Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force

Pilots Lou Lenart, Gideon Lichtman, and Modi Alon in a still from Above and Beyond. Courtesy of Playmount Productions.

Above and Beyond is a documentary about the volunteers who played a crucial role in the air during the 1948 Arab-Israel War.

Three years removed from liberation, war was inevitable in the days following Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Even though the Jews accepted the UN Partition Plan in 1947, it was rejected by the Arabs. Everyone knew that the British would be leaving in 1948 and that’s when Arab armies (Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon) started to invade Israel. Interestingly, the United States had an arms embargo in place. What this means is that despite the US acknowledging independence, the country would not send over any arms. Any Americans doing so would be in violation of the U.S. Neutrality Act. As we learn during the film, Al Schwimmer–a TWA engineer who smuggled planes–would end up being indicted and later stayed in Israel. It wasn’t until 2001 in which President Bill Clinton pardoned him.

Fighting had already started before Israel declared its independence. It was only after the fact in which the fighting really intensified. The war would not be over until early 1949. While Israel had ground forces thanks to the likes of Haganah and such, they were lacking in an air force. This is where foreign airmen, part of the Machal–volunteers from abroad–came into the picture. Many of them were Jewish veterans of World War II. Some weren’t Jewish and were being recruited by both sides. One of them was Canadian fighter pilot George Frederick “Buzz” Beurling. Unfortunately, he died when his test flight crashed in Rome, Italy. It wasn’t proven at the time but there are claims of suspicion.

It’s a very insightful documentary in seeing how the newborn Israeli Air Force played a role in pushing back Egypt and ultimately winning the war. Israel was able to get weapons and planes however they could but had to get around the arms embargo. At one point, Egypt was almost certain to take Tel Aviv but four pilots started bombing, forcing the Egyptian forces to scatter. Through ILM’s visual effects, we’re able to see recreations of these missions as the volunteers recount their experiences. Unfortunately, not every volunteer would make it through the war as is sadly the case. Of those who did, many decided to stay in Israel. Others, like Harold Livingston, returned to America. Livingston went onto write for Star Trek.

“I got a letter from a friend of mine at TWA. And the letter simply said, ‘If you’re interested in flying munitions to Palestine, call this number in New York and ask for Swifty,’” Livingston recounted in the film. “So what the hell? I called the number. I knew my whole life would be different–I just knew it.”

The rest is history. Livingston, who would serve with the Air Transport Command, also looked through military listings for all the Jewish-sounding last names in order to recruit pilots. His story is one of many stories in the film.

Gideon Lichtman knew that fighting for Israel would risk his American citizenship, potentially leading to jail time, but he “didn’t give a shit. I was gonna help the Jews out. I was going to help my people out.”

What I found interested in watching is that everyone’s Judaism played a role in signing up. They didn’t even have to be super religious. Some of the volunteers recounted their own experiences with Jew-hatred while growing up in the U.S. The fact of the matter was that they were Jewish and they were helping their people. Whether a Jew is living in Israel or the diaspora, they are still a Jew at the end of the day.

Getting to learn the stories is one of the beauties in watching the film. Reminds me, I have no idea why I did not see the film when it played the Louisville Jewish Film Festival in 2015. In any event, Czechoslovakia was key in getting planes to Israel, including those used by Nazi Germany. Israel would later acquire B-17s and British Spitfires but they had to use what the could at the start of the war. But without the foreign airmen, it’s highly unlikely that Israel would have won given how isolated they were.

It might shock you to know that the late Paul Reubens’ father, Milton Rubenfeld, fought in the IAF in 1948. Paul and his mother, Judy, appear in the film to discuss Milton and the role he played in stopping the Iraqi Army in May 1948. Milton was one of 3,500 volunteers to enlist during the war.

This documentary is about twelve volunteers who played their part in the State of Israel’s founding during the 1948 war:

  • Stan Andrews
  • Eddie Cohen
  • Leon Frankel
  • Coleman Goldstein
  • Lou Lenart
  • George Lichter
  • Gideon Lichtman
  • Harold Livingston
  • Milton Rubenfeld
  • Al Schwimmer
  • Smoky Simon
  • Bob Vickman

ILM handled the visual effects for the documentary while Lorne Balfe composed the score. Balfe came on after Hans Zimmer’s partner, Steve Kofsky, brought him aboard. Interestingly, Kofsky’s uncle also volunteered in 1948.

Nancy Spielberg produced the film but if not for her reading Al Schwimmer’s obituary, it’s possible that the documentary would never be made. Regardless, time was of the essence given how old the pilots were by that point. Above and Beyond makes for a solid documentary that would almost certainly be a thriller if told as a narrative because the film shows how a number of Jewish pilots came together in a classic David vs. Goliath tale. Fighting for Israel awakened their Jewish identity and changed their lives. Some went back to America while the rest stayed in their new home of Israel–the ancestral Jewish homeland.

DIRECTOR: Roberta Grossman
SCREENWRITER: Sophie Sartain
FEATURING: Lou Lenart, Coleman Goldstein, Leon Frankel, Gideon Lichtman, George Lichter, Benny Morris, Derek Penslar, President Shimon Peres, Jeffrey Weiss, Harold Livingston, Craig Weiss, Smoky Simon, Paul Reubens, Judy Rubenfeld, Mina Alon, Michal Gonen, Dani Shapira

International Film Circuit released Above and Beyond in theaters on January 30, 2015. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.