COURTESY GIVEON CORNFIELD
Nathan Liff and his wife deboarded the plane after arrival in 1946 in Honolulu.
Hawaii residents aided underdog Israel's struggle
Since Israel's creation in 1948, the Jewish state has had tense -- or outright hostile -- relationships with its Arab neighbors, with July's conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah party of Lebanon the most recent outburst.|
Israel has endured many difficulties throughout its nearly 60-year history, but not without help. Here, Honolulu resident Giveon Cornfield and colleague Harold Brackman of San Diego, Calif., explain how sympathetic Hawaii residents helped Israel in its fight to establish its sovereignty.
NATHAN LIFF, a scrap metal dealer from Indiana, arrived in Honolulu in 1946. Awarded a War Assets Administration contract for surplus war materiel stored at Pearl Harbor, he and his wife, Fanny, initially stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where they imbibed pineapple juice from the drinking fountains. A tropical paradise, yes, but not the promised land half a world away. The debate about Palestine's future, soon to reach the new United Nations, was very much on Liff's mind even as he opened his new business, the Universal Airplane Salvage Company. With hundreds of acres of war surplus at Iroquois Point, it was located at the naval air station on Oahu. Honolulu-based steel executive Arnold Spitz, father of the Olympic phenom Mark Spitz, did business with Liff in the early 1950s.
Today, as Israel fights Hezbollah and Hamas, the predominant media image is of the Jewish state as a technologically superior Goliath confronted by ragtag Arab Davids. The contrast is overdrawn, given the speed at which Israel's adversaries are improving the distance, accuracy and payload of their Kassam and Katyusha rockets, as well as deploying with deadly effectiveness state-of-the-art anti-tank missiles in Lebanon, supplied by Syria and Iran. But immediately after World War II, it was the Jews fighting for self-determination in Palestine who were truly the embattled Davids.
Far from being militaristic, the Yishuv (as the Jewish community was called) had preferred to invest in "farms not arms." Only in response to deadly riots by Arabs against Jews before World War II had it created the Haganah, a grassroots militia purely for self-defense. In 1946, despite some success in manufacturing light arms, the Haganah didn't have enough rifles, much less heavier weaponry -- its men still trained with broomsticks.
Liff heard through the grapevine that the head of the Palestinian Jewish Agency, David Ben Gurion, had come to the United States in the summer of 1945 to appeal to two dozen Jewish businessmen to show their mettle as "daring and true Zionists" by establishing an American support and procurement network for Haganah. The British were allowing the Arabs in Palestine to arm, and were supplying weaponry to the surrounding Arab countries whose armies were trained by British officers. Haganah desperately needed to correct the balance.
These businessmen created an organizational arm, the Sonneborn Institute, and a distribution network, Materials for Palestine (MFP), which sent tents, clothing, radios and ambulances to the Holy Land. It acquired ships like the famous Exodus with 4,500 Holocaust survivors and displaced persons aboard, to try to run the British blockade barring Jewish immigrants from Palestine. It also located potential surplus arms to ship to the Haganah, accepting even souvenir pistols and rifles donated by Jewish war veterans. These acquisitions did not come under serious FBI scrutiny until the U.S. government slapped an arms embargo on Palestine in December 1947. Ultimately, 1,700 Americans also joined Mahal, the volunteers who fought for Israel's independence in 1948.
Liff dropped in on the Sonneborn Institute on a trip to New York to make known his war surplus yard in Honolulu. Not an ideologue, Liff was a Zionist with a small "z." As a teenager in Russia 1905, he hid in an old well weapons for Jewish villagers to use in defending themselves during violent pogroms against them. He served in the U.S. Army in the Panama Canal Zone before World War I, and then again during the war. In 1929, when his family were the only Jews living in the small Ohio town of Delphos, Liff convinced the local Kiwanis (he was also elected president of the Chamber of Commerce, despite his thick Russian-Jewish accent) to pass a resolution urging the State Department to do what it could to help the Jewish community in Palestine that was under attack by Arab rioters. Now in 1946, Liff received a new challenge to help Jews defend themselves.
