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Israel Defense Forces: History of Machal - Risking Life and Citizenship in Fight for Israel

Machal (the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz L'Aretz-- “volunteers from outside Israel”) includes all those who served in the Israeli armed forces during the War of Independence. About 1,000 men and women, Jewish and Christian, from the U.S. and Canada served in the Israeli army, navy and air force.  The Machal volunteers were a small percentage of the Israeli fighting forces, but were assigned to virtually every unit in the Israeli army, navy and air force.  They provided important military skills and experience far out of proportion to their numbers.  They dominated the flying personnel in the air force.

The “Machlaniks,” as they were called by Israelis, arrived to support the ranks of Palestinian Jews who had taken the brunt of casualties from organized Arab armies invading from five different countries. Proportional to population, the number of Israeli deaths in the War of Independence -- 1% of the population -- was five times higher than the number of American combat deaths in World War II.

The Israeli War of Independence was the culmination of one of the truly amazing and magnificent epochs in world history. In the space of a mere 50 years, a people who had been exiled for almost two thousand years resettled their land and wrested it back.

Although there were some 5 million Jews living in the U.S. and Canada in 1948, only a relative handful were involved in the War of Independence as combatants. Those who did serve are so unique that few American Jews today have ever met one of the veterans.

It was extremely difficult for an American to serve, even if he or she wanted to. The United States was not the friend of Israel then that it is today. The U.S. clamped an embargo on all military weapons to the Middle East. All passports that year were stamped with this sentence: “This passport is not valid for travel to or in any foreign state for the purpose of entering or serving in the armed forces of such a state.” Americans were threatened with loss of citizenship if they did, indeed, serve.

In the final instance, it was ruled that Americans who served had their citizenship suspended for the period of their service, and could claim no rights as American citizens if captured by the Arabs. Few other countries, outside the Arab nations themselves, placed such extreme strictures on its citizens to prevent them from helping Israel.

Recruiting in the United States and Canada was clandestine, occurring only in five or six major cities by an organization going under the name of Land and Labor for Palestine. Thus, the Americans and Canadians who were recruited were almost all veterans of World War II with greatly needed skills military skills.

Opposition from families also held the American and Canadian numbers down greatly. World War II had ended only three years earlier. Parents, naturally, strongly opposed children going to another war where they might be killed.

Americans and Canadians, for the most part were between 20 and 28, unmarried, World War II veterans, most without university educations, and, almost without exception, first-generation Americans or Canadians. Research has shown only a few had two parents born in the U.S. or Canada.

Once they volunteered, the Americans and Canadians still had to undergo a tortuous journey to get to Israel. Most were sent by ship or plane to France or Italy, where they spent weeks in Displaced Persons camps, usually under assumed names, until refugee ships were ready to sail to Israel. The ships themselves were generally ancient converted cargo carriers packed with survivors of the Holocaust, wending their way slowly to Haifa with limited food and water and always under the threat of sinking by the Arab enemy or the collapse of their own aging hulls.

The American and Canadian role, though largely unknown in this country, was significant. Mickey Marcus, a former police commissioner of New York City and a West Point graduate, wrote the first Israeli field manual on tactics, and died tragically during the fight to open a new road to Jerusalem when he was accidentally shot by an Israeli sentry.  Marcus was the first person to hold the rank of aluf -- “general.”  Paul Shulman, an Annapolis graduate, was the first commander of the Israeli navy, although he initially commanded only three ships. The brigadier in command of one of Israel's 11 combat brigades was a Canadian, Ben Dunkelman.  The second of command of the Israeli air force was an American, Al Schwimmer.

Forty Americans and Canadians were killed during the War of Independence.  The stories of Israeli heroism and sacrifice abound, deservedly, in the annals of the War of Independence. But most of these heroes were Israelis who were fighting to defend their own land and their own families. The untold story is that of the Machalniks, those young Americans and Canadians who volunteered to risk their citizenship and their lives to defend other people's families and a land they had never seen.

Whatever the role of these Americans and Canadians, all served as an eternal link between the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the United States and Canada. In the words of one Israeli colonel, the intrinsic value of the Machalnik contribution was that “we Israelis knew we were not alone.

Sources: Aliyah Bet and Machal Virtual Museum