When Israel was established on May 15, 1948, it had no air force. Two weeks later, four Israeli fighter planes stopped Egypt’s army from invading Israel. Where did these planes come from? Who flew them?
Although hard to believe, credit for Israel’s success in the air in 1948 is largely due to foreigners – Jewish idealists in America who helped smuggle planes into Israel and World War II pilots who volunteered to fly them. The remarkable story of their heroism is told in “Above and Beyond,” a new documentary produced by Nancy Spielberg.
The Jewish Press recently spoke with Spielberg, whose brother is the legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
The Jewish Press: What made you decide to make this film?
Spielberg: I was inspired by an obituary somebody showed me in 2011 which was titled “Godfather of the Israeli Air Force Dies,” but went on to talk about an American – Al Schwimmer.
The details were so incredible and unknown to me. It felt like a Hollywood movie – the adventure, the clandestine operations, the FBI chasing these guys because they were breaking the law. These guys were war heroes, and they risked their lives for Israel even though they weren’t Zionists.
I said to myself, “This story has got to be told. We’re losing this generation of World War II and if we don’t listen to them now, we’ve lost it.”
You say it wasn’t Zionism that motivated these American Jews to fight for Israel. What was it then?
The guys I interviewed were all raised with a lot of anti-Semitism. They got bullied and beaten up coming from, and going to, school. They were not proud of their Judaism. It never helped them. When they came back from World War II, no commercial airlines would hire Jewish pilots.
But they were involved in liberating the camps and they saw these survivors in Israel walking into another potential genocide. I think that was what spurred them, but in the process they actually discovered, or rediscovered, their Jewish identity.
It’s amazing that Israel had to rely on volunteers from abroad to build its air force in 1948.
Israel had been under British control up to that point, and the Brits didn’t really allow the Jews to arm themselves. So they had no air power, and when the war started, they were bombed on a regular basis by the Egyptians. That’s what was so incredible. We have footage in the film – somebody went out and took a picture of this Egyptian Spitfire that just kept flying over Tel Aviv, bombing it. Nobody could stop it. All they could do was go get a camera and film it.
And yet, just two weeks later, Israeli fighter planes – made in a former Czechoslovakian Nazi factory – helped prevent an invasion of Israel by Egypt’s army.
The Egyptian army was less than 30 miles outside of Tel Aviv and moving in with all its forces. That would’ve been the end.
That’s when these pilots took off and totally surprise attacked them. They didn’t cause a lot of physical damage, but they psychologically frightened the Egyptians because they suddenly realized that there was some competition in the sky. Also, the Egyptians thought this was just one piece of a much bigger air force. So psychologically, it literally crippled them, and they never went beyond that point.
Many Jews know that President Truman recognized Israel 14 minutes after its founding. Few, though, realize how hostile the U.S. was to Israel’s fate immediately afterward. According to your documentary, not only did America impose an arms embargo on the Middle East, it also sought to prosecute those American Jews trying to help Israel.