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Above and Beyond: How a Band of Volunteers Saved Israel from the Sky

Above and Beyond: How a Band of Volunteers Saved Israel from the Sky

Above and Beyond chronicles the daring exploits of a band of volunteer aviators who helped save Israel from almost certain defeat in the 1948 War of Independence. In defiance of the Truman administration, which criminalized arms shipments to the Jews, these airmen smuggled planes and munitions into Palestine and took to the sky to stop five invading Arab armies. Convinced that the better-equipped Arab forces would win a quick and decisive victory, the U.S. wrote off the emerging Jewish state.

Producer Nancy Spielberg conceived of the film after reading an obituary of Al Schwimmer, who died in 2011 at age 94. A former pilot and captain in the U.S. Air Transport Command, Schwimmer was arguably the single most important figure in procuring the aircraft that turned the tide of war in the Jews' favor. Director Roberta Grossman (Hava Nagila: The Movie) does a masterful job of telling this story through the testimonials of five surviving pilots (in their eighties and still feisty), commentaries by historians, and archival footage seamlessly combined with recreations of aerial battle scenes by George Lucas' special effects company.

The film acknowledges Schwimmer’s pivotal role, but his voice is missing. In a rare interview with Reform Judaism magazine in the fall of 1998, Schwimmer told his story.

Near the end of World War II, we put down in the Azores to refuel. Having time to kill, I went to see a movie on the base. There was an added attraction: army film footage of Auschwitz. It was a moment of revelation – when Jews suddenly realize in a new way that they are Jews.

That moment pushed me into Jewish activism. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what. There was talk of a Jewish state, so when I got home to Bridgeport, CT, I went to the Jewish Agency and said I wanted to help. At first they were suspicious of a guy named Adolph William Schwimmer, but after they checked me out, they sent me to see a guy named Shlomo. He said, 'You know, Al, there will be a war and we have to get a hold of some planes for an air force, for cargo, for combat. The Arabs have planes. The skies belong to them. Do you think procuring planes is a big job?' I told him, 'That part of it is easy. The United States is stuck with thousands of grounded World War II planes rusting in surplus depots. Anybody can purchase them as junk, at a penny or two on the dollar.'

…I formed an air transport company and purchased 14 C-46 cargo planes, four constellation transports, and four B-17 decommissioned bombers. I figured we'd need 300 or so pilots, mechanics, radio operators, and flight engineers. We got the word out and about a thousand volunteers responded – predominantly American Air Force veterans. We bought about a dozen reconditioned German Messerschmidt-109 fighter planes from the Czech's new Communist government at about $40,000 each. But our pilots were not trained to navigate them and we didn't have permission to fly them out of the country. We solved the problem by dismantling the planes, loading them into my C-46s, and airlifting them to Palestine, where we reassembled them.

The Czechs would not have sold us planes and arms without the approval of the U.S.S.R., not that the Soviets had any sympathy for us. Aid to Israel was an attempt to discredit the United States. The U.S., like the U.S.S.R., had voted in the U.N. for the creation of the Jewish state, but in 1948 the Soviets were aiding the Jews while the Americans were aiding those who wanted to prevent a Jewish state. Later, when it became clear that Israel was going to survive and the combined Arab armies could not drive us into the sea, the U.S. became our stalwart ally and the Soviets became our implacable foe.

We were expert pilots but amateur bandits. The FBI, Treasury Department, and State Department smelled us out almost from the beginning. It was a sort of Keystone Cops comedy. They were in full chase, but couldn't quite catch up with us. When they finally did, they told us that we didn't have proper export licenses. In 1950, two years after the Jewish state had been established, we were brought to trial for violating The Neutrality Act. Our highly publicized trial was calculated to show the Arabs and British that the U.S. was on their side. I was found guilty and could have gotten 10 years, but the sentence was suspended. [Schwimmer was pardoned in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.]

I don't take credit for my role, because if I do, I would also have to take blame. I don't like to think about the overloaded C-46 in Mexico crashing on takeoff, killing two guys. It happened on my watch. The true heroes in the War of Independence were those sabras [native-born Israelis] who ran to face the Arabs with fake guns and cannon and single-seater Taylor Cub planes, which might have trouble killing a rabbit. The pilots threw hand grenades and empty bottles at the enemy. They had no doubts about their duties. They were fearless.

Above and Beyond debunks the myth that Western powers supported the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine as a humanitarian response to the Holocaust or to gain a foothold in the Arab world. Israel owes its existence to the courage and ingenuity of the Palestinian Jews and the volunteers who rushed to their aid from abroad.

Above and Beyond opens in New York City on January 30, 2015, at the Village East Cinema, and in Los Angeles on February 6, 2015, at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. Visit www.aboveandbeyondthemovie.com for information about additional screenings and openings.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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