Mahal (Israel)

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Mahal (Hebrew: מח"ל‎‎, sometimes transliterated "machal") were both Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers who went to Israel to fight in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, including Aliyah Bet. About 4,000 volunteers from all over the world came to fight on the Israeli side.[1][2]

Mahal made up a small fraction of the Israeli forces, except for the Air Force, where they were dominant.

Mahal was disbanded after the war, and most volunteers left Israel. Some, however, made their immigration permanent.

The Hebrew term מח"ל‎ is an acronym of מתנדבי חוץ לארץ‎ (Mitnadvei Hutz LaAretz), which means Volunteers from outside the Land [of Israel]. The volunteers were referred to as Machalniks (or Mahalniks).

Origins, numbers, and Aliyah Bet[edit]

French volunteers in the Negev

The Machalniks were mostly World War II veterans from United States and British Armed Forces. Allied armies were reduced considerably after the end of the war and many soldiers were demobilised; moreover, the service experience became mundane and did not suit some servicemen, particularly pilots. In various circumstances they were invited, or heard of the Jewish state's struggle for independence and volunteered. In some cases those who enlisted had no prior military experience.[3] There were Jews and Christians, both ideological supporters of Zionism and mercenaries.[4]

The Ha'apala movement, also called "Aliyah Bet", which attempted to evade the 1939 and 1948 British naval blockade restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine, was assisted by 236 Machal former servicemen of the Allied navies as crews of ten clandestine Jewish refugee ships, out of sixty-six participating vessels.

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War saw approximately 3500 foreign volunteers from 58 countries among the Jewish forces, out of an estimated 29,677–108,300 total (it grew considerably in size due to increasing levels of militarisation).[5] A total of 123 Mahalniks were killed in battle (119 men and 4 women).

One of the most senior Machal personnel was Mickey Marcus, a Jewish United States Army colonel who assisted Israeli forces during the war and became Israel's first aluf (brigadier general). Marcus' wartime experience was vital in the 1948 Battle for Jerusalem. Other important Mahalniks were Canadian officer Ben Dunkelman and U.S. pilot Milton Rubenfeld.

Another personality involved in the recruitment of US volunteers was Major Wellesley Aron, an English-born Palestinian Jew who had commanded a unit in the British Army during World War II. In 1947, while on a lecture tour of the United States, he was requested by the Haganah to organize the recruitment of men with "know-how" who could help in defending the newly established state.[6]

Israeli Air Force[edit]

The largest presence of Mahal was felt in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), making up nearly two-thirds of its personnel, to the point that English overtook Hebrew as the most widely used operational IAF service language.[7]

Inscription on Mahal memorial in Israel

Cargo flights flown by Mahal air crews transported weapons and supplies to Palestine from Europe, and thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. During the Egyptian Army siege of the Negev region in 1948, Mahal pilots airlifted thousands of tons of supplies to communities behind enemy lines, usually by night landings of large cargo planes and converted airliners on makeshift, unpaved sand runways, hand lit by oil lamps. The national Israeli airline El Al was partially founded by Mahal veterans.[citation needed]

The integration of Mahal personnel into the Israel Defense Forces did not proceed without difficulty. Occasional tensions surfaced due to the superior pay and service conditions demanded by and given to the volunteers over resident or native Israeli soldiers, mainly in the air force; some of the volunteers were adventurers with little commitment to Zionism or to a rigid, disciplined hierarchy. This culminated in the disbandment of the Air Transport Division, following an "industrial action" by its Mahal personnel over pay conditions. The division was re-established with Israeli personnel.[citation needed]

Logistic support of the founding of the IAF was provided by various diaspora groups which procured planes in the critical months of 1948-9. One important such activity in Australia led to the export to Israel of six planes, despite the arms blockade enforced only against Israel amongst the combatants.[8]

A few hours before the final cease-fire on 7 January 1949, a flight of four British RAF Spitfires bypassed the southern Israeli border on a reconnaissance flight. They were attacked by a pair of Israeli Air Force Spitfires, resulting in three of the British planes being shot down. The Israeli Spitfires were flown by Mahal volunteers "Slick" Goodlin (USA) and John McElroy (Canada). Both were former US Army Air Forces and Royal Canadian Air Force pilots, veterans of World War II.

After the war[edit]

After the end of the war in 1949, the majority of the Mahal returned to their home countries. Some remained to live in Israel; the village of Kfar Daniel near Lod was founded by Mahal veterans from North America and the United Kingdom. Then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said "the Mahal Forces were the Diaspora's most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel."[9]

A memorial honouring the Mahal volunteers was erected near Sha'ar HaGai on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On it is inscribed a verse from Joshua 1:14: "All those of valour shall pass armed among your brethren, and shall help them."[10]

Non-Israeli service with modern IDF[edit]

Overseas residents are able to serve with the modern IDF through various Mahal-IDF-Volunteers. These volunteer programs are for young non-Israelis of Jewish background who are legal residents in Israel (and descendants of a Jewish grandparent) and overseas Israelis who are younger than 24 (men), 21 (women), 36 (physicians). The programs consist typically of 18 months of IDF service (21 months, if IDF-Hebrew study program, or ulpan, is necessary) including extended training for those joining combat units or 1 month of non-combat training. All overseas volunteers serve in regular Israeli military units.

Sar-El is a volunteer program of IDF in non-armed support tasks where also non-Jewish people can serve.

Notable Mahals[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, 2008, p.85.
  2. ^ Not home alone: Foreigners came to Israel's rescue in 1948, Haaretz June 15, 2012
  3. ^ Nir Arielli (2014), ""When are foreign volunteers useful? Israel's transnational soldiers in the war of 1948 re-examined"". 
  4. ^ Celinscak, Mark (2015). Distance from the Belsen Heap: Allied Forces and the Liberation of a Concentration Camp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9781442615700. 
  5. ^ Eugene L. Rogan; Avi Shlaim (19 November 2007). The war for Palestine: rewriting the history of 1948. Cambridge University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-521-69934-1. Retrieved 12 November 2011. 
  6. ^ Wellesley Aron; Helen Silman-Cheong (September 1992). Wellesley Aron, rebel with a cause: a memoir. Vallentine Mitchell. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-85303-245-8. Retrieved 12 November 2011. 
  7. ^ Of the roughly 600 soldiers serving as the aircrew of the newly formed IAF, over 400 were volunteers from overseas."Israel's foreign defenders". IDF Spokesperson. Retrieved April 26, 2012. 
  8. ^ "Australian planes". The History of Now. Retrieved January 29, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel". Retrieved 2013-06-19. 
  10. ^ "Modern Places in Israel with Biblical references". Retrieved May 20, 2011. 

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