The spirit of Mahal lives on

An adapted version of South African honoree Smoky Simon's speech at the 2014 TELFED Gala Dinner and Lifetime Achievement Award Celebration.

THE HONOREES: (from left to right) Myra and Smoky Simon, Morris Kahn and Ariella Delaney. (photo credit: TELFED)
THE HONOREES: (from left to right) Myra and Smoky Simon, Morris Kahn and Ariella Delaney.
(photo credit: TELFED)
On Tuesday night, the South African Zionist Federation (Israel) hosted the 2014 TELFED Gala Dinner and Lifetime Achievement Award Celebration. The evening brought attention to South Africans’ contributions to the State of Israel and honored two exceptional South African olim: Smoky Simon and Morris Kahn. Approximately 300 members of the community attended, as did South African Ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane. Simon and Kahn presented moving and informative speeches, sharing remarkable histories that fascinated the audience. Below is an adapted version of Simon’s speech.
For me, at the age of almost 94, this evening presents an outstanding opportunity to express my profound gratitude for the many blessings that have been bestowed upon me along my life’s journey.
First and foremost, I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to the Almighty, which behooves me to recite the Shehehiyanu prayer. Secondly, to my family.
To my wife Myra, who has been at my side for 66 years, and to our four children – Philippa, Saul, Dan and Aliza, who have given us great pleasure.
We now have 15 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, of whom we are exceedingly proud. By the way, Myra is a veteran of two wars – she was trained and flew as a meteorologist in the South African Air Force in World War II, and she served as the first instructor in meteorology in the Israel Air Force in the War of Independence.
My two sons Saul and Dan were fighter pilots in the IAF.
Three events have had a life-changing impact on my existence. Firstly, in January 1941, I volunteered to serve in the war against Nazi Germany. I was trained as a navigator-bombardier and served in the South African Air Force and Royal Air Force for five years in many theaters of that cruel war, from which I thankfully emerged alive and unhurt.
Secondly, in May 1948, I volunteered together with Myra to fight in the impending war against the Arabs, and I can state without hesitation that this was my finest hour and the most thrilling experience of my life.
There can be no doubt that the Holocaust, the Declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, and the War of Independence were the absolute pinnacles of 2,000 years of Jewish history – a history of exile, oppression and injustice. On May 15, 1948, six Arab Armies attacked Israel – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Kaukji’s Army of Liberation. Britain had supplied Egypt, Iraq and Jordan with aircraft, tanks and artillery.
France had supplied tanks and artillery to Syria and Lebanon. The Egyptian Air Force had a fleet of 62 frontline British Spitfire aircraft plus a squadron or two of Italian Macchi fighter aircraft. Israel did not have a single combat aircraft nor a single anti-aircraft gun. There was a total and overwhelming imbalance of troops and military equipment in favor of the Arabs. Britain, the US and the Arabs were convinced that the war would be over within a few weeks.
On May 14, the Jordanian Army, led by British officers, overran the Etzion Block – 240 military and civilians were killed, 420 were taken prisoners- of-war, and the kibbutz was burnt down. Jerusalem was under siege, and there was a tremendous shortage of water, food and military equipment.
The road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem had been cut off by the Arabs. Tel Aviv was under constant attack from the Egyptian Air Force and suffered tremendous casualties. In its attempt to capture the British Fortress at Latrun, which had been handed over by the British to the Jordanian Army, the Israeli forces sustained tremendously heavy losses. The Egyptian Army had overrun the kibbutzim in the Negev, which had fought courageously with hand grenades and rifles against tanks and armored vehicles, and by May 29 the Egyptian Army had penetrated into Israel right up to Ashdod, 30 km. from Tel Aviv, and if Tel Aviv had fallen, the war would have been over.
Against this very somber background, the Israel Air Force was born in the heat of battle. We started flying in small civil aircraft – which had been smuggled out of South Africa.
The crew consisted of a pilot and a “bomb-chucker,” who held a 20-kilo or a 25-kilo bomb plus incendiary bomblets on his lap, which he would drop manually on the Arab targets.
Massive efforts were being conducted to recruit World War II air force veterans to join the nascent IAF, and at the same time, an incredible and heroic operation of smuggling aircraft into Israel was taking place. This was perhaps the biggest and most noble and ethical smuggling operation in history.
On Friday afternoon of May 14, at the very time that Ben-Gurion was declaring the establishment of the State of Israel, the late South African Boris Senior as pilot and myself as navigator with an Israeli aerial photographer flew in one of the Bonanzas smuggled out of South Africa on the IAF’s very first operational mission for the purpose of reporting to army headquarters on the strength of the invading Jordanian forces. The Jordanian Army was the first Arab army to attack Israel, and on that flight we saw the devastation which had been wrought on the Etzion Bloc.
In parallel to the arrival of the smuggled aircraft, combat air crews which had been recruited from abroad were coming into Israel. These volunteers were known as “Mahal,” which is a Hebrew acronym for “Mitnadvei Hutz La’aretz,” meaning “volunteers from abroad.” During the war, a total of 426 combat flying crews (including 81 from South Africa) served in the IAF – pilots, navigators, bombardiers, flight engineers, air gunners, radio operators, aerial photographers. These World War II veterans contributed their invaluable experience and skills in support of Israel’s war effort.
In June 1948, I was appointed chief of air operations of the IAF. By the grace of God, on May 29, on the very day that the Egyptian Army had reached Ashdod, the IAF’s first four Messershmitts, which were smuggled out of Czechoslovakia, became operational.
