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Flashback to 1948
By Maurice Ostroff
No sooner had Israel declared independence on May 15, 1948, than five Arab armies invaded the nascent state. Arab League Secretary, General Azzam Pasha declared, "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades".
The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al Husseini, who had met with Hitler in 1941 and had been involved in recruiting support for Germany among Muslims during WW2 proclaimed, "I declare a holy war, my Moslem brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!"
Around 3,500 overseas volunteers came from 43 different countries to assist in Israel's struggle for survival. They were referred to collectively as "Machal", an acronym of the Hebrew equivalent of "volunteers from abroad", (Mitnadvay Chutz La'aretz)"
And now 60 years later I recall the "encouraging" welcome I received on landing in Haifa as a Machal volunteer, with several other ostensibly naïve tourists on June 6, 1948. Some British soldiers and officials were still in Haifa, and we went through British as well as newly appointed Israeli immigration officials. (The British didn't leave completely until mid-June). I fell into conversation with a British major who said, "You're bloody crazy coming here at this time. Don't you know what's going on?" Calmly as possible, I replied that we were on a world tour that included passing through the new Israel. I will never forget how, pointing towards Haifa port, he gloated, "That's where the Arabs are slaughtering the f…. Jews. We're pulling out, but it won't take two weeks before the Jews will beg us to rescue them."
Several Machal groups came to Israel on overcrowded refugee ships. One group sailed in the Dolores, a boat designed to accommodate fifty people, that then carried 149. South African Machal volunteers the late Dr. Alan Price, assisted by Evelyn Bernstein delivered a baby in the captain's cabin and a very touching story developed during Israel's 50th birthday celebrations. With the assistance of Joe Woolf, Dr. Price succeeded in tracing and meeting this "baby", who was then living in Kiryat Bialik
Another interesting sidelight: There were a noticeable number of non-Jewish volunteers in Machal. Among them was a very special character, South African, "Butch" Boettger. When Ben Gurion called on all officers to Hebraise their names, Boettger took the name, Ben Yok and became widely and affectionately known as Butch Ben Yok.
In her book, "The Hand of Mordechai", about Kibbutz Yad Mordechai's resistance to the Egyptian army in May 1948, Margaret Larkin expressed the true character of the conflict. She wrote " In an initial meeting, some of the kibbutz veterans took exception to my reference to their heroism. They warned me against glorifying their deeds; they made me understand that they do not think of the battle as an example of man's courage in the face of great odds - they think of it as a tragedy. They pointed out they became front line soldiers by an accident of geography. They did their duty and killed when they had to, but they are men of peace.., they demanded: tell how we fought but let every page call out for peace",
from the May 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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