Above & Beyond

This Netflix documentary describes the founding of the Israeli Air Force by secular American young men looking for sex, adventure and to help their people.

These men had only the weakest ties to Judaism and to the Jewish people, but they were willing to risk their lives and their American citizenship for the fledgling Jewish state. I think this gets at a deeper truth — seemingly weak ethnic and racial ties can become strong in an instant because people (particularly those from strongly identifying in-groups with out-group hostility) are more willing to sacrifice themselves for a specific people with whom they have genetic ties than for general ideals. America as a proposition nation is much weaker than when it was a dominantly a kinship nation. Why any country would want to import religious or racial diversity is beyond me. The more Jewish Israel is, for instance, the stronger it is.

Mike emails:

Which explains why Muslims go fight for ISIS, and why Jews are eternally nervous living in the Diaspora. It could change in an instant. Not because of some special mental virus called “Anti-Semitism”, but because humans (especially young horny male humans) are built that way.

Although in fairness, almost anything would be better than coming back home to North Dakota to help Dad run the used car business (as one of the Machal veterans described) if you just spent the last three years flying fighter planes.

Wes Greene writes for Slant Magazine:

The candid first-person accounts given by the pilots about these escapades, which included trysts with local women and long nights on the town, provide insight into the pilots’ mindsets in the midst of more grueling days of battle: Coming out of one war, the pilots were tragically aware of how easy it was to be killed, and, going into another war, they seemingly filled up on as much pleasure and excitement for one lifetime while they could. Grossman creates a compelling paradox, in that the detailed stories of this time period illuminate a harmless and lively verve that stands in stark contrast to the shadow of death that was constantly hanging over the pilots.

Flyer Leon Frankel: “After I returned from three years in War, I was in North Dakota, partners in a used car and truck business. Many girlfriends and cars. The whole enchilada. I was not concerned about Palestine. I never went to Hebrew school… I grew up in an age of virulent anti-Semitism. You tried to ignore it but you couldn’t.”

Flyer George Lichter: “I didn’t like being a Jew. I don’t think you could get a job in the fire department or the police department of New York if you were Jewish… What changed me was knowing what Hitler did to the Jews.”

“I was risking my citizenship and jail time. I didn’t give a s—. I was going to help the Jews out. I was going to help my people.”

Another flyer: “Jewishness didn’t mean anything to me. I was an American, but the idea that Jews were going to fight, I found exciting.”

Flyer: “We were notorious. We weren’t looking for trouble. We were always looking for [sexual] action.”

Derek Penslar from Oxford: “At the end of WWII, there was massive pressure on the British who controlled Palestine to allow Jews to immigrate in large numbers to Palestine, which is something the British government refused to do, because they know if they are to have a future in the region, they will have to have the good will of the whole Arab world. They will not have that if they allow massive Jewish immigration to Palestine.”

Nora Lee Mandel writes:

Inside an old airplane hangar, seven feisty, and very distinctive, veterans individually set their biographical stage for why they were open to being approached. Most admit to having had little sense of Jewish identity, except in reaction to anti-Semitism, whether growing up around America (one was South African). Leon Frankel chortles “When they hit me, I’d hit back”, and another recalls a mocking recruiter when he signed up for the Marines after Pearl Harbor. All learned about the Holocaust when they served as pilots in the Army Air Force, Navy or National Guard, and saw the newsreels of the ships full of refugees, like in Exodus, challenging the British blockade into Palestine. (I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother’s cousin was in that footage of displaced persons on board.) Back home, all were restless after the excitement of dogfights in the sky during war. While one of the pilots wasn’t Jewish, one widow (mother of actor Paul Reubens, who is interviewed with her, oddly, in a synagogue) notes that her husband Milton Rubenfeld was frustrated that he was working as a stunt pilot because airlines weren’t hiring Jews.

Recruitment for Machal (the Hebrew acronym for “volunteers from outside the land”, which still operates, now chaired by Smoky Simon, the South African pilot) was all “hush hush”, as any American participant risked loss of U.S. citizenship and indictment for violating the U.S. Neutrality Acts. (Schwimmer was convicted.) The spy-like operation hid in plain sight above the Copacabana Nightclub. (The men revel in the memory of gawking at the showgirls.) All say their parents were not supportive; one remember his father’s plea: “You don’t have to kill yourself to be a good Jew.”

Comments on IMDB:

* For all the fictional heroes Hollywood cranks out, nothing can compare with Above and Beyond, a documentary about the origin of the Israeli Air Force in 1948 and the Jewish perspective about the splitting of Palestine. Regardless of where your sympathies lie, Arab or Jew, after watching this fascinating documentary, you’ll have to agree the 600,000 Jews fighting millions of Arabs is pretty heroic stuff.

The conflict begins with the United Nations’ resolution to split Palestine and the British decision to vacate. The Jewish people are aware they’re vulnerable as Arabs prepare to take over the precious land. Enter mostly volunteer Jewish-American former WWII pilots ready to fly whatever planes they can muster to help the Jews ward off the imminent Arabic takeover.

While this may sound like a set up for the usual ego-talking-head doc, Above and Beyond (a title that works well for sacrifices and heroism) is a sincere testimonial from actual Jewish and other pilots who risked their lives for underdogs. Archival footage of the Jewish planes (four at the beginning, woefully inadequate and impotent), lend the authenticity, while the comments from the pilots give the doc the humanity it needs to show the war a conflict that won’t easily be settled by any number of warplanes and ammo.

The first-person commentary by the pilots and others like Shimon Peres makes the Jewish bias (e.g., Palestinian refugees are barely noticed) palatable by displaying a sincere love of nation as opposed to violent chauvinism. The nights spent carousing before battle are sweet rather than crass, just boys and girls having a good time before death takes over. In other words, this doc splendidly displays the best of mankind regardless of nationalism or base ambition.

If you’re put off by the obvious biases of documentarians like Michael Moore, then see Above and Beyond because the bias is benign. While I’m thinking of it, Steven Spielberg’s sister, Nancy, is a producer—the provenance of this film is solid. If nothing else, you’ll understand why Arabs and Israelis fight even today for the land they struggled for over 60 years ago.

* Above and Beyond reaches much further into the human psyche than any one demographic, community, or time period. The film uses first-person accounts to illustrate how the power of belief in a cause and trust in one’s compatriots can motivate the most audacious resourcefulness and beat seemingly insurmountable odds.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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