Mahal – The Third International Brigade When Israel Was the Darling of the Left

by Norman Berdichevsky (June 2015)

American pilots who volunteered to fight for Israel’s independence

For the third time in the mid-twentieth-century, an international cohort of idealistic volunteers without thought of personal compensation, or safety formed an International Brigade in an unequal battle. These were the volunteers of those who rushed to the aid of the embattled State of Israel in the face of seven invading Arab armies in 1948-49. Known as Mahal [Hebrew: ??”??, an acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz LaAretz (Hebrew: ?????? ??? ?????), literally, Volunteers from Outside the Land of Israel].

They were both Jews and Christians who participated in combat or had earlier helped in breaking the British naval blockade preventing the arrival of Jewish immigrants to Mandatory Palestine. About 4,000 volunteers from all over the world came to fight on the Israeli side and helped stem and reverse the tide of battle and secure Israeli independence. They followed the noble ideals of the two previous International Brigades of Volunteers for Republican Spain (1936-39) and Finland (1939-40); (See Berdichevsky NERFebruary 2009 and May 2015 and Capshaw, NER, May 2015).

The world has since been inundated with a tsunami of Arab propaganda and crocodile tears shed for the “Palestinians” who have reveled in what they refer to as their Catastrophe or Holocaust (“Nakba” in Arabic). Their plight has been accompanied by unremitting criticism that the United States was the principal architect that stood behind Israel from the very beginning with money, manpower and arms.

This is totally false – the opposite was true. The Arab states who invaded Palestine to prevent the establishment of a Jewish State had been equipped, trained and financed for over three decades by the two leading European Imperialist Powers – Britain and France.

The fact is that President Truman eventually decided against the overwhelmingly pro-Arab “professional opinion” of his Secretary of State, General George Marshall and the career Arabists of the State Department in order to vote for partition. He managed to accord diplomatic recognition to the new Jewish state but never considered active military aid. Truman’s memoirs reveal a bitter contempt for the professional “striped-pants” boys of the eastern Ivy League Colleges and State Department.

Although at times angered by Jewish pressure on the question of the Zionist movement’s goal of a Jewish state, Truman’s strong Baptist sentiments and basic human decency won out in reaching his decision against the “experts” to recognize the State of Israel. His diary comments speak for themselves….”Hitler had been murdering Jews right and left. I saw it, and I dream about it even to this day. The Jews needed some place where they could go. It is my attitude that the American government couldn’t stand idly by while the victims [of] Hitler’s madness are not allowed to build new lives.”

His own memoirs recall how he felt betrayed by State Department officials and the American U.N. Ambassador, Warren Austin, who pulled the rug out from under him one day after Truman had promised Zionist leader Chaim Weitzman support for partition.

American Jewish military veterans, pilots and merchant seamen were under supervision by orders of the State Department and the FBI to make sure that they were not carrying illegal immigrants or arms and more than once they were stopped, and their cargoes seized, remote from the President’s knowledge.

Suspicions of American Intelligence

American intelligence continued to buy the myth from 1947 to 1951 that the new Israeli state might be pro-Soviet because of the large presence of the Socialist-Zionist political parties and the proven success in combat of the Hagana and Palmach, units with a large participation of leftwing kibbutz members. Taking (as always) their lead from Moscow, the (hitherto anti-Zionist) Palestinian communist organizations merged their separate Arab and Jewish divisions in October, 1948, giving unconditional support to the Israeli war effort and urging the Israel Defense Forces to “Drive on toward the Suez Canal and hand British Imperialism a stinging defeat!” This alarmed the State Department that had been warned by British intelligence of possible Soviet infiltration or influence among the Israeli forces.

