In the years following World War II, leaders of the Yishuv in Palestine were tasked with two major challenges. Transporting displaced Jewish refugees to their new homeland was impeded by the British blockade and obtaining weaponry for the Haganah was restricted by international embargoes. As statehood approached, an imminent Arab invasion threatened the entire Jewish community.
Desperate to get around the British, clandestine operations were launched to airlift weapons and aircraft. The story of efforts to save the Jewish state before its birth is told in Saving Israel: The Unknown Story of Smuggling Weapons and Winning a Nation’s Independence by Boaz Dvir (Stackpole Books, January 2020).
If you search for Operation Zebra on the Internet the result will be a mine clearance operation by the U.S. Navy in July 1945. There was no operation by this name in Palestine. Not officially. In his book the author has grouped together separate efforts as an umbrella mission which he defined as “a secret and illegal operation by American aviators to save the Jewish state following World War II.”
Zebra is code for the Czech town Žatec, which served as hub of the operations and a training base for the aviators. American war veterans risked their lives to stock up on rifles, bullets, and engine parts; procure decommissioned warplanes; and transport them in pieces for reassembly in Žatec ahead of flying them to Palestine undetected by the British.
With the FBI hot on their trail, and knowing what they were doing was illegal, the Americans purchased Messerschmitts and Flying Fortresses, stole B-17s, and even created a fictitious Panamanian national airline. They smuggled arms from Mexico and aircraft from California, overloading transport planes which frequently crashed due to the excess weight. Technicians battled to get the planes into the air where pilots engaged in dogfights, occasionally in the skies over Tel Aviv.
Based on extensive research, the book reads like a historical thriller. Veterans, whose efforts on Israel’s behalf are still unrecognized, come to life and although their dialogues are fictional, their heroic actions are a matter of record.
The aviators’ operation ultimately led to the creation of the Israeli Air Force. Their fascinating story was the subject of the author’s 2015 documentary “A Wing and a Prayer.” Narrated by William Baldwin, the documentary featured firsthand accounts from operation leader Al Schwimmer.
“This group of American aviators — both Jews and non-Jews — risked their lives and freedom to bring weapons to my grandfather and others,” said the author, referring to his grandfather who fought with a German rifle during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Dvir’s visit to Auschwitz as part of his research and the realization that “the evil that fueled it still roams the earth … further inspired [his] interests in writing this book.” The result is a tale of heroism against all odds, a story that must be told to fully understand Israel’s success in its War of Independence.
Boaz Dvir is an award-winning filmmaker and Penn State University assistant professor in journalism and film. His documentaries have won several film festival awards. “A Wing and a Prayer,” which first aired on PBS in 2015, won Best Documentary at the 2016 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, and “Jessie’s Dad,” won Best Documentary at the 2010 ITN Film & New Media Festival in Los Angeles and the 2010 CINE Special Jury Award.