‘Above and Beyond’ tells of nascent Israel Air Force

By Jack Forman


Jack Forman

film festival logo 2015LA JOLLA, California — Above and Beyond, produced by Nancy Spielberg (the youngest sister of her famous brother Steven) and deftly directed by Roberta Grossman whose film Hava Nagila screened at the 2014 San Diego Jewish Film Festival, dramatically tells the miraculous story of how Israel’s ragtag Air Force was created and helped stave off the military onslaught from five Arab nations surrounding the new state in May, 1948. The film was shown at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival on February 11.

The small, courageous and highly committed group of World War II pilots (Jewish and non-Jewish) who volunteered to defend Israel in 1948 were part of a larger volunteer effort called “machal” – a Hebrew acronym for the words “volunteers from abroad”; Above and Beyond focuses largely on the American World War II pilots and engineers who volunteered for this campaign. The pilots were organized and directed very loosely by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and by Al Schwimmer, an American-Israeli who was born in New York.

Using his connections made during World War II when he was a flight engineer for the U.S. Air Transport Command, Schwimmer almost singlehandedly directed a worldwide smuggling operation to buy embargoed spare plane parts, rebuild damaged German Messerschmitts, illegally spirit them off to Israel through circuitous routes and eventually train the volunteer pilots to successfully fly these airplanes held together by little more than paste and prayer. (For his efforts, in 1950 Schwimmer lost his voting privileges in the U.S., and his veteran benefits – and he was fined $10,000. President Bill Clinton pardoned him 50 years later.) The risky operation involved several countries, such as Panama, Brazil, Italy and most importantly post-war Soviet Czechoslovakia which sold Israel 62 Spitfire planes in large part because the Czechs needed the money.

The crucial roles the volunteer pilots played in the defense of Israel cannot be overestimated. Less than two weeks after the UN recognized the State of Israel, Egypt’s army was marching on Tel Aviv when Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman (who was later a president of Israel) and Eddie Cohen, a South African Jew conducted air operations against these forces that literally stopped the whole advance of the entire Egyptian army. (During this air attack, Eddie Cohen lost his life.) A couple of days later, a second successful air operation with two planes piloted by Ezer Weizman and Milt Rubenfeld (Pee Wee Herman’s father) was carried out against Egyptian forces near Tulkarm on the eastern front. (Rubenfeld had to bail out when his plane was hit, but he was able to parachute to safety in Israeli territory.)

Not many of the pilots are still alive, but Grossman conducts illuminating and informative interviews in the film with some of these remaining pilots, such as Lou Lenart, Leon Frankel, George Lichter, Coleman Goldstein, Harold Livingston, Smoky Simon and Gideon Lichtman and with historians Benny Morris and Derek Penslar to document the importance of establishing the small and underfunded Israeli Air Force in the perilous first days of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. (Pilots Lichter and Goldstein passed away soon after they were interviewed for the film.)

The aerial footage in the film is impressive. Some of it, incredibly, is actually archival, but most of it is computer-generated to look like it’s real. The flying scenes were recreated with the expertise of George Lucas’ Industrial and Light and Magic.

The film also examines the tensions between the elite American volunteers and the poorer native Israeli citizen-soldiers, the Americans’ oversized influence in the early parts of the War, and how the Americans’ arrogance often alienated the native Israelis. Nonetheless, the interviews make clear that very strong bonds were built between the American Machal volunteers and the Israeli Haganah soldiers, and Israelis were grateful for the American help even though they sometime resented the Americans’ swaggering.

In its comprehensiveness, depth, and documentation, the story told in this heartfelt and riveting feature length documentary rises over, above and beyond any film or book chronicling the American Jewish contribution to defending the nascent State of Israel during the 1948 War of Independence. Most of the participants portrayed directly or indirectly in Above and Beyond were motivated not by an abiding commitment to Judaism or allegiance to the State of Israel; they were mostly secular Jews who had little knowledge of or connection to Israel. But the overwhelming passion that drove these volunteers to risk their lives for this mission was to ensure that the Holocaust would not be repeated ever again, and the only way to guarantee this was to secure a Jewish homeland.

Nancy Spielberg and Roberta Grossman and the many other film professionals they engaged to make this film deserve our deep gratitude and everlasting thanks for this tour de force. And so does the San Diego Jewish Film Festival for screening Above and Beyond.

Forman is a Mesa College librarian and a freelance writer specializing in literature and the movies.  Your signed comment may be posted in the space provided below or sent to [email protected]








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3 Responses to “‘Above and Beyond’ tells of nascent Israel Air Force”

  1. eva says:

    Mr. Forman,
    As I missed the bulk of the film festival I appreciate your coverage of this film. According to all accounts you reviewed a winner!
    Thanks for your thorough, and compelling review!
    Eva Trieger


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