(April 17, 2018 / Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C.) Prior to the founding of the State of Israel, a large number of veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces made great contributions to the struggle to establish a Jewish national home.
Much of this crucial aid came at one of the most pivotal points in Israel’s history—the 1948 War of Independence.
In 1948, so soon after the Second World War, there were far more Jews in America with extensive combat and military experience than there were in Palestine. Many recently demobilized American veterans (both Jewish and non-Jewish) volunteered to fight to defend the Jewish homeland. Many volunteered out of their ideological commitment to Zionism; others out of a desire to prevent another Holocaust. Some 3,500 overseas volunteers—many of them U.S. veterans—fought in the war. Serving on all fronts, these volunteers were known as MACHAL in Hebrew.
It should be noted that the United States made it extremely difficult for its veterans to fight for Israel during this time. All passports were stamped with an explicit warning that if a citizen left the country to serve in the military of a foreign state, the passport-holder could lose his or her citizenship.
Indeed, many of the U.S. volunteers had their citizenship temporarily suspended when they returned from the war. This highlights just how great the effort and sacrifices were of the truly heroic volunteers who chose to put their lives on the line for the sake of their Jewish brothers and sisters, struggling for independence thousands of miles away.
Overall, American veterans made up a very small percentage of the Israeli forces, with one important exception. Due to a severe lack of homegrown talent, the fledgling Israeli Air Force was essentially founded, run and staffed throughout the war by a majority of foreign volunteers, with a major U.S. contingent. There were so many Americans involved that, for a time, English became the de facto language of the fledgling Israel Air Force.
Similarly, the Israeli Navy was founded and commanded by American veterans. Paul Shulman, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with combat experience in the Pacific, served as the commander of the Israeli Navy from 1948 through 1949.
Without these brave and heroic volunteers, Israel would have had no functioning air force or navy. Their dedicated service may well have determined the outcome of the war.