Professor pens book on WWII veterans' efforts to prevent a second Holocaust

Sara LaJeunesse
January 31, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In his new book, published by Rowman & Littlefield today (Jan. 31), Penn State Assistant Professor of Journalism Boaz Dvir tells the story of “Operation Zebra,” a secret and illegal operation by American aviators to save the Jewish state following World War II. 

Saving Israel Book Cover

Penn State Assistant Professor of Journalism Boaz Dvir tells the story of “Operation Zebra,” a secret and illegal operation by American aviators to save the Jewish state following World War II. 

IMAGE: Boaz Dvir, Penn State

The book, “Saving Israel: The Unknown Story of Smuggling Weapons and Winning a Nation’s Independence,” begins in 1947, as the burgeoning Jewish state, lacking the weapons to defend itself, prepares to ward off an invasion by five well-equipped neighboring armies. Fearing a repeat of the Holocaust, American World War II veteran Al Schwimmer intervened. He created factitious airlines, bought decommissioned transport airplanes from the U.S. War Asset Administration and fixed them in California and New Jersey, and sent his pilots — Jews and non-Jews — to pick up rifles, bullets and fighter planes from the only country willing to break the international arms embargo: communist Czechoslovakia. 

For the crime of delivering these and other weapons — including three B-17 bombers, which, along with the other planes he brought in, formed the nucleus of the Israeli Air Force — Schwimmer and some of the key members of his team paid a heavy price. They lost their civil rights after being convicted of breaking the U.S. arms embargo and 1939 Neutrality Act. Years later, three presidents would pardon three of them. 

The operation members risked their lives, freedom and American citizenship to prevent what they viewed as a possible second Holocaust. Their story is one of a covert mission involving smuggling arms, evading the FBI and State Department, connecting to underground Jewish intelligence and military groups, gaining the support of the mafia, ferrying arms — mostly Nazi surplus weapons and fighter planes — across thousands of miles, and taking them into combat.

An award-winning journalist and filmmaker who produced and directed the PBS documentary “A Wing and a Prayer,” which tells part of the Operation Zebra story, Dvir researched this story after his grandfather mentioned he fought with a German rifle during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. 

After 10 years of researching, including interviewing as many members of the operation as possible, Dvir felt ready to write the full story in his book.

“This group of American aviators — both Jews and non-Jews — risked their lives and freedom to bring weapons to my grandfather and others,” said Dvir. “After visiting Auschwitz for my research, I realize that for the Operation Zebra members, World War II did not conclude on September 2, 1945. Walking through Auschwitz in the cold rain, I was struck by how menacing it still felt. The evil that fueled it still roams the Earth. Just look at Rwanda and Syria. This realization further inspired my interest in writing this book.”

Dvir is partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and several state and national organizations to lead an interdisciplinary initiative to provide K-12 educators with the materials and skills to teach students about the Holocaust, genocide, human-rights violations and other difficult topics. In recent months, including at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, Dvir has screened a rough-cut version of his new film “Cojot,” which tells the story of Michel Cojot, a Holocaust survivor who set out to kill his father’s Nazi executioner. 

Dvir joined the faculty of the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State in 2014. He spent 15 years as a practicing journalist and has written for news outlets such as New York’s Newsday, the St. Petersburg Times (currently the Tampa Bay Times) and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Last Updated January 31, 2020