Schwimmer's choice

Schwimmer will be best remembered for his decision to ignore the strict letter of the law for a greater good.

There are times in history when to act morally one must break the law. Al Schwimmer, who passed away Saturday at the age of 94, understood this.
In the years leading up to the War of Independence he quickly realized that doing what was right and doing what was lawful were not the same. He disregarded an arms embargo imposed on what was then Palestine and helped prepare the evolving Jewish state to defend itself by gaining aerial dominance.
Thanks to Schwimmer's American-based arms network – with branches in Hawaii, Panama, Czechoslovakia and Mexico – Israel successfully rebuffed the onslaught of Palestinian militias as well as an offensive launched by the combined armies of neighboring Arab nations during the 1948-49 war. Under his direction the network borrowed and sometimes stole dozens of fighter aircraft, recruited scores of battletrained American and British pilots and mechanics and shipped tons of ammunition that proved critical to the war effort.
Yet Schwimmer’s efforts were seen by the US as criminal. Declassified FBI documents quoted by The Forward in 2001 indicate that Schwimmer was suspected of illegally transporting weapons, some of which were allegedly stolen from US Navy ordnance dumps. For some time Schwimmer managed to stay one step ahead of federal investigators and export authorities. But in February 1950 the law caught up with him. A Federal District Court in Los Angeles convicted Schwimmer of conspiracy to violate the US Neutrality Act and export control laws.
Federal judge Thomas Madden personally supported getting planes out of the US “to do the job that some had said they should have been doing.” Nevertheless, he was compelled by law to fine Schwimmer $10,000 and strip him of his civil rights. It was not until 2001 that Schwimmer, who never agreed to apologize, would be pardoned by US president Bill Clinton for his “crimes.”
BORN IN Bridgeport, Connecticut, to an unaffiliated and non-Zionist family, Schwimmer was working for TWA when the US entered World War II and the entire airline was drafted into the war effort. Schwimmer ferried troops, equipment and important persons all over the world. He reportedly transported US president Franklin Roosevelt to Casablanca. Schwimmer was won over to the Zionist cause after meeting with Holocaust survivors living in Displaced Persons camps who were prevented by the British from reaching Palestine. For Schwimmer the injustice was glaring and obvious; helping fellow Jews reestablish a state of their own after the war took precedence over the 1935 Neutrality Act or the Munitions Export Act.
With close friend and young Defense Ministry official Shimon Peres acting as a go-between, Schwimmer acquiesced to a request by David Ben-Gurion to create an Israeli aircraft industry, on condition it would remain private and would not be plagued by narrow interests. He took advantage of the post-WWII reality to acquire used planes cheaply, repair and upgrade them, and sell them at a healthy profit. Within five years Bedek, the aircraft maintenance company he founded, grew into the largest private employer in Israel. In the early 1960s Bedek became Israel Aircraft Industries, producing a modified version of the French Fouga fighter plane called the Tzukit or “swallow” in Hebrew as well as the Kfir (“young lion”), the Arava and the Jet Commander among other planes.
Personality conflicts in the early 1970s, combined with the political upheaval in 1977 that brought the Likud’s Menachem Begin to power, precipitated Schwimmer’s departure from IAI. In the 1980s he was reportedly involved in the Iran-Contra affair, an undercover operation disclosed in 1986, in which money from covert US arms sales to Iran was used to finance anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua.
Schwimmer also reportedly worked closely with Israeli arms dealer-turned-media magnate Ya’acov Nimrodi and Saudi billionaire Adnan Khashoggi, who promoted a secret proposal in the early 1980s to offer Saudi recognition of the Jewish state in exchange for Saudi guardianship rights over Muslim sites on the Temple Mount. Khashoggi’s proposal was reportedly rejected by then-prime minister Begin.
But of his many exploits, many of which remain confidential, Schwimmer will be best remembered for his decision to ignore the strict letter of the law for a greater good. In so doing, he become perhaps the single most instrumental force behind the creation of Israel’s illustrious air force.