer was working on.
Schwimmer told him about the renovations he was carrying out.
“What? With this tiny collection of machines you can renovate planes?” Schwimmer nodded.
“We need something like this in Israel. Even more. We need a real aviation industry. We need to be independent,” Ben-Gurion said. This was exactly what Schwimmer had discussed with Peres, while flying over the tundra. “So, what do you think?” Unbeknownst to Schwimmer, Ben- Gurion had recently instructed the Technion to build an aeronautical engineering department. In giving the order, he’d said, “a high standard of living; a rich culture; spiritual, political and economic independence...
are not possible without aerial control.”
“Sure, I think you’re right,” said Schwimmer, falling into the prime minister’s trap.
“I’m glad you think so. We’ll expect you to come back to Israel to build one for us.”
Schwimmer stared dumbfounded at Peres.
“Just do it, Al,” said Peres. Schwimmer resisted. He immediately began thinking of the run-ins he would have with the Israel Air Force chiefs and the small, but powerful Israeli establishment. Plus he didn’t speak Hebrew. He wasn’t a party insider. He hated politics and bureaucracy. And the Israeli combination of socialist, economic planning and cronyist politics could be stifling for anyone, let alone someone trying to build an aviation industry.
He told Ben-Gurion that he could build the company only if it would be free from cronyism – no political hacks getting jobs. A private company, organized along commercial lines, he told Ben-Gurion.
“You’re just right for Israel. Come,” Ben-Gurion responded.
Schwimmer did go to Israel. Within five years, Bedek, the airplane maintenance company he founded with two Israelis, became the largest private employer in the country.
By 1960 Bedek was producing a modified version of the French Fouga fighter plane. At an official unveiling and test flight of the plane, dubbed Tzukit (“swallow” in Hebrew), Ben- Gurion told Schwimmer, “This place isn’t just Bedek anymore. You’ve gone beyond repairs. You guys have built a jet. The new name should be Israel Aircraft Industries.” Peres, who by now was deputy defense minister, translated the new company name.
Peres and Ben-Gurion had managed to recruit an American Jew to provide one of the biggest long-term jolts to Israel’s economy, all without asking anyone for one investment dollar.
Extracted by permission from Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer (Twelve books).