(March 26, 2018 / Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C.) Al Schwimmer was born in New York City in 1917 to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He became an engineer and pilot, gaining considerable experience and connections in the aerospace industry while serving as a flight engineer during World War II.
During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Schwimmer used his expertise and connections to smuggle war planes to Israel. He later explained that he did so because he believed that if Israel lost the war, there would be a second Holocaust, with more than 600,000 Jewish lives at risk. Schwimmer also recruited flight crews and pilots to fly the planes, helping to create the beginnings of what would later become the Israeli Air Force.
The smuggling operation was complex, with Schwimmer creating two separate aircraft companies. Each company purchased and refurbished numerous used aircraft, including U.S. military planes from World War II. Schwimmer recruited other Jewish veterans to help him modify the planes in a Lockheed terminal; the planes were then flown to Israel via Florida and Czechoslovakia.
Schwimmer’s smuggling operation brought him under the suspicion of the FBI. Narrowly escaping apprehension many times, he fled to Canada and then to Israel, where he continued to contribute to the war effort.
In 1950, he returned to the United States to face charges of violating the U.S. Neutrality Act for smuggling planes to Israel. He was convicted in 1950 by a federal court in Los Angeles. Although not sentenced to prison, he was fined $10,000 and stripped of his voting rights and veteran benefits. Schwimmer refused to ask for a pardon, believing that smuggling aircraft to help the survival of Israel had been the morally correct course of conduct. To accept a pardon would have implied an acknowledgment of guilt.
In 1951, David Ben-Gurion invited Schwimmer to immigrate to Israel. Schwimmer accepted, and shortly after settling in the Jewish state, he founded Israel Aircraft Industries. Later renamed Israel Aerospace Industries, it now employs 16,000 workers and boasts yearly revenues of more than $3 billion.
Although Schwimmer never did ask for a pardon, President Bill Clinton pardoned him in 2001.
Schwimmer’s life exemplifies the devotion of the many American Jews who selflessly supported Israel’s struggle to survive.