Overwhelming Support for Zionism and Partition from the American Left

The most well established, highly respected and veteran organ of the Left in the United States (celebrating its 150th anniversary this year), The Nation, enthusiastically editorialized in favor of partition and supported the creation of a Jewish State more so than any other American journal of opinion or media outlet. Freda Kirchwey, The Nation’s publisher and editor-in-chief wrote and spoke that the struggle for a Jewish Palestine was nothing less than the sequel and parallel of the Spanish Civil War, the other struggle to which she had dedicated much of her career. Spanish Republican exiles remembered with much emotion and gratitude the outstanding contribution Jewish volunteers had made to the International Brigades in Spain. Estimates of their participation range as high as 20%.

In this, she was undoubtedly correct, for her words were echoed by Dolores Ibarruri, “La Passionaria” the Basque Communist leader in the Spanish Cortes before and during the Civil War in Spain, followed by a long period of exile in Moscow. She issued a proclamation in 1948 from Moscow saluting the new State of Israel and compared the invading Arab armies to the Fascist uprising that had destroyed the Spanish Republic. Just a few months later, the hero of the American Left, the great Afro-American folk singer, Paul Robeson sang in a gala concert in Moscow, electrifying the crowd with his rendition of the Yiddish Partisan Fighters Song.

Kirchwey’s father had been dean of Columbia University Law School, President of the American Peace Society (a sponsor of the journal) and a leading pacifist spokesman. In 1918, Freda joined the staff of The Nation, eventually becoming its editor in 1933 and its publisher from 1937 to 1943. After her death, the New York Times editorialized that Kirchwey enjoyed a “unique combination of personal charm and militant principle” and lauded her for being “a cheerful crusader.”

Her most important crusade was waged on behalf of the Jewish State. She attacked the State Department and the Aramco Oil Company for their unholy alliance with the Saudi regime and appealed to President Truman to escape their clutches.

Kirchwey mobilized a board of influential progressives, which included such outstanding personalities as Philip Murray, president of the CIO; outstanding Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebhur; James G. Patton, president of the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union; left-wing radio commentators Frank Kingdon and Raymond Graham Swing; playwrights Lillian Hellman and Eugene O’Neill; and writer Thomas Mann.

Kirchwey and her board decided that the magazine should concentrate its efforts on the issue of Palestine. They believed that the plight of Holocaust survivors languishing in Europe’s displaced-persons camps “presented a problem which challenged the conscience of mankind and the ability of civilization to make some restitution.” The overwhelming majority of Jewish refugees wished to go to Palestine to rebuild their shattered lives.

Kirchwey’s pro-Zionist sentiments were cemented during a trip to Palestine as The Nation’s correspondent in the spring and summer of 1946. Her impressions of the Jews, the Arabs, and the British were typical of almost all on the Left and held by many of the members of the various international commissions dispatched to Palestine. She was impressed with the achievements of the Jews in Palestine and their rehabilitation of the Holocaust’s survivors and contrasted their accomplishments with the poverty and what she called the backwardness of the Arabs. She also harshly criticized the role played by the 100,000 British troops stationed in Palestine.

In a series of articles she wrote about her trip, Kirchwey stated how “overpowering” the British military presence had become and how biased against the Jews, concluding that the British were inviting an Arab revolt and encouraging the Arabs to conclude that through blackmail, the “Western powers can be frightened into sacrificing the Jews just as they have already abandoned the Christians in Lebanon.”

In an editorial comment “Some Proposed Solutions,” She reviewed possible alternatives for Palestine and flatly rejected the creation of a bi-national state coming from liberal Jewish intellectuals such as Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, I. F. Stone, and Hannah Arendt. She argued that it would not “satisfy the needs of the Jews to migrate to Palestine—particularly in view of the consistent opposition of the Arabs.” If such a state were created, she predicted, “conflict would inevitably develop between two peoples whose cultural and industrial development is so different.”

No amount of rationalizations conjured up by spokesmen for the Left’s current vehemently pro-Arab position regarding the 1948 war for Israeli independence can obscure the fact that the Jews enjoyed the collective support of all those forces in the West who identified with the Left as well as the entire Eastern Bloc.

