Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017...1:44 pm
A volunteer from outside
Jason Fenton was a foreign volunteer for the Israeli military during the War for Independence
By MAX SPARBER
Jason Fenton died on Jan. 21, and with him went a remarkable piece of history. During Israel’s War for Independence, the then-16-year-old Fenton left his native England to enlist in Machal, Israel’s volunteer fighting force.
Machal, which is short for Mitnadvei Hutz LaAretz or “volunteers from outside the land,” consisted of about 4,000 people, both Jews and non-Jews. Many were WWII veterans who came to Israel specifically to assist in the War for Independence and then left after the war ended, although some stayed on and became citizens.
In her eulogy, Fenton’s daughter Tamar described her father’s motivations for enlisting, which she believes began in his childhood. “Dad was born in London, the fourth child of an Orthodox rabbi, Benzion, and his wife, Bertha,” she remembered. “His parents not only tended to a number of shuls in London, Leeds and Manchester in those early years, but also housed many children who arrived in England as part of the kinder transport, having been smuggled out of Germany in 1938 and 39 before the beginning of WWII.”
“My dad said that even though he was a young child himself, that living with those refugee children greatly impacted him and his sense of duty to the Jewish people,” Tamar explained.
Fenton was evacuated to Cornwall during the Blitz, where he was the first Jews many locals had seen. The nine-year-old boy stayed with a family who rubbed his head to see if he had horns, a widespread misconception about Jews.
Fenton’s mother was also evacuated to Cornwall, but died shortly afterward. Six months after Fenton returned to London, his father also died, leaving him orphaned at age 11. The local synagogue raised some money to support the children’s religious education and an aunt and uncle were charged with their care, but they were resentful of having to take on the responsibility and quickly sent the two youngest off to a boarding school.
According to Tamar, Fenton saw this as a “blessing in disguise,” as he excelled at both academics and sports, and was given the opportunity to participate in the school’s Air Training Corps, a British institution similar to the ROTC, which gave him actual military training.
Fenton followed the establishment of the State of Israel on a contraband radio from his dorm room, and when war broke out, he located the clandestine London headquarters of the Haganah recruitment center in the offices of a Jewish-owned department store. Although his eldest brother had been accepted as a volunteer in 1947, the recruiters turned Fenton away as being too young, yet he refused to be dismissed. Thanks to his Air Training Corps experience, he had been up in WWI-era planes with the Cambridge University pilots, and felt that he would be needed as a pilot in the newly formed Israel air force, which was almost exclusively comprised of foreign volunteers.
According to Tamar, her father was an over-confident 16-year-old who thought he could fly an airplane, but in actuality had only rudimentary training and had never piloted before. Nonetheless, he managed to convince the Haganah recruiters of his value, and he undertook an arduous trip to Israel, where he was assigned to fly to Czechoslovakia to procure planes and then to join the Israeli air force in its missions.
Upon arrival at his transit base, he was reunited with his brother, who had arrived the year before and was hospitalized from a sniper bullet. It was he who convinced his superiors to not allow Fenton to fly, and as a result, he found himself inducted into the Anglo-Saxon 4th Anti-Tank Unit, a dangerous assignment that included gun fights and stealing weaponry from the enemy during battles. Fenton has since been recognized as the youngest foreign volunteer to fight in the War for Independence.
After the war, Fenton immigrated to the United States, received his PhD from UCLA, and become a respected professor of English and Jewish history at several Southern California universities and colleges. He eventually wrote two books about the Machal and was interviewed for several documentaries on the subject, including a program that aired on The History Channel.
Fenton retired to Minnesota to be with two of his daughters, where he spoke to numerous groups about Israel and Machal, and taught popular classes on biblical history and Torah for the University of Minnesota’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program.
(American Jewish World, 2.24.17)