Several colleagues have asked if I see any similarities between Jonathan Pollard, a US Navy Field Operational Intelligence Office employee who’ll be released from an American prison November 21 after serving 30 years for giving Israel classified documents, and the American members of an illegal 1948 operation to save the newborn Jewish state.
Initially, I scoffed at drawing such a comparison. Most Americans who learn about the secret operation that brought desperately needed weapons to Israel consider its leader, Al Schwimmer, and his men heroes.
By contrast, few Americans believe Pollard deserves a medal.
Some of the material Pollard stole helped Israel, but some of it did nothing more than hurt America. In fact, some of these files may have ended up in Russian possession during the Cold War, according to the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh.
On the other hand, the members of the Al Schwimmer-led operation – all World War II aviators, most of them American Jews and Christians – strengthened the United States’ global position by helping give it a stable democratic ally in the tumultuous Middle East.
Far from perfect, Israel nonetheless has served Washington’s overarching interests. Most Americans believe that despite differences over the Iran nuclear deal, West Bank settlements and, yes, Pollard, the Jewish state continues to be one of their most loyal and reliable allies.
The operation members, whose story I tell in a recently released PBS documentary, built the foundation for this bond. During the six years I spent making A Wing and a Prayer, I interviewed nearly 30 of them, as well as their family members and scholars in the United States, Israel, Canada and Czechoslovakia. I’ve come to see that their use of illegal means, to which they readily admitted, doesn’t take away from the fact that they helped shift geopolitics in America’s favor.
A ‘little bit’ illegal
The operation members broke several US laws, used false pretenses to buy decommissioned WWII planes, evaded the FBI to smuggle out C-46s and B-17s, busted a Washington-supported UN arms embargo and duped a valued American ally (Panama) – all in a span of a few months in 1948. In spite of, or rather because of this, they have earned a place in the rarefied annals of American patriots such as the Sons of Liberty and Rosa Parks who reshaped history through illegal means.
Pollard stands no chance of ever gaining admittance into this exclusive club. Schwimmer and his men, however, would fit right in.
In 1948, as the United Kingdom wound down its mandate of Palestine, they raced to help Israel ward off an invasion by five Western-equipped armies.
The operation members’ biggest obstacle? The US State Department. Led by pragmatic Secretary of State George Marshall, it aimed to thwart Israel’s creation by reversing the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan, which divided Palestine between the Arabs and Jews. When this maneuver failed, the US reactivated its 1930s Neutrality Act to keep Americans from aiding Israel. Washington also signed on to the arms embargo that kept the Jews from acquiring weapons yet had little effect on the Arabs, who received their war instruments from Great Britain and France. The embargo charged the FBI with enforcing these measures.
Marshall convinced President Truman the US must circumvent a prolonged Middle East war that would have given Moscow an excuse to intervene and forced Washington into a no-win armed conflict. He also wanted to avoid angering the Arabs, who had good reasons to fight.
The UN offended the Arabs by offering only half the land at a time when they made up two-thirds of Palestine’s population. They felt they were being punished for someone else’s crime – the Holocaust.
Also, Marshall was well aware that the Arabs had oil, the Suez Canal and the allegiance of America’s Cold War partner, Britain. Besides, the secretary argued, Israel had no shot at surviving, much less winning, its first war.
The operation members shared this outlook. Unlike Pollard, whose actions boosted the military intelligence of an already powerful state, they knew their mission meant the difference between life and death for the burgeoning country and its 600,000 residents.
Led by a patriot
A US Air Transport Command veteran, Schwimmer outsmarted the State Department and FBI by creating fictitious outfits, including a bogus Panamanian national airline. His men then smuggled surplus Nazi weapons and fighter planes into Israel from Czechoslovakia, the only country willing to break the UN arms embargo.
Unlike Pollard, a zealous Zionist, Schwimmer grew up with little connection to the movement that aimed to give rise to a Jewish state.
Schwimmer harbored patriotic affection wholly for the Stars and Stripes. The son of Hungarian immigrants credited his Great Depression survival to a Vermont military base that sheltered and fed him. It was only after WWII that he adopted a cause that put him at odds with his government.
He felt compelled to act when he came upon Holocaust survivors in former Nazi concentration camps. Although the smokestacks no longer spewed human dust, the barbwire fences still trapped its inhabitants and flabbergasted Schwimmer. He knew the refugees boarding ships bound to the only place willing to take them – the Palestinian Jewish community – would be intercepted by the Royal Navy and sent to camps in Cyprus and Germany. So he proposed flying them in.
The Palestinian Jewish underground (the Haganah) asked Schwimmer to utilize his transport planes for an even more urgent matter: airlifting arms from landlocked Czechoslovakia.
Like Pollard, Schwimmer and his men were fully aware of their operation’s illicit status. They viewed it as a moral no-brainer – and as impeccably aligned with America’s long-term interests.
Nonetheless, in 1950, the US tried and convicted nine of them in a Los Angeles federal courthouse.
Unlike Pollard, the only American to receive a life sentence for spying for a US ally, most of those involved in the 1948 operation avoided prison. Only Charlie Winters, an Irish Protestant, served 18 months for selling Schwimmer two B-17s.
In 2001, President Clinton pardoned Schwimmer, who died 10 years later in Tel Aviv.
In 2008, President George W Bush posthumously pardoned Winters, who’s buried in Israel.
Today, it’s time to embrace Schwimmer, Winters and the rest of the operation members as American patriots.
The Sons of Liberty would be proud to share history’s stage with them.
As for the soon-to-be-freed, bespectacled, bearded spy: sorry, Jonathan Pollard, you’re no Al Schwimmer.