The exposure of the role played by the pro-Nazi Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, leader of the Palestinian High Commission in the affairs of Arab Palestine was probably The Nation’s most important revelation. Kirchwey presented much of the evidence of his role in 1947, evidence that has subsequently been confirmed by considerable additional research since then, most notably in the recent book, Halbmond und Hakenkreuz. Das “Dritte Reich”, die Araber und Palästina, (Crescent Moon and Swastika: The Third Reich, the Arabs, and Palestine) (Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers’; September, 2006). It documents the Arab sympathies for Nazism, particularly in Palestine and German attempts to mobilize and encourage the Arabs with their ideology.

Czech Weapons and Airplanes Turn the Tide of Battle

It was also a source of concern to the British and Americans that the Jews were receiving aircraft and heavy weapons from the East Bloc countries with Soviet support. In the summer of 1947, the leaders of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine), intended to purchase arms and sent Dr. Moshe Sneh (the Chief of the European Branch of the Jewish Agency, a leading member of the centrist General Zionist Party who later moved far leftward and became head of the Israeli Communist Party) to Prague in order to improve Jewish defenses.

He was surprised by the sympathy towards Zionism and by the interest in arms export on the side of the Czech Government. Sneh met with the Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Clementis, who succeeded the non-Communist and definitely pro-Zionist Prime Minister Jan Masaryk. Sneh and Clementis discussed the possibility of Czech arms provisions for the Jewish state and the Czechs gave their approval,

In January, 1948 Jewish representatives were sent by Ben-Gurion to meet with General Ludvik Svoboda, the Minister of National Defense, and sign the first contract for Czech military aid. Four transport routes were used to Palestine all via Communist countries.

One Czech-Israeli project that alarmed the Western intelligence was the, so called, Czech Brigade, a unit composed of Jewish veterans of “Free Czechoslovakia,” which fought with the British Army during WWII. The Brigade began training in August 1948 at four bases in Czechoslovakia. Czech assistance to Israel’s military strength comprised a) small arms, b) 84 airplanes – the outdated Czech built Avia S.199s, Spitfires and Messerschmidts that played a major role in the demoralization of enemy troops; c) military training and technical maintenance. For more than three months—May 1948 to August 1948—Czechoslovakia loaned Israel its Zatec air field. It became virtually an Israeli installation and was used for refitting planes, training pilots, and shipping point for guns and ammunition.

According to British reports, based on informants within the Czech Government, the total Czech dollar income from export of arms and military services to the Middle East in 1948 was over $28 million, and Israel received 85% of this amount. As late as 1951, Czech Spitfires continued to arrive in Israel by ship from the Polish port of Gdansk (Danzig).

Since May, 2005 the Military Museum in Prague has displayed a special exhibition on the Czech aid to Israel in 1948. At first, a “Skymaster” plane chartered from the U.S. to help in ferrying weapons to Palestine from Europe was forced by the FBI to return to the USA. By the end of May, 1948, the Israeli Army (IDF) had absorbed about 20,000 Czech rifles, 2,800 machine-guns and over 27 million rounds of ammunition. Two weeks later an additional 10,000 rifles, 1,800 machine-guns and 20 million rounds of ammunition arrived.

The U.S. vote in favor of partition was only de facto reflecting the State Department’s care not to unnecessarily offend the Arab states whereas the Soviet vote recognized Israel de jure.

The volunteers for Israel (Mahalniks) were mostly World War II veterans from American and British armed forces. In various circumstances, they were invited, or heard of the Jewish state’s struggle for independence and volunteered. In some cases those who enlisted had no prior military experience. They included both ideological supporters of Zionism and mercenaries.

The Ha’apala movement, also called “Aliyah Bet,” which attempted to evade the 1939 and 1948, British naval blockade restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine, was assisted by 236 Mahal former servicemen of the Allied navies as crews of ten clandestine Jewish refugee ships, out of the sixty-six participating vessels.

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War saw a veritable “International brigade” of foreign volunteers from 58 countries among the Jewish forces. A total of 123 Mahalniks were killed in battle (119 men and 4 women). The most prominent senior Mahal officer was Mickey Marcus, a Jewish United States Army colonel who assisted Israeli forces during the war and became Israel’s first Brigadier General. His wartime experience was vital in breaking the 1948 Siege of Jerusalem and his exploits served as the basis for the dramatic film starring Kirk Douglas, Cast a Giant Shadow. Other outstanding Mahalniks were Canadian officer Ben Dunkelman, U.S. pilot Milton Rubenfeld and Major Wellesley Aron, MBE, an English-born Palestinian Jew who had commanded a unit in the British Army during World War II.


The largest presence of the American and British Mahal volunteers was felt in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), comprising nearly two-thirds of its personnel, so that that English temporarily overtook Hebrew as the most widely used operational IAF service language.

Mahal cargo flights transported vital weapons and supplies to Palestine from Europe, and thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and the East Bloc countries. These newly arrived Jewish immigrants were vital reinforcement help for the outnumbered Israeli forces and made up for manpower in the civilian economy.

During the Egyptian Army siege of the Negev region in 1948, Mahal pilots airlifted thousands of tons of supplies to Jewish settlements behind enemy lines. They often made night landings of converted airliners on makeshift, unpaved sand runways, hand-lit by oil lamps.

Occasionally there were tensions resulting from superior pay and service conditions given to the volunteers over resident or native Israeli soldiers, mainly in the air force. It was also an issue for some that more than a few volunteers were adventurers with little commitment to Zionism, non-Jews or individuals who had had previous problems with a rigid, disciplined hierarchy. Some of the non-Jews were also willing deserters from the British Mandatory forces of Irish, Scots and Welsh origin.

Logistic support for the IAF was provided by various diaspora groups which procured planes in the critical months of 1948-9. The IAF scored an impressive victory just hours before the final cease-fire on 7 January 1949. A flight of four British RAF Spitfires on a reconnaissance flight over the Israeli border were attacked by a pair of Israeli Air Force Spitfires, resulting in three of the British planes being shot down. The Israeli Spitfires were flown by Mahal volunteers “Slick” Goodlin (USA) and John McElroy (Canada). Both were former US Army Air Forces and Royal Canadian Air Force pilots, veterans of World War II.

George F. “Buzz” Beurling, of the Royal Canadian Air Force was the top Canadian combat air ace in World War II, with 31 Nazi planes to his credit. He was one of 34 Christian pilots from the U.S. and Canada to volunteer for the IAF. Beurling, only 26, at the time of his death, and his Jewish co-pilot, Leonard Cohen of England, were both killed while attempting to ferry a plane from Italy to Israel on May 20, 1948.

Rudy Augarten, an American combat pilot and Harvard graduate had shot down two German ME-109s while flying a P-47 during World War II. In Israel’s War of independence, he downed four Egyptian aircraft while flying a Czech ME-109 (a former World War II German aircraft), a British Spitfire and an American P-51. He was one of only six Americans awarded “ace” status by combining victories in two wars. He returned to Israel in 1950-52 to become commanding officer of Ramat David Air Force Base.

After the end of the war in 1949, the majority of the Mahal returned to their home countries but several score remained to live in Israel. The village of Kfar Daniel near Lod was founded by Mahal veterans from North America and the UK.

According to then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion “The Mahal Forces were the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel.” A memorial honoring the Mahal volunteers was erected near Sha’ar HaGai on the road from Tel Aviv. A Museum of American and Canadian Volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence, is located in the main hallway of the University of Florida’s Hillel building, in Gainesville.

It may be said that among the three International Brigades, the Mahal volunteers and the aid they provided were a much more effective contribution to the victorious cause they served than the efforts of the valiant foreign volunteers on behalf of the Spanish Republicans and the Finns.



Norman Berdichevsky is the author of The Left is Seldom Right and Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language.


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