August 22, 2019

‘My Brother’s Keeper’ keeps soldiers’ story alive

When Israel fought its War of Independence, there were no embedded TV cameramen, and even combat newsreel photographers were practically nonexistent. The newly created state had more important matters to worry about.

More surprisingly, there have been hardly any movies celebrating the near miraculous victories of 1948-49, and, later, of the Six-Day War in 1967.

Unlike Hollywood, which would have turned out dozens of macho movies showing Yossi Wayne-stein single-handedly wiping out five Arab armies, Israelis have just let the facts speak for themselves.

Hollywood made one try at plugging the cinematic hole with “Cast a Giant Shadow,” starring Kirk Douglas in the role of Col. David “Mickey” Marcus, an American World War II officer who went to Israel in early 1948 to aid the country in its struggle. Predictably, the picture was long on drama and short on reality.

Actually, though, there were some Americans and Canadians, mostly Jews, but also a fair number of Christians, who put their lives on the line to realize the dream of creating a Jewish state.

First came the crew members of Aliyah Bet, who manned the rust-bucket ships that ran the British blockade to bring some remnants of European Jewry to Palestine in 1947 and early 1948.

While the state was being established, about 1,500 Americans and Canadians, together with men and women from 43 other countries, made their way to the nascent Jewish state, mostly by illegal means, to fight alongside their Israeli brothers and sisters.

They were called Machal, the Hebrew acronym for “volunteers from outside Israel.” They fought in all branches of the service, but their greatest impact was in applying their World War II experiences to build up the Israeli air force and navy.

In doing so, the American Machalniks clearly broke U.S. laws and risked loss of their citizenship, but surprisingly little is known of their deeds in either their home country or Israel.

One of their number was Ira Feinberg, a 17-year-old New Yorker, who joined the elite troops of the Palmach.

Sixty years later, in 2008, Feinberg returned to Israel for a reunion of some of the remaining Machalniks. Realizing that this was likely to be the last gathering of the aging veterans, he brought along a camera crew to save their reminiscences for posterity.

The result is a 40-minute DVD, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which re-creates a real sense of those long-ago years and will screen at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on May 10.

Nowadays, when Israeli military prowess is taken for granted, it beggars the imagination to hear the veterans talk of fighting, at the beginning, with World War I rifles and dropping hand grenades from open cockpits.

Feinberg enlivens the testimony with some historic newsreel footage and photos of bare-chested Machalniks posing fiercely with Browning Automatic Rifles, but, of necessity, the film is somewhat static.

The volunteers came to Israel for many and diverse reasons, but what shines through is their pride in having been part of a climactic moment in Jewish history.

Looking back, Canadian Joe Warner observed, “If we failed to have a state, being a Jew anywhere in the world wouldn’t be worth a nickel.”

Feinberg himself concluded, “No other experience in my life had such meaning as this period serving in the first army to fight for the Jewish people and for the independence of the State of Israel. This was the pinnacle of my life’s experiences. Nothing comes close to it.”

“My Brother’s Keeper” is produced by Cinema Angels and can be ordered by going to