Amid record aliyah, recalling Truman’s push against Israeli army volunteers

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Click photo to download. Caption: Soon-to-be-soldiers exiting the Nefesh B'Nefesh aliyah flight on the runway at Ben Gurion airport Aug. 14. Credit: Nefesh B'Nefesh.

When a record 127 North American Jewish volunteer soldiers for the Israel Defense Forces arrived in Tel Aviv on an aliyah flight last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a cheering crowd, and a live band greeted them. They were the latest of some 8,200 foreign citizens who have come to fight for Israel during the past three years.

But volunteering for Israel’s armed services was not always as simple as buying a plane ticket and filling out some forms. A group of about 100 young men and women who sailed from New York for Israel in May 1948, hoping to take part in the War of Independence, ran headlong into President Harry Truman administration’s military embargo on the new State of Israel. Instead of defending the Jewish state against Arab invaders, they found themselves prisoners in a Lebanese detention camp.

On the eve of Israeli independence, agents of the Haganah, the pre-state underground militia, set up an American front group, “Land and Labor for Palestine,” to smuggle weapons and volunteer soldiers to the Holy Land. Its activity was illegal because the Truman administration had imposed an arms embargo on the Jewish state-to-be. 

Would-be soldiers had to concoct various excuses to secure visas from the British Consulate in New York to enter Palestine. Elihu King, 19, of Los Angeles, later wrote that he “made up a story about my sick aunt who had nobody and needed me there, with a forged letter to prove it all.” Ray Kaplan, 20, a leader of the nationalist Zionist youth movement Betar, told the British he was going to “volunteer to work on a kibbutz.”

King and Kaplan were part of a group of about 100 young men and women whom Land and Labor agents brought to a farm in Poughkeepsie, NY, in May 1948 for several days of training before embarking for the Middle East. An officer handed each of the recruits a 3 x 5 Hebrew Bible with a metal cover, according to King. “He told us, ‘Wear it in your shirt pocket, and it will deflect a deadly bullet’.”

Stephen Esrati of Cleveland, one of the seven Betar members who traveled to the Poughkeepsie farm, told JNS.org that although the Labor-affiliated Haganah was officially Betar’s political rival, he and his comrades “were quickly sworn in as members of the Haganah.”

The soldiers-to-be were bused to New York City’s Pier 48, where they boarded the S. S. Marine Carp, with stops scheduled for ports in Greece, Italy, Lebanon, British-controlled Palestine (Haifa), and Egypt. The majority of the passengers were Lebanese or Egyptian citizens returning home.

Halfway across the Atlantic, the ship received the news that the State of Israel had been proclaimed. “We gathered in the dining hall and roared out our joy and pride,” King wrote. “We sang ‘Hatikvah’ and a thousand other anthems and songs, danced the hora until we dropped, cried, laughed, and carried on.”

On the morning of May 19, the Marine Carp approached the port of Beirut. Since Lebanon was officially at war with Israel and the ship was carrying Israel-bound passengers, the captain radioed ahead to U.S. Consul General John Faust. The consul assured him there would be no problem docking in Beirut. Faust himself was on hand when the ship arrived--but so were several hundred Lebanese soldiers.

Click photo to download. Caption: A portrait Harry S. Truman. Credit: Greta Kempton.

“I think if the United States had insisted, the Lebanese would have had to back off,” Kaplan told JNS.org. But with the establishment of Israel, the Truman administration had expanded its embargo to include preventing “men of military age” from reaching the Jewish State. Lebanon’s intervention was consistent with Truman’s policy.

In meetings with representatives of the passengers, Consul Faust made no secret of his hostility toward the Zionists. Muriel Eisenberg, the future wife of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who was part of the Betar contingent, told an Israel Television interviewer that Faust mockingly declared, “Moses was greater than any of you here, and he didn’t make it to Palestine either.” According to Esrati, Faust also used anti-Semitic language, referring to them as “kikes” and “Jew boys.”

The Lebanese soldiers, pointing their machine guns, arrested all 69 of the male passengers whose papers indicated they were bound for Haifa. Forty-one of the 69 were American citizens. 

Betar member Marilyn Schindell watched the men being led away. “Did you ever feel your heart break into a thousand pieces? That is how I felt,” she wrote to a friend as the Marine Carp sailed out of the Beirut harbor. 

“At gun-point the boys were herded off the ship and onto trucks like animals,” Schindell wrote. “Oh, what a sight they were! They were defiant, laughing and singing [the] fighting songs of the Haganah and the Irgun...Such poise and dignity I have never yet seen and I doubt whether I ever will. Never will I forget it...and don’t you either.”

They were driven 50 miles on army trucks to Baalbek, a ramshackle detention camp surrounded with barbed wire. For five and a half weeks, the 69 young men studied Hebrew, played cards, and subsisted mostly on pita bread, spoiled eggs, and thin soup. “I weighed 150 pounds when we arrived, 110 when we left,” King wrote. The guards were Palestinian Arabs, “and some of them were sadistic bastards,” according to King.

“One morning, out of the blue, Faust, the consul-general, shows up and tells us that we’re being sent back to America,” Esrati told JNS.org. “There was only one catch—Faust made us sign papers taking out a U.S. government loan of $300 each to pay our return fare. That’s what I call adding insult to injury.”

Protests by American Zionist groups and members of Congress over the continued detention of U.S. citizens had embarrassed the Lebanese government and convinced it to send the 69 back. But not all of them made the complete journey. Seventeen of the Haganah men left the ship when it docked in Palermo, Italy, and then made their way to Israel. Others disembarked in Naples. Esrati and two friends jumped ship in the Azores, but were arrested by the Portuguese police and taken back in handcuffs. They spent much of the return trip below deck, in the ship’s brig.

But Muriel Eisenberg and the other women of the Marine Carp had the last laugh. The Truman administration's policy of barring “men of military age” from reaching Israel specified “men,” not women. The assumption in those days was that women would not serve on the battlefield. The policymakers did not take into consideration the fact that in the new state of Israel, women were not always confined to society’s traditional roles.

To the delight of their comrades behind barbed wire in Baalbek, most of the female passengers of the Marine Carp who were permitted to go to Haifa promptly enlisted in the Israeli army. Arriving just days after Israel’s establishment, they helped initiate a tradition of American Jews serving in the Israeli army that continues to this day.

Posted on August 19, 2012 and filed under Features, Israel, U.S..