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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

American Volunteers Who Fought to Secure the Jewish State

The Machal Memorial in Jerusalem (above), dedicated in December 2017, is one of several memorials in Israel honoring the legacy of Machal volunteers. (Photo: Jewish Virtual Library)

On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion—who would soon become Israel’s first prime minister—declared the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Many Americans played a crucial role in Israel’s reemergence after 2,000 years, from advocating for Israel’s creation to supporting its pivotal War of Independence. As Israel and its supporters around the world celebrate the 70th anniversary of this historic declaration, Americans can take special pride in how many hundreds of their fellow citizens played a first-hand role in securing this monumental achievement.

The Important Role of Machal Volunteers

On May 15, one day after Ben-Gurion’s historic declaration, five Arab armies invaded Israel intent on destroying the nascent Jewish state. As Israel’s War for Independence intensified, more than 3,500 volunteers from 37 different countries disrupted their lives and found their way to Israel. Known as Machal (a Hebrew acronym for “Volunteers from Outside of Israel”), these Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers fought alongside Israeli troops in a wide array of units and professions.

Many of these Machalniks, as its members were known, were World War II veterans who brought much-needed combat expertise to Israel, gained from previous military service as naval commanders, radar technicians, heavy artillery gunners, fighter and bomber pilots, and surgeons. More than 95 percent of Israel’s combat-trained air crews were Machalniks.

As Prime Minister Ben-Gurion recognized, “The participation of...men and women of other nations in our struggle cannot be measured only as additional manpower, but as an exhibition of the solidarity of the Jewish people...without the assistance, the help and the ties with the entire Jewish people, we would have accomplished naught...some of our most advanced services might not have been established were it not for the professionals who came to us from abroad.”

Importantly, these volunteers eagerly accepted life-threatening risks to help defend the Jewish state. As the 1998 U.S. Congressional resolution (H.Con.Res. 268) honoring the legacy of Machal volunteers aptly noted, they did so “despite obstacles, restrictions and prohibitions, some of which were imposed on them by their own governments.” Even the United States at the time made it difficult for Americans to defend Israel, and many U.S. volunteers had their citizenship suspended upon their return to America. Indeed, most Machalniks returned to their nations of origin following the war.

“This [array of obstacles] highlights just how great the effort and sacrifice were of the truly heroic volunteers who chose to put their lives on the line for the sake of their Jewish brothers and sisters, struggling for independence thousands of miles away,” wrote Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer in an April 17 message honoring U.S. veterans as part of Israel’s 70th anniversary celebration.

A total of 119 Machal volunteers were killed fighting for Israel’s independence—including four women and eight non-Jews. “These volunteers that brought about the beginning of our Armored Corps, gave us not only your experience, but your lives. The people of Israel, the State of Israel, will never forget it. We will ever cherish this unique contribution made by you, the volunteers of the Machal,” said the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the 1993 dedication of a Machal Memorial in Israel.

An estimated 1,500 of the overseas volunteers were from the United States, mostly U.S. veterans of World War II. The North American pilots, air and ground crews inaugurated the Air Transport Command, which transferred aircraft and weapons from Prague to Tel Nof Air Force Base in Israel. Without these brave U.S. veterans volunteering for the Jewish state, Israel would not have had a functioning air force or navy.

Col. Mickey Marcus

The most notable American Machalnik is David “Mickey” Marcus. A New York native and 1929 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the Army Reserves colonel was recruited in 1947 to serve as Ben-Gurion’s military advisor responsible for transforming pre-state defense forces into a regular Army. Appointed Israel’s first modern Aluf, or general, he is credited with creating a clear command-and-control structure for the Haganah—the pre-state predecessor of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—and helping to construct the Burma Road to break the siege of Jerusalem.

The day after Marcus was killed by friendly fire on June 10, 1948, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion eulogized Marcus, stating: He “succeeded in making outstanding contributions to the building and perfecting of our war machine. His name will live forever in the annals of the Jewish people...and American Jewry will be proud of its great and gallant son who has given his life for the liberation of Israel.”

In 1996, actor Kirk Douglas played Marcus in Cast a Giant Shadow, a Hollywood film based on the experiences of the real-life Jewish-American hero.

Seventy Years On

In the 70 years since Israel’s reemergence, individual Americans have continued to volunteer to defend the Jewish state through military service in the IDF. Thousands of Hayal Boded, or lone soldiers—service members without immediate family in Israel—have hailed from the United States. In addition, many more U.S. service members of all faiths train side-by-side with IDF troops during numerous joint military exercises.

While the United States made a range of critical contributions to the young State of Israel, the individual military contributions of American volunteers to the successful outcome of Israel’s war of independence deserve special recognition this year as Israel celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence.