Several colleagues have asked if I see any similarities between Jonathan Pollard, an American intelligence analyst who’ll be released this week after serving 30 years for giving Israel classified documents, and the American members of an illegal 1948 operation to arm the newborn Jewish state.
Initially, I scoffed at drawing such a comparison. The majority of Americans who learn about the secret operation members’ feats, which included bringing desperately needed weapons to Israel, consider them heroes.
Few Americans believe Pollard deserves a medal. Many Israelis hesitate to label him anything other than a prolonged embarrassment who damaged their relations with their No. 1 ally.
“The Israeli public,” Israeli journalist Ben Caspit wrote in his Al Monitor column, “hopes and prays that his anticipated release from prison will finally put an end to this painful saga in which Israel … was forced to eat crow in a no-win situation.”
Pollard, a U.S. Navy Field Operational Intelligence Office employee, provided Israel with material that shed light on its enemies – but also documents that did nothing more than hurt America. In fact, some of these files may have ended up in Russian possession during the Cold War, according to the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh.
On the other hand, the operation members – all World War II aviators, most of them American Jews and Christians – strengthened the United States’ global position by helping give it a stable democratic ally in the tumultuous Middle East.
Far from perfect and helmed by a prime minister who irks President Obama, Israel nonetheless has served Washington’s overarching interests. Most Americans believe that despite differences over the Iran nuclear deal, Palestinian rights, West Bank settlements and, yes, Pollard, the Jewish state continues to be one of their most loyal and reliable allies.
“Even while we may at times disagree, as friends sometimes will,” Obama said, “the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable.”
The operation members, whose story I tell in a recently released PBS documentary, built the foundation for this bond. During the six years I spent making A Wing and a Prayer, I interviewed nearly 30 of them, as well as their family members and scholars in the United States, Israel, Canada and Czechoslovakia. I’ve come to see that their use of illegal means, to which they readily admitted, never took away from the fact that they helped shift geopolitics in America’s favor.
ILLEGAL YET JUST
The operation members broke several U.S. laws, used false pretenses to buy decommissioned World War II planes, evaded the FBI to smuggle out C-46 Commandos and B-17 Flying Fortresses, busted a Washington-supported UN arms embargo and duped a valued American ally – all in a span of a few months in 1948. In spite, or rather because of this, they have earned a place in the rarified annals of American patriots such as the Sons of Liberty and Rosa Parks who reshaped history through illegal means.
Patriotic law breaking has been with us since at least 1773, when the Sons of Liberty destroyed a Boston tea shipment to undermine British rule. Historical distance allows us to reach consensus on the moral essence of such actions. Only time will tell if, for instance, NSA-exposer Edward Snowden or South Carolina Confederate flag remover Bree Newsome gain admittance into this exclusive club.
Pollard stands no practical chance of ever receiving an invitation. The operation members, however, would fit right in. In 1948, as the United Kingdom wound down its mandate of Palestine, they raced against the clock to help Israel ward off an invasion by five Western-equipped-and-trained armies.
The operation members’ biggest obstacle? The U.S. State Department. Led by pragmatic Secretary of State George Marshall, it aimed to thwart Israel’s creation by reversing the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan, which called for dividing Palestine between the Arabs and Jews. When this maneuver failed (yes, even when basking in its post-WWII glory, America often hit diplomatic walls at the UN), the U.S. reactivated its 1930s Neutrality Act to keep Americans from aiding Israel. Washington also signed on to the arms embargo that kept the Jews from acquiring even basic weapons yet had little effect on the Arabs, who received their war instruments from Great Britain and France; and charged the FBI with strictly enforcing these measures.
Marshall convinced President Harry S. Truman that the U.S. must circumvent a prolonged Middle East war that would have given Moscow an excuse to intervene and forced Washington into a no-win armed conflict. He also wanted to avoid angering the Arabs, who had their reasons to fight. The UN offended them by offering only half the land at a time when they made up two-thirds of Palestine’s population. They also felt they were being punished for someone else’s crime (the Holocaust).
Of course, Marshall was aware that the Arabs had oil, the Suez Canal and the allegiance of America’s WWII and Cold War partner, Britain. Besides, the secretary argued, Israel had no shot at surviving, much less winning, its first war.
The operation members shared this grim outlook. Unlike Pollard, whose actions boosted the military intelligence of an already powerful state, they knew their mission meant the difference between life and death for the bourgeoning country and its 600,000 residents.
LED BY A PATRIOT
A veteran of the U.S. Air Transport Command, Al Schwimmer led the illegal operation to give the Jews a fighting chance. He and his men outsmarted the State Department and FBI by creating fictitious aviation outfits, including a bogus Panamanian national airline. They then smuggled surplus Nazi weapons and fighter planes into Israel from Czechoslovakia, the only country willing to break the UN arms embargo.
Unlike Pollard, Schwimmer grew up with little connection to Zionism, harboring patriotic affection wholly for the Stars and Stripes. The son of Hungarian immigrants credited his Great Depression survival to a Vermont military base that sheltered and fed him. He bought into the American dream, believing he’d one day launch an airline. It was only after WWII, when he flew to Europe as part of his TWA flight engineer job, that he adopted a cause that put him at odds with his government.
He felt compelled to act when he came upon Holocaust survivors trapped in former Nazi concentration camps. Although the smokestacks no longer spewed human dust, the barbwire fences still suffocated involuntary inhabitants and flabbergasted Schwimmer. He knew the refugees boarding ships bound to the only place willing to take them – the Palestinian Jewish community – would be intercepted by the Royal Navy and sent to displaced persons camps in Cyprus and Germany. So he proposed flying them in.
The Haganah asked Schwimmer to utilize the transport planes he bought and fixed for an even more urgent matter: airlifting the Nazi surplus arms from landlocked Czechoslovakia.
Like Pollard, Schwimmer and his men were fully aware of their operation’s illicit status. They viewed it as a moral no-brainer – and as impeccably aligned with America’s long-term interests.
Nonetheless, in 1950, the U.S. tried and convicted nine of them in a Los Angeles federal courthouse. Unlike Pollard, the only American to receive a life sentence for spying for a U.S. ally, they all avoided prison sentences – except for Charlie Winters, an Irish Protestant who served 18 months in Florida for selling Schwimmer two B-17s.
In 2008, President George W. Bush posthumously pardoned Winters, who’s buried in Israel.
In 2001, President Bill Clinton pardoned Schwimmer, who created and ran aviation/military juggernaut Israel Aerospace Industries and died 10 years later at the age of 94.
Today, it’s time to embrace Schwimmer, Winters and the rest of the operation members as American patriots.
The Sons of Liberty would be proud to share history’s stage with them.
As for the soon-to-be-freed bespectacled, bearded spy: Sorry, Jonathan Pollard, you’re no Al Schwimmer.
A shortened version of this article originally appeared in The Conversation.