Israel Survived an Early Challenge With War Planes Smuggled by U.S. Vets

In 1948, World War II aviators risked their lives in a secret operation to smuggle weapons and planes to the Israeli military.

World War II aviators risked their lives in 1948 in a secret operation to smuggle weapons and planes to the Israeli military, defending the newly-created Jewish state in its first war with Arab neighbors. In a trial 70 years ago, leaders of the mission were found guilty of violating the U.S. Neutrality Act. At that time, relations between the United States and Israel were rocky, an atmosphere that is newly relevant today.

For teachers
  • Producer: Boaz Dvir
  • Producer: Barbara Dury
  • Editor: Boaz Dvir
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto

For Educators


This seven-minute video provides students with a concise and engaging contextualization of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, with focus on the reasons underlying America’s neutrality, and the efforts of a small group of American veterans who violated that neutrality to smuggle arms and planes that played a decisive role in the outcome of the war. A resonant and compelling story of men who risked prison for a cause they believed in, the video provides vivid human texture to an important moment in history. The video also serves as an introduction to the topic of American-Israeli relations, and will help students better understand the broader context of America’s role in the Middle East since World War II.

Background reading

In the aftermath of World War II, the creation of the state of Israel ignited tensions with its Arab neighbors that rippled around the world.

To avoid conflict, the U.S. embargoed arms shipments to the Middle East, placing Israel at a disadvantage as the British had already supplied arms to Egypt and to Iran.

Desperate, Israel turned to sympathetic Americans for help, and Al Schwimmer answered the call. The World War II veteran, then just 30, began organizing an operation to smuggle arms.

Funded by American donations, Schwimmer bought up decommissioned military transport planes from the U.S. government, then assembled a ragtag army of veteran aviators. Many had flown with Schwimmer during World War II.

To avoid detection, Schwimmer’s 13 cargo planes took an indirect route across Panama, Brazil, and Morocco to Czechoslovakia, where they picked up arms and some 25 fighter planes. They flew on to Israel just as the conflict broke out in May 1948.

Throughout the nine-month war, Schwimmer’s pilots flew combat missions, bombed Cairo, and ferried supplies, helping the Jewish state survive its first war.

But the success came at a price: Schwimmer and 10 others were charged with arms smuggling and breaking the U.S. Neutrality Act. One man went to prison and the others were fined $10,000.

For Schwimmer, who along with the others eventually received a presidential pardon, it was a small price to pay.

Lesson Plan 1: The Arab-Israeli War: America’s Role

Students will learn about the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, why the United States remained neutral and how the violation of that neutrality by a small group of Americans played a role in Israel’s victory.

  • What caused the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.
  • Why the U.S. declared neutrality in that war.
  • How a handful of American citizens violated that neutrality to support the Israeli government.
Essential questions
  • What were the causes of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948?
  • Why did President Truman choose not to aid Israel?
  • What role did European nations play in the conflict?
  • How did the American citizens who aided Israel end up affecting the outcome of the war? What were the various motivations of those citizens for wanting to be involved?
  • How has America’s relationship with Israel changed since Truman’s decision to deny aid to Israel in 1948?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.2: The Cold War from 1945 to 1980

      Skill 3.A: Identify and describe a claim and/or argument in a non-text-based source.

      Theme 6: America in the World (WOR).