We Jews are a people of history with a God of History, and we have survived all these centuries, when other far more powerful nations have faded from history, because of our remembrance of things past, just as we have done each Passover when we remember our greatest historical event - the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the triumphal Entry into Eretz Israel - our Promised Land.
Let me tell you the story of a much smaller exodus - that of the Volunteers who left their home countries in 1948 and made their way to a reborn Eretz Israel. In its own way, it is also a story that needs to be told and remembered. My purpose is to tell this story - this history of the Volunteers in Israel's War of Independence. - Lemad V'Saper.
THE NEW STATE OF ISRAEL IS PROCLAIMED
On November 29, 1947 and needing a two-thirds majority, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted, to the surprise of many and the consternation of some, 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions to end the British Mandate and partition Palestine into two independent states - one Jewish and the other Arab linked in an economic union. The 13 negative votes were mainly cast by the Arab League with Britain casting one of the 10 abstentions.
After the vote was announced, the six Arab delegations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen stormed out threatening war and the annihilation of the Palestinian Jews. Pakistan's delegation followed suit. The British, smarting from their dismissal as the mandatory power, refused to cooperate in the partition plan and announced that it would withdraw all military and civilian personnel from Palestine by May 15, 1948. This announcement, needless to say, was met with extreme joy by the entire Yishuv and by Jews everywhere.
14 was the day before the British Mandate was to end, and, on that day,
some 400 Jews waited at the Tel Aviv Art Museum under the watchful gaze
of a heavily armed Haganah detachment. Before them sat the thirteen men
who would govern the new Jewish State. Above their heads flew the blue
and white flags emblazoned with the Star of David.
Today, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Israel's statehood, I would like to tell you about one of the best kept secrets of the War of Independence - The Foreign Volunteers who left the safety and comfort of their homes and loved ones, gave up their jobs, abandoned their careers and university studies and made their way along a clandestine route to help the reborn State of Israel. And we the volunteers, who played a substantial part in this reborn Israel's War of Independence, have a special reason to recall those incredible days.
While much has been written about modern Israel's first, and costliest war. (Sadly over 6,000 of our brethren lost their lives - an enormous number when you consider that the Jewish population of Israel was only 650,000 in 1948) - much less has been recorded about the role of the foreign volunteers - the men and women of Machal who put their own lives on the line to help ensure that Israel would survive.
THE IDF THEN AND NOW
These days, when we think of the Israel Defence Forces, we think of one of the most dedicated and powerful armies, pound for pound, in the world today. Most military analysts would further agree that today's Israeli 'Top-Gun' pilots are probably the best in the world. But on May 15, 1948, when five Arab armies invaded the Jewish State, supported by close to one million local Arabs, they came in large numbers, fully equipped with over 120 of the latest British and French fighters and bombers, many tanks, heavy guns, plenty of bombs and ammunition, and an abundance of confidence.
To make matters even worse (if that were possible), the borders of this new country were close to impossible to guard being surrounded on three sides by extremely hostile enemy nations and on the fourth side by water. Add to that the fact that this skinny strip of land was only 9 to 12 miles wide between Hadera and Tel Aviv (and not much wider in a lot of other places!) with literally no place to retreat to, and you get some idea of the desperate situation facing the new State.
When the Arab invasion started, the brand new State of Israel, in stark contrast to her well-equipped Arab enemies, had no regular army. What Israel had was a group of semi-autonomous paramilitary groups each with its own High Command, political loyalty and military agenda. There was the politically centrist Haganah - Israel Defence Army - numbering about 10,000; the left-wing Palmach - Shock troops - with about 3,000 men and women from the Kibbutzim; and the right-wing Irgun (IZL) and LEHI - Fighters for the Freedom of Israel - with 2,000 fighters overall.
There was also
a Home Guard made up of older citizens; the pre-military Gadna Youth
Battalions (G'dudei Noar) made up of 15 to 17 year olds, who served
as signalers and couriers outside the combat areas; and Nachal(Fighting
Pioneer Youth), who guarded the border settlements from enemy attack.
It needs repeating, when the War of Independence began, there was not one modern artillery piece, not one tank, not one military aircraft (Piper Cubs hardly qualify), very few military vehicles of any kind, and only 10,000 rifles for the entire defense of Israel, and even these were scattered over the whole country.
THE EIN BREIRA SOLUTION
Israel did have one additional secret weapon in its arsenal, however, and one which the Arabs had not bargained for. No, it was not the atom bomb. It was more powerful than any atom bomb. The Israelis called it Ein Breira, which in Hebrew means "No Alternative!" One of Israel's ein brera solutions was to have Rekhesh, the arms procurement branch of the Haganah, scour the world for weapons left over from WWII in all the junk yards of the world. This search included North and South America, Europe, and North Africa, including the Libyan Desert, where British and German artillery left buried in the desert sand from those World War II battles were dug out of the sand and shipped to Israel. It was usually my unit, the Fourth Troop, 1st Anti-Tank, that got to put the pieces together, find some shells, and test fire the equipment - sometimes with only British shells for German guns and German shells for British guns and usually at the end of a very long rope because the guns could and, on occasion, did misfire or even explode.
There is a wonderful, but true story of the successful purchase of three British Beaufighter bombers by agents of Rekhesh but with no way of smuggling them out of England. The planes were then 'sold' to a movie company that supposedly needed them for a film it was producing about WWII. It was shooting some flying scenes at a small airfield in southern England when the three Bristol Beaufighters took off in perfect formation while the cameras rolled, and, like those copper-top batteries in the TV ads, they just kept going and going and going. Later that evening, three Bristol Beaufighters, with their tired but jubilant crews, landed at an airfield in Israel ready to take to the skies to defend Israel and its people.