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Saving Israel

Boaz Dvir, faculty member

As it prepared to ward off an invasion by five well-equipped neighboring armies in 1948, newborn Israel lacked the weapons to defend itself. Enter Al Schwimmer, an American World War II veteran who feared a repeat of the Holocaust. He created fictitious airlines, bought decommissioned airplanes from the US War Asset Administration, fixed them in California and New Jersey, and sent his pilots—Jewish and non-Jewish WWII aviators—to pick up rifles, bullets and fighter planes from the only country willing to break the international arms embargo: communist Czechoslovakia.

For the crime of arming Israel with basic war instruments and battle-ready planes, including Messerschmitt fighters and B-17 bombers, Schwimmer and key members of his team paid a heavy price. They lost their civil rights in the United States after being convicted of breaking the arms embargo and the 1939 Neutrality Act. Years later, three presidents would pardon three of them.

The operation members risked their lives, freedom, and American citizenship to prevent what they viewed as a possible genocide. They evaded the FBI and State Department, gained the support of the mafia, smuggled weapons—mostly Nazi surplus—across hostile territories, and went into combat.

Assistant Professor Boaz Dvir’s “Saving Israel: The Unknown Story of Smuggling Weapons and Winning a Nation’s Independence” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020) recreates the operation members’ sui generis journey in vivid scenes, capturing their multilayered stories and larger-than-life personalities. It documents the spirit as well as the facts of a mostly unknown mission to save Israel.

The Washington Times book reviewer Joshua Sinai describes “Saving Israel” as a “fascinating and dramatic account filled with lots of new information about a crucially formative period in Israel’s history.”

Giving it five stars, Historic Wings Editor Thomas Van Hare writes that “Saving Israel” is a “must-have” for fans of heart-pounding nonfiction.

“It is a masterwork of research, interviews, and first-hand accounts of what it was like at the very beginning of the IAF [Israeli Air Force], when nobody knew if Israel would live or die,” Van Hare writes. “Drop everything get this book today. You can thank us later.”

Dvir, an award-winning filmmaker who teaches journalism at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, wrote, directed and produced “A Wing and a Prayer,” which tells this story. PBS released it in 2015 to critical acclaim. It won Best Feature Documentary at the 2016 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival and has screened around the world at such venues as the Amer­ican Jewish Historical Society in New York, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, Columbia University’s Global Center in Paris, and the Library Film Festival in India. It is now available on streaming sites such as Amazon Prime.

Dvir has also produced and directed “Jessie’s Dad,” His films have been covered by the Huffington Post, The Guardian, MSNBC, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Miami Herald, Stars and Stripes, and other publica­tions. Dvir has written for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Newsday, Tampa Bay Times, the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, The Conversation, Explore, and many other publications.

Dvir spent more than a decade researching the secret 1947-49 operation that saved Israel. Besides “Saving Israel” and “A Wing and a Prayer,” he joined New York-based Retro Report last year to produce “Israel Survived an Early Challenge with War Planes Smuggled by US Vets.”

As part of his research, Dvir secured exclusive interviews with the operation’s leaders, including mastermind Al Schwimmer, chief pilot Sam Lewis and Christian crew leader Eddie Styrak. Their tell-all interviews provide rich detail about a group of Jews and Christians who, driven mostly by plight of Holocaust survivors, helped reshape history, yet have been largely forgotten by history books.

Schwimmer’s recruits thought they were done fighting after WWII ended in 1945, yet he convinced them to put their lives and U.S. citizenships on the line to give the Jews in Palestine – the only community eager to take in Holocaust survivors – a fighting chance.

Vowing to “push the Jews into the sea,” Israel’s neighbors anticipated weak opposition, since the Jewish state had a sparsely armed military, a wingless air force and no allies.

The morning after Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, five Western-equipped armies invaded. The Jews’ return to their ancient land appeared short-lived. But Schwimmer had a plan: create factitious airlines, buy and fix decommissioned transport planes, and smuggle in surplus Nazi weapons from behind the Iron Curtain.

“Drawing on over two-dozen interviews, Dvir’s book brings this incredible chapter in Israel’s early history to life,” writes Miriam F. Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network and associate professor of political science at Syracuse University. “What motivated these men to fly for Israel at a time when its survival hung in the balance? ‘Saving Israel’ is a must read for anyone interested in military history and learning more about America’s war heroes.”

Ralph Lowenstein, dean emeritus of the University of Florida College of Journalism, was the second youngest American volunteer in the Israeli army during its first war. He has chronicled the contributions made by thousands of others who put their post-World War II lives on hold to help create a Jewish state.

“The American Jewish and Christian role in helping Israel win its War of Independence in 1948 is little known in the US or Israel,” Lowenstein says. “ ‘Saving Israel’ is a revelation.”