Is Gun-Running a Job for a Nice Jewish Boy?

Izzie Weinzweig recently retired from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he had been a professor of mathematics. But long before he earned his formal credentials as a scientist – his doctorate comes from Harvard – Dr. Weinzweig was a social engineer, using his quick wit, powerful charm, and steely nerve to get what he wanted. Luckily for Israel, what he wanted was to help arm and defend the nascent state.

A.I. Weinzweig was born in Toronto in 1928, into a family of active Zionists. In 1946, he was invited by a fellow member of Habonim, the Labor Zionist youth movement, to work on an unspecified project. “I didn’t know exactly what the project was but I had an idea, so I said yes,” he recalled in a telephone interview decades later.

The project turned out to be collecting arms for Palestine. “It was relatively easy because the war in Europe was over, and the Canadian government was getting rid of all its weapons by selling them for scrap iron,” Dr. Weinzweig said. “The government’s understanding was that the buyers would destroy the firing pins. There were a lot of Jewish scrap metal dealers and they bought a lot of weapons, but they were very negligent about removing those firing pins.”

The dealers’ negligence continued. They tended not to melt the weapons for scrap but instead to deposit them in places where they could be picked up and moved on, firing pins still intact. “My job was to pack up the guns on a farm outside Toronto owned by a Jewish farmer,” Dr. Weinzweig said.

“There were supposed to be 50 or 60 pounds of guns in each case but sometimes we got a little overzealous.” Once they were packed, the cartons were sent to places as varied as a high-end Toronto department store or across the border to Buffalo. Then they would be sent on to Palestine. Each drop-off site posed its own challenges, which Dr. Weinzweig faced with brazen selfconfidence.

“Once we were unloading outside the Toronto store at six in the morning just as the streetcar tracks were being repaired. One of the repairmen said, ‘What do you have in there? Machine guns?’ Of course the guy handing me the crates turned white as a sheet, but I said ‘Of course! Why else would we be here at this time in the morning?’ So the guy laughed, and started shouting ‘Guess what they have in there! Machine guns!’”

When the guns had to be smuggled to Buffalo, he would ask a girl to come in the car with him. It wasn’t always the same girl, and “some of them were very frum, but I told them that no matter what I said they should go along. To this day, I’m amazed that none of them ever refused.

“When we would get to the border, I’d talk to the customs and immigration guys, and ask them if they could give me the name of a cheap motel. Remember, things were different then. We’d have a long talk and the guy would never even bother looking in the trunk. He’d just wave us through.”

A bit later, Dr. Weinzweig and his colleagues were asked to get hold of an antiaircraft gun. They knew there was one sitting on the tarmac in an armory in an island in the middle of a main road. “We started thinking about how we could steal it. I was the expert because I’d read mysteries – Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes. The obvious thing would have been to go in at night, but we knew we’d get caught. We had to do something completely bizarre and ridiculous.”

So they did. They rented a truck, put on overalls, and drove to the armory at 4:30 in the afternoon, just as rush hour was beginning. They backed the truck across the sidewalk, cut the fence around the armory, and started rolling out the gun. The truck blocked traffic, and it didn’t take long for a policeman to come and tell them to move. “I screamed at him that we had to get the gun out by five o’clock, so instead of wasting our time he should direct traffic, which he did. Then one of the soldiers came up and asked what we were doing. I said ‘What does it look like I’m doing? Don’t ask me; ask the idiot who gave the order! Why don’t you give me a hand so we can get out of here?’”

Eventually a captain came and asked more questions, “and I just blew my stack, and said ‘Tell those soldiers to help us!’ as we rolled the gun onto the truck. The policeman stopped traffic again, and we took the gun to the farm.”

It turns out not to be so easy to ship anti-aircraft guns clandestinely, but Dr. Weinzweig and his companions, aided by the Jewish scrap metal dealers, managed. When they are shipped overseas, guns are protected by a substance called cosmoline, which smells very bad. “When we started covering the gun with the gunk it made us sick, so I figured if a little made us sick, we should use a lot,” he said. He learned later that when the British customs official, who didn’t trust the Jews, looked at the bill of lading, he lifted the crate top, saw the gunk, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and stuck in his hand. As his hand went deeper into the gunk you could see the nausea on his face. He pulled out his hand and went to wash off the cosmoline, letting the anti-aircraft gun into Palestine.

In 1948, when it became clear that not only independence but war was likely, Dr. Weinzweig decided that it wasn’t enough to run guns. He wanted to fight himself. He left school, got to Marseilles, learned unarmed combat skills, and took an illegal converted coal ship to Israel. “We landed in Haifa on the morning of May 15 or 16, and everybody got on deck and sang Hatikvah as the sun rose,” he said.

Dr. Weinzweig began his Israeli army career as a commando. “I was taught how to climb onto a tank and throw in a Molotov cocktail,” he said. “It sounded very easy. You go to the side of the road, crouch, stay absolutely still, and wait till the tank is nearly on top of you. Then you climb up, open the window, throw the thing into it, and run like hell.

“They neglected to mention that tanks don’t usually travel alone. There usually are other tanks. When the crew see what you’re doing, everyone starts shooting at you.” Luckily, he added, usually they didn’t aim too well.

Dr. Weinzweig carried out this maneuver five times; each time he “ran like hell” to the hidden jeep waiting for him. “And then the tanks blew up.”

Eventually Dr. Weinzweig wound up in a highly secret unit for scientists. “We were to come up with a better anti-tank weapon than climbing on top of tanks,” he said. They had to design an armor-piercing shell that could be aimed properly, and they had to do it quickly even though they had few resources. He remembered flying kites as a child, “and we’d put a tail on it. The drag on the tail kept the kite going in the right direction.” He wondered what would happen if they tied a ribbon on a grenade. “We tried it. It was primitive – but it worked. We bought all the ribbons we could find in Tel Aviv, hair ribbons, gift-wrapping ribbons, and we bought canvas bags, and spent days and nights making grenades and tying on ribbons.

“A friend later told me that they had fired our grenades at a column of Egyptian tanks. When the Egyptians saw the ribbons coming at them they assumed the local population was welcoming them. They opened the hatches and the commander started waving his hat – until the grenades landed.”

After many more adventures in the young Jewish state, Dr. Weinzweig returned to North America and resumed his academic career. Landing in Chicago, he became an active member of the Conservative community there; he belongs to Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Egalitarian Minyan and has worked as a lay leader with the Solomon Schechter schools.

“It was an amazing time,” he says now of the days when both he and Israel were young. There are two questions that people often ask him about his experiences, he added.

“The first was about how my mother felt when I told her where I was going. At first she wouldn’t hear of it, but then I asked her what she would do if she were in my place. ‘Exactly what you’re doing,’ she said, ‘and if you were in my place, what I’m doing is exactly what you’d do.’”

The other question he is asked is if he ever thought that the Israeli war for independence could be lost. “No,” he says. “There was never any question. Ein breira. There was no choice.”

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