Al Schwimmer, a New York native whose actions were described by David Ben-Gurion as the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of Israel, died June 11. He died on his birthday at age 94 in Tel Aviv.
He used his contacts and experience as a World War II flight engineer for the U.S. Air Transport Command, and similar civilian service for the former TWA, to smuggle some 30 surplus war planes to the nascent Jewish state in 1948.
Schwimmer also recruited pilots and crews to fly the planes by circuitous routes to Israel, where the men, mostly World War II veterans, became the nucleus of the Israeli Air Force. Among the smuggled planes were a few beat-up B-17s that dropped bombs on Cairo on their way to Israel.
He returned to America in 1949 and the following year was convicted of violating the U.S. Neutrality Act for smuggling weapons to Israel. Schwimmer was stripped of his voting rights and veteran benefits and fined $10,000, but escaped a prison sentence. Schwimmer never sought a presidential pardon because he refused to admit any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, through the intercession of friends, he was pardoned by President Clinton.
Schwimmer was running an aircraft maintenance company in Burbank, Calif., in the early 1950s when Ben-Gurion, then the Israeli prime minister, asked him to come back to Israel and establish an aircraft company for commercial and military purposes. When Schwimmer retired 30 years later in 1988, Israel Aircraft Industries was the largest company in Israel, valued at $1 billion.
In the mid-1980s, Schwimmer was a special adviser for technology and industry for then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who became a close friend.
In 2006, Schwimmer was awarded the Israel Prize for life achievement and contributions to Israeli society.
In his 80s, Schwimmer began to focus his energies on a movement to give Israel its long-delayed constitution, together with a bill of rights guaranteeing equality to all branches of Judaism, prohibiting state interference in religious practice, and providing the options of civil marriage and divorce.
During an American fund-raising tour for this effort in 2001, he stopped in Los Angeles and during an interview with The Jewish Journal warned that without such a bill of rights, “relationships between Israel and the Diaspora will wither away.”
Schwimmer, who understandably never used his given birth name of Adolph, resisted all entreaties to write his memoirs, asking, “Who would be interested?”