"Above and Beyond"

Richard Smaby

"Above and Beyond" is a documentary currently playing the film festivals, which helps us understand the historical context of the Zionist movement through the personal views of pilots, principally Jewish American pilots, who, returning from World War II, volunteered to rescue the fledgling state of Israel. The director, Nancy Spielberg, lets the pilots tell their own stories. They vary in how religious they are, but all repeat a united purpose – to save the newly formed state of Israel from certain destruction by far superior Arab armies and air power. Israel had no air force.

The pilots and supporters are ingenious in purchasing and assembling aircraft from surplus parts. The veterans have special permission to purchase surplus WWII transport aircraft for $5000 (an over $100,000 price tag to manufacture). But it is illegal to supply them to Israel. The U.S. government had instituted strict regulations against aiding Israel, because Truman did not support the division of Palestine in the two state solution adopted by the U.N. The pilots and supporters face loss of U.S. citizenship among other severe penalties. Supporters hatch the scheme of forming a fake Panamanian airline. The pilots fly the planes to Panama and from there they barnstorm across Africa and Europe to Israel. In a second illegal activity they fly reconstituted German Messerschmidts (or 'Messershits' according to one pilot) from Czechoslovakia to Israel wearing recycled Nazi uniforms, after first ripping off Nazi insignia; the irony is not lost on the pilots.

The new state is being flooded with immigrants seeking a new life free from the threat of persecution only to hear their Arab neighbors threaten them with a new holocaust even worse than that perpetrated by the Nazis. As the date of the implementation of the U.N. resolution approaches, the forces of five Arab nations are massing at the borders of Palestine.

The existence and size (a few planes) of the newly formed Israeli ‘Air Force’ is kept secret and when these planes attack the Arab armies and their air forces, the Arabs assume a much larger threat than actually exists and halt their advance on Israel. A series of truces buy the Israeli military valuable time to build up their forces. The actions and sacrifices of a handful of pilots make the difference in the survival of a Jewish state.

The film acknowledges at the end that seven hundred thousand Palestinians were displaced and gives the Arab name for the war and its aftermath as 'The Great Catastrophe' or 'Al-Nakhba' in Arabic.

Even though this reviewer knew the eventual outcome, he couldn't help viewing the film with angst and then relief, when the Israelis succeed in their struggle for a state they can call their own. But he also can't help but see the parallels to the current Palestinian struggle for a state they can call their own and hopes the number of Israelis who see the similarity is increasing.

In this powerful film the director artfully weaves educational historical footage and minor dramatizations among the always engaging and frequently moving testimonials of the pilots still living and the families of those pilots who did not survive. It deserves a wide audience, both for its message and for the quality of the documentary film-making. Contact the Grand Cinema or other venues to encourage them to show it.