50 years after U.N. approval, area Zionists recall fight for Jewish state

On Nov. 29, 1947, Mort Levinson and about 300 other Jews crammed into University of Oklahoma's Hillel House.

They were there to hear the live radio broadcast as the United Nations voted on the plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.

When the last ballot was cast and the plan was approved, the Hillel House was filled with a solemnity reflecting the weight of the times. The students knew that Holocaust survivors were stuck in European refugee camps waiting to get into British-ruled Palestine.

Then a euphoria exploded as Levinson and others listened to Jews in New York dancing and celebrating in Times Square.

Levinson was far from the action that night. But the 17-year-old college freshman, then a chapter president of the International Zionist Federation of America, knew the evening's events would directly impact his life.

A committed Zionist since youth, Levinson would soon head to the Middle East to fight in the war that would inevitably break out between the Arabs and Jews. He believes he was the youngest American volunteer in the Israeli army.

"I had every reason to go…We were really raised to practice our ideals," said Levinson, now a Hillsborough resident.

The partition plan marked the official beginnings of an independent Jewish homeland and an end to two millennia of exile. It also led to Israel's declaration of independence less than six months later, and war with Arabs who rejected the partition plan.

For many of the Jews listening that night all over the world, the event begot a lifetime of fund-raising and lobbying for the Jewish nation.

For a minority, including a handful now living in the Bay Area, the vote was literally a call to arms.

What caused them to transform their beliefs into action? It was a combination of commitment to Zionism, reaction to the Holocaust, idealism of youth and lust for adventure.

For those already in British-controlled Palestine, it was simply a matter of life and death.

Half a continent away from Oklahoma, Mort Levinson's older brother Fred listened to the U.N. broadcast in Boston's Zionist House.

"It was like a huge celebration because everybody had been working for and hoping for this dream to be realized," said Fred Levinson, then a 19-year-old veteran fresh out of the U.S. Army and now a retired San Francisco insurance broker.

Jack Frankel, then a 21-year-old veteran of the U.S. Marines, had been working Nov. 29 in Los Angeles on plans to smuggle arms into Palestine.

That night, he found himself at the Hollywood Bowl, where thousands had gathered at the outdoor arena to hear the broadcast and rejoice.

"This was the first time in 2,000 years that we were offered something," said Frankel, now a San Francisco rabbi who leads Congregation Anshei Ha'sefer. "We were dreaming it for so long."

And already in Palestine was Ephraim Margolin, then a 21-year-old who had been living in Tel Aviv since he was 8. He was a member of the Irgun, an underground Jewish army that fought the British.

Combating the British was just a part of daily life for him.

"I hated the empire," he said.

He considered the British ruthless colonizers who jailed and executed Jewish "martyrs." Margolin saw himself as a revolutionary in the same school as Thomas Jefferson. The British considered such Jews terrorists.

Margolin, in fact, missed the live broadcast of the U.N. vote. He was busy working that night with Irgun leader Menachem Begin, a man who decades later would become Israel's prime minister.

Instead, Margolin heard about the partition vote via telephone and then joined the dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv.

After a millennium of persecution and genocide, suddenly the whole world seemed to turn in the favor of the Jews.

"It was an amazing development," said Margolin, now a San Francisco attorney. "We were at other people's mercy for too long."

But for Margolin, the vote wasn't as significant at the time as his day-to-day activities of running a paramilitary school for youths. He had also been involved in other practicalities, such as working for an underground radio and teaching other Jews how to fire mortars.

In fact, he said, Jews in Palestine had to suppress their joy over the partition vote. They instead needed to concentrate on creating an independent state, building up their paltry arms supply and worrying about Arab attacks.

During the War of Independence, Margolin fought on the front lines in Jaffa, a coastal town under Arab control in the partition plan.

The fighters seized Jaffa house by house, blowing a hole in the wall of one home and making it into the next one. Margolin caught shrapnel in his knee. It took him two months to recover.

At the same time, the other young men were figuring out how to get to the Middle East to help.

Fred Levinson, who had attended college before his armed service, returned to university for the spring semester in 1948.

As the British withdrawal in May 1948 inched closer, he received a letter from a friend asking for volunteers to fight for the Jewish homeland. That cemented the two brothers' decision to go.

What about the very real possibility of getting hurt or killed? "We weren't even thinking about that," said Fred Levinson, who lost family in the Holocaust.

It was, of course, illegal for a U.S. citizen to fight for a foreign power. And their passport applications were held up for months by suspicious State Department officials who didn't believe they wanted to study in France.

The Levinsons finally got their passports in July and hooked up in New York with Land and Labor for Israel, an underground organization set up by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The pair sailed to France and stayed in a camp in Marseilles for displaced persons, or DPs — an official label for World War II refugees. The Levinsons were given German names and false identity papers. About two weeks later, they boarded a small Italian fishing boat with 400 other Jews, mostly real refugees.

