January 17, 2019

Foreign fighters in Israel: 2014 isn’t 1948

Reading about the mass outpouring of mourners at the funeral for Max Steinberg, the 24-year old Angeleno killed fighting for Israel in Gaza, I was struck by a routine mention toward the end of the report.

It read, “U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro extended a message of support and condolences on behalf of the American government and people.”

This nondescript line tells perhaps more about the sea change in the attitude of the United States – and of its Jewish community — in the 66 years since Israel’s birth, than a stack of academic surveys.

Back in 1948, when the first wave, or trickle, of overseas volunteers arrived to aid the newly born state in its life-or-death struggle, a statement from Washington would have taken a much different tone.

A hypothetical news story about the death of a young American fighting for Israel, might have read this way: “Shortly before he was killed in action, Sgt. X was notified that the U.S. government had initiated proceedings to strip him of his U.S. citizenship for serving in a foreign army.”

The law at the time stipulated that any American could lose his or her citizenship, not only for joining a foreign military, but even for merely voting in a foreign election.

Although the law was rarely enforced, and then mostly against men like Al Schwimmer and Hank Greenspun, who smuggled weapons and aircraft to Israel, the prospect of losing their citizenship was quite real for Machalniks (the Hebrew acronym for “Jews from Abroad”) serving in Israel’s armed forces.

That went double for someone like me, a refugee from Germany, who became a naturalized citizen in World War II, after I enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Even when writing to my parents from Israel about the war, I warned them never to use my name if they shared my report with friends.

But the contrast is even more startling looking at the attitude and behavior of the American Jewish community in 1948, and again in 2014.

The death of Max Steinberg triggered a public outpouring of admiration and grief from just about every Jewish organization, spokesperson and Congressperson.

In parallel, criticism by Jewish organizations of President Obama and his administration for allegedly insufficient support of Israel has become a daily ritual.

Compare all this to the situation in 1948. American Jewry, not nearly as wealthy and infinitely more timid than now, of course supported the emerging Jewish state with its heart and money. But with few exceptions, the top priority was not to make waves or antagonize the powers in Washington.

While in other English-speaking countries, Jewish communities openly encouraged their sons and daughters to fight for Israel, organized American Jewry, fearful of the dreaded charge of “double loyalty,” generally averted its collective eye and prayed that those crazy kids going over would not prove an embarrassment.

As one result, and relative to the sizes of their Jewish communities, every other English-speaking country sent vastly larger contingents of volunteers, even if one includes the Americans who manned the “illegal” immigrant ships of Aliyah Bet.

For example, while 1,400 American volunteers joined the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces during the War of Independence, South Africa sent 700 top-notch men and women out of a Jewish population one-fiftieth the size of the American colossus.

There is one other major distinction between the Machal  contribution to the in the War of Independence and the current hostilities.

In the late 1940s, the overwhelming majority of Machalniks had seen active service in World War II and their experience was invaluable to the emerging Israeli underground fighters, especially in the air force and navy.  By contrast, hardly any of the current crop of volunteers has had any military experience and has much to learn from the IDF, representing one of the most sophisticated military organizations in the world.