The Israel Air Force and the Americans Who Helped Make It

Israeli volunteer pilots in 1948 Playmount

"With my last name, people are always throwing film ideas at me," producer Nancy Spielberg says. "But when I read Al Schwimmer's obituary, who some people call the godfather of the Israeli air force, I knew this had my name on it. Not to use all my brother's projects, but it was like Indiana Jones and Band of Brothers and Catch Me if You Can—all rolled into one."

Above and Beyond, directed by Roberta Grossman, is a moving documentary about the improbable band of mostly Jewish-American volunteers who helped build the Israeli air force and the nation itself.

As the son of an Israeli air force pilot, I grew up seeing black-and-white photos of my father in his glory days. He was tan, thin and handsome and stared directly into the camera. But the reality behind the bravado was quite different. The creation of the Israeli air force and the country itself were miraculous feats of bravery, naiveté, luck and chutzpah.

In 1947 Britain, which controlled mandatory Palestine, realized that a civil war was about to break out between the Jews and the Arabs. It handed Palestine over to the United Nations, which decided to partition it into two states. The Jews accepted the plan; the streets of Tel Aviv erupted with dancing. The Arab states rejected partition; David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, knew that if he declared an independent state, the neighboring Arab armies would attack.

The only way to prevent a second Holocaust for 600,000 Jews, surrounded by hostile Arab nations openly calling for their destruction, was to quickly build a modern army with an air force superior to that of the Egyptians. With thousands of traumatized refugees flooding the country, little money with which to buy arms and few soldiers with combat experience, this seemed an impossible task.

Schwimmer, using skills and contacts he'd picked up during World War II, began buying dozens of rickety surplus American warplanes and built an air fleet. Once he had purchased enough second-hand crafts, however, he still needed pilots. His team began recruiting crews, scouring public records searching for pilots with Jewish-sounding names.

Although most American Jews were not Zionists, one by one the pilots signed on. Some had to convince their spouses, and in some cases their mothers, why they should fly halfway across the world to fight in another war. "I didn't like being a Jew," says George Lichter, a former U.S. Army Air Forces pilot who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, in the film. "What changed me was knowing what Hitler did to the Jews. I was risking my citizenship and possibly jail time. I didn't give a shit. I was gonna help the Jews out. I was going to help my people out."

Lou Lenart combated the anti-Semitism he'd faced as a kid by sending away for Charles Atlas's muscle-building books. "By the time I was 15 years old, nobody was beating me up." After serving in the Marines in the Pacific Theater, Lenart volunteered to fly for Israel.

Once he had the planes and pilots, Schwimmer's next mission was transporting the shaky fleet from the United States to Tel Aviv. Not only was there no direct route to Tel Aviv, but doing so would require defying a strict American arms embargo to the region. Nevertheless, the pilots helmed the rickety retrofitted planes from Panama to Brazil to Casablanca to Rome, and paid off anyone who threatened to stand in their way.

When the armies of Egypt, Syria, Trans-Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia attacked, the pilots were still in Czechoslovakia learning to fly their makeshift planes. With an Egyptian force of more than 10,000 advancing swiftly past Gaza toward Tel Aviv, there was no time to prepare. The Israeli air force's first official flight would also be its first combat mission.

On May 29, 1948, four junk Messerschmitts, led by Lenart, took off toward the Egyptian lines. They represented the entirety of the Israeli air force. When they reached the Egyptian positions, Lenart said a prayer and then dive-bombed and strafed the enemy's tanks, trucks and munitions. The brazen attack stopped the advance in its tracks and most likely saved the newborn country.

Throughout Israel's 10-month War of Independence, hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers flew thousands of missions in ill-equipped planes, low on fuel and short on ammunition. Among other feats, they stopped the Iraqi westward advance into the Galilee and supplied vital supplies to cut-off Jewish communities in the Negev Desert. Perhaps most important, however, was the effect the volunteers had on boosting the morale of the Jewish people, still reeling from the devastation and abandonment of the Holocaust. "It was a godsend," former Israeli president Shimon Peres says of the volunteers.

The war took a heavy personal toll on the pilots as well as Israel, which lost an estimated 1 percent of its population. What shines through in the interviews with the surviving pilots, however, is that these men, now in their 80s and 90s, are relaying exploits from the best time of their lives: a time when choices seemed simpler, their bodies were in peak physical condition, and they were driven by a mission to help their fellow Jews. They partied, picked up girls, got into bar fights and laughed a lot along the way. "I was born to be there at that moment in history," Lenart says. "It's the most important thing I did in my life."

"I finally felt proud of being a Jew," says another pilot.

Despite its dramatic subject matter, Above and Beyond is not without its lighter moments and surprises. Milton Rubenfeld, a brash former stunt pilot who flew for the Royal air force and the U.S. Army Air Force, was shot down and surrounded by Jewish farmers who, not knowing Israel possessed an air force, assumed he was an enemy. Rubenfeld, who spoke no Hebrew, began screaming Yiddish words and Jewish foods like gefilte fish, pesach and matzo. The improvisation saved his life, and he returned to America where his son Paul Reubens became the famous comic actor best known for his character Pee-wee Herman.

"It's not just a Jewish story but an American one," Spielberg says. "I would love for people to give this movie a chance. If you say Israel to certain people, they turn off because they have a certain image of the country they get from the media. This film reminds of a time when Israel was voted into statehood by the U.N. The Jews accepted the partition, and the Arabs chose to fight. I hope it reminds people that we could have had a two-state solution in 1948."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the quote "I didn't like being a Jew" to Gideon Lichtman. It was said by George Lichter.