‘We Were There’

As the American Jewish community celebrates the50th anniversary of Israel’s independence, those of us who went overto fight as volunteers in the fledgling country’s armed forces canlook back with special pride and remembrance.

We were privileged to take part not only in amomentous chapter of Jewish history, but in the last “good” war ofthis century, in which the line between right and wrong was unblurredand the righteousness of our cause unquestioned. Having been part ofIsrael’s rebirth remains the single most memorable and important actof my life.

Yet, before those brave days are suffused by amist of nostalgia and mythology, it is fitting to take an honest andunsentimental look backwards.

American Jewry, not nearly as wealthy andinfinitely more timid in 1948 than now, contributed considerablemoney, and a few chanced jail and loss of citizenship to smuggle armsand airplanes to the beleaguered yishuv (settlement).

But if a people’s commitment is judged by theultimate test of putting their lives at risk, then the Americanperformance was little short of pathetic.

From thelargest Jewish community in the world, and one of the few to emergefrom the war with greater strength than before, a paltry 1,400 wentover to fight for Israel in her life-and-death struggle.

Relative to the size of their Jewish populations,every English-speaking country and most European nations sent vastlylarger contingents.

As in most matters Zionistic, the South Africanswere in the lead, sending 700 top-notch volunteers, out of a Jewishpopulation one-fiftieth the size of the American colossus.

The disparity in the number of volunteersreflected the differences in communal attitudes and civic courage.South Africa’s Jews, and Britain’s to a slightly smaller degree, setup their own selective service system, complete with physical andpsychological testing, and rallied fully behind their young men andwomen heading for the battlefield.

By contrast, organized American Jewry, fearful ofaccusations of double loyalty, generally averted its collective eyesand prayed silently that those crazy kids going over would not provean embarrassment.

The absence of communal participation, includingthe lack of screening, often produced ludicrous results.

I remember bunking down in a tent at the TelLetwinsky army camp the night I arrived in Israel, and was startledto see an American on the next cot taking off his pants andunbuckling his artificial leg.

“How did you ever make it over here?” I asked. Heshrugged his shoulders, replying, “Nobody asked and nobodychecked.”

The Americans also contributed a rather highpercentage of psychological misfits, but that was to be expected.Largely by self- selection, those who volunteer to leave their homecountries and fight in a far away war are an odd breed, be theyFrenchmen in the American Revolution, Americans in the Spanish CivilWar, or Western Jews in Israel’s War of Independence.

Our motives forgoing to Israel were diverse and not always clear to ourselves. Mostof us had fought in World War II and found it hard to settle down.Some were imbued by Zionist ideology, others suddenly discoveredtheir commonality with the Jewish people. Some were genuineidealists, others came to escape personal problems.

The mixed motives were not unique to theAmericans. One volunteer, novelist Harold Livingston, wrote with onlyslight exaggeration:

“Ben-Gurion’s Foreign Legion. They took anyone.Misfits from America, English communists, South African Zionists,Soviet army deserters, Polish noblemen, ne’er-do-well soldiers offortune. If you want adventure and excitement, come on over… If youwant to write a book. If you’re running from the police. If you wantto get away from your wife. If you want to prove that Jews can fight.If you want to help build a new land.”

How important were the contributions of the menand women of Machal, the overseas volunteers?

Some of us, hewing to the bravado of World War IIpatriots, will claim that the Yanks (with a little bit of help fromthe Brits and the Palmach) pretty much won the 1948 war. Israel, onthe other hand, as well as the American Jewish community, have prettywell ignored the role of the Machalniks.

The truth lies somewhere in between. In the daysof the British mandate, the Haganah had managed to train anunderground army, but you can’t create a clandestine air force andnavy. In these two branches, the “Anglo-Saxons,” almost all tested inWorld War II, played a major role, especially in the early months ofthe fighting.

On the ground, the Israelis won their own war. Wemay have helped a little bit, but the real value of our presence, Ithink, was to give the embattled Israelis a sense that the Jews ofother countries were with them and shared in their determination toforge a free Jewish state.

Some of our comrades were killed in battle. A fewin our ranks, very few, were “heroes,” the most overused and misusedword in the English vocabulary.

But at least, borrowing from the Second WorldWar’s immortal Kilroy, we can scrawl on the wall of history — “WeWere There.”

Top, Tom Tugend in Israel, 1948. Center,Israeli convoy halts for a pitstop during the push from Beersheva tothe Gulf of Aqaba. Photo by Tom Tugend. Above, Tugend inspects a 50 mm. gun.Originally manufactured for the Wehrmacht, it still had a swastikaimprinted on the side.

Tom Tugend was a combat infantryman with theU.S. 7th Army in World War II and served in the “Anglo-Saxon” FourthAnti-Tank Unit during Israel’s War of Independence.