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Fighting for Zion: American Jewish Volunteers and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War

Sun, December 16, 12:30 to 2:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 1 Complex


This paper examines the shifting discourse surrounding American Jewish volunteers’ participation in the nascent Israel Defense Forces. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Israeli military advisors sent memoranda to government officials, including Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, celebrating the public relations potential of American volunteers. These temporary visitors—unless they could be persuaded to remain in the country based on the hospitality they received from their Israeli hosts—would return to the United States as unofficial ambassadors of the new Jewish State. The military leaders of Machal, the unit comprised of overseas volunteers, therefore sought to make American Jews’ experiences in Israel as positive as possible during wartime by providing them with free civilian clothing and offering tours of the country before the volunteers returned stateside. Despite the IDF’s additional recognition during the war of the prominent roles many of the American recruits held in the air force and navy, the volunteers later accused the Israeli military as well as American Jews in subsequent decades of overlooking their contributions to Israel’s founding. This paper investigates the reasons why American Jewish volunteers believed they had been written out of Israeli history and how they sought to insert/reinsert themselves into Israeli foundational narratives. Although the topic of American Jewish volunteers has been researched by other scholars, this study introduces Machal correspondence, memoirs, and questionnaires from the late twentieth-century to provide a fuller examination of foreign involvement in the 1948 war.


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