The American and Canadian Volunteers in Aliyah Bet and Machal

The Valiant Few Came when They were Called

Between the end of World War II in 1945 and the end of the Israeli War of Independence in 1949, Jewish authorities in Palestine had two great needs. One was humanitarian, the other was military.

Their first need was to get Holocaust survivors out of the displaced persons camps throughout Europe and into Palestine. At the time, there was a British naval blockade preventing all but a handful of "legal" (Aliyah Aleph -- Immigration A) immigrants to come to the British-governed Palestine mandate. Ships had to be quietly purchased, and, in some cases, refitted. Crews had to be found who were willing to man the ships and risk British internship or imprisonment in the act of smuggling the "illegal" (Aliyah Bet — Immigration B) immigrants into Palestine.

Of about 40 illegal or Aliyah Bet ships, 10 were considered American. The ships were purchased by American Jews, acting in concert with Palestinian Jewish authorities, and had largely American and Canadian crews, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Some 250 Americans and Canadians were to serve on these 10 ships between 1946 and 1948.

The second need, once Israeli statehood was imminent following the UN Partition Plan resolution of November 1947, was to find persons skilled in the military specialties that Palestinian Jews lacked, since war with the surrounding Arab nations was a virtual certainty. The group answering this call for service in the actual armed forces of Israel was called Machal, the acronym for the Hebrew term mitnadvei chutz l'Aretz — volunteers from outside Israel.

Clandestine recruitment was conducted in five or six major American and Canadian cities. Some Americans and Canadians were already studying or living in Palestine and joined from there. A few others were living or traveling in Europe and joined from there. Altogether about 1,000 Americans and Canadians served in all branches of Israel's armed forces, joining the 3,500 overseas volunteers from 29 countries. About half of the Americans and Canadians served in the air force, where the Palestinian Jewish reserve of expertise was almost nil.

The remainder were scattered among the fighting brigades and specialized units, providing the Israeli armed forces with experience in naval warfare, artillery, intelligence, tactics, medicine, nursing, armor and numerous other military specialties in which Israelis were lacking. For the most part, however, they provided bodies in the depleted enlisted ranks of the soldiers fighting on the front lines.

Among the dead or missing in action when the War of Independence ended in March 1949 were 40 Americans and Canadians.

For the survivors, their contribution to successful war for Jewish independence gave them a unique bond for the rest of their lives with their fellow Jews and the state of Israel.

Source: Aliyah Bet and Machal Virtual Museum