Hank Greenspun, later acclaimed as a fighting Las Vegas newspaper publisher opposed to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was a former captain in Patton's Third Army when he visited Liff in Hawaii in 1947. Al Schwimmer, a wartime TWA flight engineer who set up a small aircraft business in Burbank to recondition C-46 and Constellation transports and B-17 Flying Fortresses for eventual shipment to Palestine, had sent Greenspun to the Islands to procure surplus aircraft engines. Liff had Pratt and Whitney engines in his yard, but what impressed Greenspun, a veteran of the Normandy campaign, were the surplus .50-caliber and .30-caliber machine guns.
"I knew from St. Lo, Avranches, Falaise Gap, and the long push to Nancy," Greenspun later wrote, "that the only way to gain and hold ground is with guns."
Seeing the furnaces in Hawaii for smelting aluminum scrap into ingots, he murmured to Liff that they reminded him of the Nazi gas ovens.
"Don't believe for one second," Liff responded, "that I am not remembering also."
Though he lacked a budget with which to pay, Greenspun talked about prices to Liff, who looked liked his father would in a brightly patterned aloha shirt. Liff told him: "Take what you need. Forget about money. It's all yours." Greenspun also noticed open crates of new machine guns and gun barrels still wrapped and coated with grease. Liff told him those crates were not his to give because they "belong to Uncle Sam. Today, it's new. Tomorrow, it's junk. Only the used stuff is mine."
The government side of the yard was patrolled every few hours by a Marine sentry. Not asking Liff's permission, Greenspun decided on his own to return at night to time the sentry's rounds. He then helped himself to spare machine gun barrels. The cost of shipping Greenspun's 58 crates stateside was $7,000. Liff didn't have that much, but gave $1,700, and prevailed on a dozen other Jewish businessmen in Honolulu to contribute the other $5,000.
By the time the 35 tons of armaments had reached Los Angeles for transshipment to Mexico and then on to Palestine, the United Nations in November 1947 had approved the Partition Resolution authorizing the creation of a Jewish state. Yet the U.S. government, in cooperation with the British, who still occupied Palestine, then embargoed arms shipments. Even so, Greenspun found a sympathetic Christian yachtsman to load the crates; but halfway out of San Pedro Harbor, the craft almost sank under the weight of the cargo. When the skipper threatened to turn back at Catalina Island, Greenspun commandeered the yacht, which continued on to Acapulco. The machine guns reached the Haganah, renamed the Israel Defense Forces, in October 1948, just in time to play a role in Israel's defeat of an invading Egyptian army in the climactic Battle of the Negev.
In 1950, Greenspun and Liff met again, this time in a Los Angeles courtroom where Liff was called as a prosecution's star witness in the federal trial of Greenspun and his associates for violating the Neutrality Act and the Export Control Act. The prosecutors asked Liff if he had sold Greenspun aircraft engines. Pressed when he answered "No," Liff explained that he gave the guns to "young Jewish boys who went to the door of Hitler's ovens" to bring Holocaust survivors to a Jewish homeland.
The jury -- swayed by Liff's testimony -- returned a mixed verdict, acquitting three defendants, including Greenspun, but convicting four others, including Al Schwimmer, with a recommendation of leniency.
Greenspun pleaded guilty in a second trial for arms smuggling. The judge fined the defendants, but somewhat reluctantly let them off without jail time. Greenspun later received a pardon from President Kennedy.
Soon after, Nathan Liff returned to the mainland, dying in Nashville in 1963. Yet he left his mark. Surfing guru Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, now 85 years old, remembers Liff as the sparkplug of a circle of about 10 Jews -- "a mighty minyan" -- who were instrumental in founding Temple Emanu-el in Honolulu. The congregation's organ still bears a plaque inscribed in honor of Liff's wife, Fanny.
Harold Brackman, a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, lives in San Diego, Calif. He writes frequently about the history of antisemitism and racism. Giveon Cornfield served in the Royal Air Force in World War II in the underground Haganah, and in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1948 War. A contributing editor to the IHC (Israel Hasbara Committee), he has written extensively on the Arab-Israel conflict. He lives with his wife (a former volunteer paramedic with Magen David Adom and member of the Irgun) in Honolulu.