About 10 days later, the ship neared Haifa at night. Mort Levinson remembers first seeing the lights of the city when they dropped anchor and someone pulling out a bottle of cognac to celebrate.

When Haifa became visible in the morning, Fred Levinson recalled, the group broke out into "Hatikvah" and ran from side to side of the boat. They almost sank it.

"We got off the boat and all kissed the concrete on the pier," Mort Levinson said.

Once in Israel, the brothers were separated.

Unlike the Levinsons, Frankel wasn't raised as a diehard Zionist by his Orthodox family. But he served in the Pacific during World War II with two Marines who had visited a kibbutz in the 1930s. They stirred a sense of nationalism in him. And when one of them died in Frankel's arms, he committed himself to Zionism. Frankel also lost relatives in the Holocaust.

As soon as the war ended and he was out of the Marines, Frankel began working to get refugees, volunteers, weapons and military planes into British-controlled Palestine.

When the partition vote took place, he knew he needed to get to the Mideast. So he asked the Jewish Agency to transfer him to Europe to work with DPs. Playing a tourist, he arrived in Europe in late December 1947.

In March 1948, he got itchy feet.

"I was saying to myself that something was going to happen and I wanted to be part of the action," Frankel said.

He was one of 3,000 who climbed aboard an old steamship meant to hold 900. He posed as a refugee.

When the ship neared Palestine, the British forced it to turn around and dock in the nearby island of Cyprus. The refugees were detained. But the Jewish underground rescued a number of them, including Frankel, in the middle of the night. They boarded another ship.

This time, the ship made it about 300 yards offshore between Haifa and Nahariya. The British again tried to turn it back. But those who had the strength jumped off the side of the ship and "swam like hell" toward dim lights on shore, Frankel said.

A man fished Frankel out of the water and in a combination of English and Hebrew told him, "Baruch habah to the Palmach" — welcome to the Palmach.

The Palmach comprised the military commando units of the Haganah, a clandestine Jewish army.

"The emotions were so high. You felt like laughing and crying at the same time," Frankel said.

He was put into the 9th Brigade and went "wherever they put a gun in your hand."

Frankel helped capture the Lydda airport from the Arabs in the summer of 1948. He flew on bombing missions and tossed grenades onto Egyptian positions, where he received his only real injury — shrapnel wounds. He also worked in Israel's nascent air force and overseas intelligence department.

Fred Levinson ended up in a military police unit in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. He was the only non-Israeli in the unit, and the only one not fluent in Hebrew.

During his 10 months there, his work included uncovering caches of weapons in Arab villages and arresting those suspected of disloyalty to Israel.

Though he recalls feeling anxious while entering Arab villages, Fred Levinson said he never sensed any Jewish hatred toward Arabs. Instead, the motivation simply was to set up a country.

Mort Levinson, now an insurance broker, joined the 79th unit of the 7th Brigade and was stationed in a camp near Akko in northern Israel.

His unit drove armed cars and half-tracks, which had front wheels and tank tracks in the back. They were so short of weapons, they used leftover Nazi arms. Those rifles and machine guns, which came from Czechoslovakia, were all stamped with swastikas.

They even used wooden decoy guns to make it appear as if they had artillery.

Living conditions were primitive. They lived in tents and took hot showers once a week. They ate canned beef and bread with marmalade.

His unit's goal was to clear Arabs out of a triangle of land in the north that was given to the Arabs in the partition plan they rejected. The unit launched the offensive from Safed, which was officially in Israel.

In one mission, Mort Levinson crawled on his hands and knees up a hill to an Arab village. The residents fled, and the town became Kibbutz Sasa.

Fred Levinson returned to the United States in May 1949 so he could finish college. He considered returning permanently to Israel but never did. In 1951, he moved to the Bay Area.

"I would say the whole experience total was absolutely one of the highlights of my life," Levinson said. "It was an opportunity for just ordinary people like ourselves to do something significant."

Mort Levinson stayed a few months longer, and then he returned to finish college as well. He believed he would return to live in Israel. A combination of U.S. Army service and getting married changed his plans.

Yet, he said, "it's a wonderful thing to have given a year out of idealism."

Frankel didn't return to the United States until 1952, when he was caught by the communists on a clandestine mission in Hungary. He was jailed and interrogated for nine days. He was then kicked out of the country and forced to go home.

So many decades later, it's hard to fathom that the Jews pulled off creating a nation.

"What happened in 1947 and 1948 was miraculous," Frankel said. "It was a ragtag army."

Looking back 50 years, Margolin compares his relationship to the Zionist cause to falling in love for the first time.

"It was a romantic notion," he said. "It was a notion of being overwhelmed by something."

He came to San Francisco 40 years ago to teach and practice law. He never moved back.

But asked if his work for Israel's birth was worth risking his life, he answers a question with a question.

"Is it worth your time to breathe?"