The Egyptian Army was of course not aware that Israel had just acquired combat aircraft, and suddenly four Israeli fighter aircraft attacked the Egyptian Army with bombs, cannons and guns. The Egyptians were stunned and destabilized, and for several days and nights, the Israel Air Force maintained continuous attacks and the Egyptians never advanced beyond Ashdod.
By July 1948, 70 percent of Israel’s territory was occupied by the Arab armies, but the tide of war was starting to change in Israel’s favor.
The final drive against the Egyptians took place in December 1948 to January 1949. By all accounts, it was a brilliant campaign under the command of Gen. Yigal Alon with Yitzhak Rabin as chief of operations. The Egyptians were driven out of the Negev and into the Sinai Peninsula. And then came a United Nations Security Council directive that a final cease-fire in the war would take effect on January 7 at 16:00 hours.
Israel’s victory in the War of Independence has no parallel in military history. Up to this point, I have focused on the Mahal component in the IAF, in which I served, but let me add that this was only a part of the Mahal story. There were in all 4,800 Mahalniks (including 832 from South Africa) who came from 59 countries to fight for Israel – men and women, Jews and non-Jews. The Mahalniks included men like Mickey Marcus, who had been a colonel in the US Army in World War II. He was appointed to command the Jerusalem Front, and also commanded the building of the Burma Road, which relieved the siege of Jerusalem. Paul Shulman (an American) was the first commander of the Israel Navy. Ben Dunkelman, a highly decorated Canadian officer in World War II, was the commander of the 7th Brigade, which liberated the Lower and Upper Galilee. Mahalniks held positions of command and leadership in most branches of the armed forces.
What a rare privilege it had been for me to have served as chief of air operations during this critical and dramatic period in Israel’s history.
In 1968, I was elected chairman of World Mahal. We had a number of very successful Mahal reunions in Israel, and we kept in close touch with Mahal Associations abroad, which regretfully have now mostly faded away. Most of the Mahalniks who are still alive are indeed a highly endangered species. I recently launched Mahal’s final assignment by undertaking to expand and to increase the facilities of the Michael Levin Center for Lone Soldiers in Tel Aviv, where Mahalniks from abroad, together with Israeli lone soldiers, can relax and mingle with each other.
Happily the tradition of Mahal lives on. There is a new intake of Mahalniks into the IDF each year, who serve for a period of 18 months. I have the gratifying experience of giving talks to these new volunteers prior to their induction into the Army. It is truly heart-warming to know that to this very day, Jews from the Diaspora are willing to risk their lives in defense of the State of Israel.
After my two-and-a-half years of service in the Israel Air Force, Myra and I returned to South Africa, and in 1962 we came on aliya with our four children. I had the same trepidations and uncertainties as most olim as to whether I would be able to earn a living in Israel for my family. Having worked in South Africa as an agent for the Sun Life of Canada for 10 years, I entered the life insurance field in Israel.
In 1965, I made the best business decision of my life. I invited a guy by the name of Moshe Wiesel to join me as a partner in my insurance agency, and our partnership has endured for 49 years.
At that stage, the Israeli life insurance companies were very primitive, but we convinced the Migdal and Phoenix Insurance Companies to introduce innovative North American coverages and policy conditions, which enhanced significantly the level of life insurance in Israel. Along the way, we were also instrumental in establishing Israel’s first Credit Insurance Company, which developed splendidly and which we subsequently sold to the Clal Insurance Group.
Our next step was to establish Israel’s first actuarially based pension fund in competition with the powerful Histadrut pension funds, and despite the Histadrut’s threat of crushing us, our pension fund flourished and we set a new benchmark in Israel in regard to retirement programs. With time the Simon & Wiesel Insurance Agency developed into Israel’s largest life insurance and pensions brokerage, which we sold in 2000 to the Migdal Insurance Company.
Under the leadership of the inimitable, late Harry Hurwitz, I was one of the founding members of the Menachem Begin Heritage Foundation, which was established to preserve the legacy and heritage of this great national hero. Menachem Begin, as leader of the courageous and heroic Irgun Zvai Leumi, declared war on the British Mandatory Regime because of Britain’s abhorrent policy of denying refuge in Palestine to survivors of the Holocaust. He was the dominant factor which led to the termination of the British Mandate in May 1948. The Begin Foundation has become one of the “Jewels of Jerusalem,” and it’s been my privilege to serve as the honorary treasurer of the Begin Foundation since its inception.
I’m also currently involved in the establishment of The Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War II, which is being erected in the area of the Armored Corps Museum in Latrun. I wonder how many of you in the audience are aware that 1.5 million Jews served in all the Allied Forces in World War II – the US, Russia, British Empire, Free French and Free Polish Armies, Underground Forces, Palestinian Jews, and the Warsaw Ghetto. No other nation in the world had the same proportion of combatants as the Jewish Nation, and this noble, heroic and glorious story has to be told to the world.
And now just a few words to my young friend Morrie Kahn, who at the age of 84 is 10 years younger than myself: “You are a phenomenon.”
You have succeeded in capturing the mysterious and elusive formula of how to successfully combine pleasure and relaxation with philanthropy, establishing social projects, promoting medical and scientific projects together with your business activities in one great package. Morrie, I have come to believe that you took a conscious decision to share your wealth with your country and with the society.
Little wonder that you have been honored by the Universities of Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan, Ben-Gurion, the Weizmann Institute and other institutions, and now, just for good measure, you are involved in the international competition to assist Israel in being the first country to get a robot onto the moon. What is so admirable about you is that with all your success and connections, “that even though you walk with kings, you have never lost the common touch” – your closest friends are your friends from South Africa and from your early days in Israel.