The Valley of Elah blends seamlessly into the landscape of Israel. Located an hour north of Be’er Sheva, it is said that it was there where David killed Goliath.
Thousands of years later, the Israeli Defence Forces crisscrossed that same terrain during the War of Independence. Equipped with technology equivalent to that of David’s slingshot, they mounted their own campaign for survival attempting to follow in their ancestor’s footsteps.
Yet, for the fledgling Jewish state, having any sort of an air presence would be impossible. While many miracles took place during the fight for independence, the greatest of which came in the sky – a story which is being brought to life by Nancy Spielberg in her latest documentary Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force.
While known today as one of the world’s elite military units, through the eyes of former Machal (volunteers from abroad) pilots, Spielberg brings audiences back to the very beginning, where these brave individuals planted the seeds for today’s Israeli Air Force.
For Spielberg, in addition to honouring the ‘Machalniks,’ this documentary was also about passing down the story to future generations.
“It’s not just foreigners who do not know this story, but a lot of Israelis do not know about this and a lot of current [IAF] pilots do not even know about this. For me, one of the most critical demographics for this film is the younger demographic. There is a huge rise in apathy on college campuses. It’s not that they’re anti-Israel, they just do not see where Israel fits into their lives,” said Spielberg.
“What my brother (Hollywood icon Stephen Spielberg) did with the Shoah Foundation was incredible; it is only a shame that we did not do this earlier to get some more testimony from those Machal soldiers,” she added. “This is how we will be teaching history in the future.”
During the tumultuous time that was Israel’s infancy, volunteers, numbering more than 4,000 in total, flocked to Israel from around the world.
One of those volunteers was Canadian George (Buzz) Beurling. A Montreal native, he was arguably one of Canada’s most distinguished heroes from World War II. Following his prowess in the war, Beurling volunteered to join the Israeli Air Force, but was killed test-flying planes in 1948. For his sacrifice and heroism, Beurling was buried in Israel as a war hero.
“There wasn’t a newspaper ad saying ‘Join the Haganah,’ it was illegal. I knew there was going to be a war there, I’m a fighter pilot and I wanted to go there,” recalled Lou Lenart, in the documentary. “The Arab countries had established air forces. We had almost nothing. [We had] four junk airplanes with different propellers and different engines from spare parts that the German Air Force left behind in Czechoslovakia.”
“I remember sitting in the cockpit of my ME109 [German World War II aircraft] wearing a German uniform, a German helmet and a German parachute. What’s a nice Jewish boy from St. Paul doing in a place like this?” added Leon Frankel in the film. “The irony of it did not escape any of us.”
“They were all very skilled pilots and navigators, many of whom emerged from World War II as highly decorated heroes,” added Spielberg. “Several people say that this was a miracle. I believe that Israel’s existence to present day is a miracle. When the scud missiles fall and no one dies or when the Iron Dome goes into effect: it’s a land of miracles.”
Yet, while Israel thrives today as an independent and powerful nation, her place in the world was a distant and perhaps unattainable dream for Zionists in 1948.
However, as Frankel recalled, there was a more immediate role that they played, one that would have been worth the ultimate sacrifice, if it would eventually lead to victory.
“Shortly before I left, I happened to be in Tel Aviv when they were bringing in refugees from the death camps in Europe,” he added. “I remember them getting down on their hands and knees and kissing the ground, I knew then and there that was the reason that I came.”
A sample reel of Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force is available on the Internet. The documentary is scheduled for release in early 2014.