A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from Telfed, the South African Zionist Federation, informing me of an upcoming documentary they were showing in Jerusalem:

In 1948, immediately following the Declaration of Independence, Israel was attacked from all sides by six armies. Outnumbered and out-armed, the country was facing the threat of destruction barely days after it had been born. Israel needed help.

 

804 Machal volunteers from South Africa rushed to Israel’s aid. They left their studies, families and homes to fight for a cause they passionately believed in.

 

Gathering firsthand testimonials from the men and women that served Israel in the hour of greatest need, 804 is the first documentary to tell the largely unknown story of how a relatively small group of South Africans played an absolutely pivotal part in Israel’s early survival.

I was aware of the many South Africans who volunteered for Machal (Volunteers from Abroad, מתנדבי חוץ לארץ) and helped Israel in the War of Independence. I was aware that despite South Africa’s small Jewish population, they remarkably constituted around 20% of the total volunteers that helped Israel during this difficult period. Although I consider myself well read in Israeli history, I was unaware of how pivotal a role they – as well as the other Machal volunteers – played in ensuring Israel would get past 1948 and become the country she is today. Considering how so few know of this story, I thought it was an excellent opportunity to learn about the subject from the mouths of those who experienced it first hand.

On November 29, 1947, the UN voted in favor of a resolution that would partition the British Mandate of Palestine. Israel needed to prepare herself for the upcoming reality of all-out war, which both sides knew was on the horizon. The desperate calls for help were answered by thousands of volunteers, both Jews and non-Jews, from around the world. 804 begins around this exciting and worrying time, with the volunteers explaining what drove them to leave behind everything to help Israel – be it the horrors of the Holocaust, Zionism, religious obligation, a sense of adventure or an emotional attachment to the cause.

As the documentary progresses, it delves into the difficulties the South African machalinkim faced in their journeys to Israel (often taking four days) and the adjustments they had to make in a foreign army and country, both which were in complete disarray. Despite the obstacles in their path, these volunteers would soon make a large impact on Israel’s future.

Amongst the many accomplishments of South Africa’s volunteers were the building of Israel’s first radar station, and their presence in the medical field, where many South African doctors and nurses not only cared for the wounded, but also helped train their less experienced Israeli counterparts. However, the most important accomplishment – along with other Machal volunteers – was to Israel’s Airforce:

Of the roughly 600 soldiers serving as the aircrew of the newly formed IAF, over 400 were volunteers from overseas. These volunteers became technicians, commanders, and pilots, and included World War II heroes such as the acclaimed Royal Canadian Air Force ace George “Buzz” Beurling and South African Air Force Veteran Boris Senior. The number of volunteers was so large that the IAF’s operational language was English by necessity.

 

The story of the Israeli Air Force’s founding is an astounding one. In the span of a few months the State of Israel acquired numerous outdated transports, commercial planes, and fighters, cobbling together an air force that managed to attain air superiority during the War of Independence. Without the expertise and experience of the volunteers, it is unlikely Israel would have obtained these planes, let alone have the pilots to fly them.

The Machalnikim played a key role in setting up the air force, and without it, Israel may not have survived ’48. To quote Churchill, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

As the documentary ends, many of the participants voice concern that so many Israelis today are unaware of their country’s history, let alone the important part foreign volunteers played in Israel’s survival. “It’s not the same spirit as ’48,” one machalnik says, before commenting that people aren’t attached to the country like they used to be.

These two issues are valid in my opinion. The spirit of ’48 will probably never return again due to the many variables of that time period – the Holocaust generation, the feeling that Israel wouldn’t survive the Arab onslaught, and the attitude Israelis needed to develop and sustain the fledgling country. As for the first concern, more documentaries like 804 can increase awareness of how pivotal Machal was in the War of Independence, not to mention other important subjects that younger Israelis are losing touch with.

After the screening of the documentary, there was a Q&A session with one of the film’s producers, Sharit Krengel (the other producer, Jason Hoff, was not in attendance). It was interesting to listen to what pushed her to create the documentary, and how rightfully proud she is of the work. Two events capped the night. One was being able to personally thank two of the 804 who were in attendance – they were from a special generation. The second was listening to a young South African by the name of Dovi emotionally explain why he was joining Machal next month. Maybe that spirit hasn’t really gone after all…maybe it’s just been adjusted to today’s reality where the contribution and sacrifices of 1948 have given us the privilege of living in a thriving and advancing country.

If you’re interested in the DVD, it can be purchased on Amazon.com.

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