Interview: Nancy Spielberg

We Spielbergs were known as 'dirty Jews'


Film producer Nancy Spielberg doesn't make a habit of reading obituaries. But when she received an email with one about a former TWA flight engineer called Al Schwimmer attached, the title grabbed her.

"It said, 'Father of the Israeli Air Force Dies At 94,'" recalls Spielberg, who has taken a moment during a Passover family gathering in Arizona to discuss her gripping documentary Above and Beyond. "I went, 'What!?' Israel's air force is one of the top five in the world. To think that an American was being credited with laying the groundwork was just incredible."

She learned that Schwimmer had orchestrated an ingenious clandestine operation to beat an American arms embargo and smuggle pilots and aircraft into Israel, to help the fledgling state fight for its existence in 1948.

The American airmen risked losing their citizenship and jail time if caught. Schwimmer himself was ultimately indicted for violating the US Neutrality Act and stayed in Israel. In 2001, he was pardoned by President Clinton.

"It was a big story. It felt like an adventure film," says Spielberg. In fact it felt like something her famous older brother, Steven, might make. He'd actually shown interest in the subject in the past, so Spielberg called him up to confirm they wouldn't be competing at the cinema.

I'm glad that the left-wing celebrity world is finally waking up to what can happen

"It would be really stupid for me to go up against him," she laughs. "So I said to him, 'I'm thinking of doing this film, I don't want to step on your toes.' He said, 'Great idea. Go do it. You have my blessing.' Not that I needed his blessing."

Spielberg didn't need the Indiana Jones director's help, either. "I wanted to do it on my own," she says, adding: "My brother and I are off a little bit on our politics. We love each other, and he loves Israel, but he's more of a Liberal Democrat and I'm a little bit more of a Conservative Democrat."

Spielberg enlisted the director Roberta Grossman (also "more to the Left [of her], politically"), and they set off on a race against time to get some of the surviving pilots, all in their nineties, on camera.

"We felt that every time we'd look at a newspaper, somebody had had a stroke, or they'd had a heart attack, somebody had died. So panic set in. This was the last opportunity we would have to listen to their stories from their own mouths."

Using leads from President Shimon Peres, who appears briefly in the documentary, and a South African ex-airman with many contacts in the world of the Machal – "volunteers from abroad" – they tracked down a number of Jewish Americans who'd flown for Israel. The men reminded Spielberg of her father, Arnold, now 98, who flew with a Burma-based B-25 bomber squadron as a communications chief. "I think I probably connected on that level, subconsciously," she says. "And I think that propelled me in a lot of ways."

The film-makers delve into the men's tales of derring-do, camaraderie, and womanising, but also show the rabid antisemitism that often got them beaten up, spat on and verbally abused as kids; and then when they returned from the Second World War, excluded from jobs, including commercial flying.

Only one of the Americans they spoke to, Gideon Lichtman, had a Zionist upbringing. "The other guys were a little disconnected from their Jewishness," says Spielberg. "It only held them back. So they didn't embrace it; they sort of shunned it."

Fighting for Israel changed that. Although they couldn't come home and celebrate their achievement openly, they returned with a new point of view. Early on, for example, Harold Livingston, who wrote 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, told an Israeli, "I am here to help you." However, he came to realise they were the same.

"That's how these guys walked into it," says Spielberg. "Then to find out they were one of those people was a revelation to them. It unlocked their Jewishness and their Jewish pride."

While decades younger than the airmen, Spielberg nonetheless had a sense of the world they'd come from. When her family moved to Arizona – she was six months old at the time – their neighbours called them "dirty Jews". There were no other Jews living nearby, and children would steal the Spielberg siblings' toys, and taunt them. "I wouldn't call it a hostile environment, although there were some families that were hostile, but we were really isolated."

Steven "found acceptance through his film-making", she says, "because suddenly everyone wanted to be a part of that. And when you're making a film, you are the boss. So instead of being bullied you tell everybody where to stand and what to do, and they listen."

Spielberg felt "alienated" from her Jewishness, although this changed when she entered Hebrew school. Later, she and one of her sisters went to live on a kibbutz, and she felt like she'd come home. "I loved it," says Spielberg, "You feel like you're a pioneer. You feel like you're instrumental in building something. We were sitting around singing songs and we would cry the same way my mother and father would cry when they listened to the Russian gypsy music that they grew up on. There's a yearning."

Today, one of her daughters lives in Israel, and the family owns an apartment in Jerusalem. "I'm not living there full time right now but I feel very connected and at home there. I feel safe there. I don't feel as safe in America. In the UK it's scary. I wouldn't go to Paris right now. I don't feel safe anywhere. I feel less safe than in Israel." She has good cause to be worried. Last year, US Vice-President Joe Biden reportedly told a group of Jewish leaders that Jews couldn't rely on America to protect them, only Israel. Meanwhile, antisemitism has risen dramatically on university campuses since the 2014 Gaza conflict.

People tried to ignore the disturbing trend, says Spielberg. "They'd go, 'Oh no, not in this country. It will never happen here.' So when Michael Douglas and Harvey Weinstein, left-wing Hollywood, start complaining about antisemitism, I'm glad that they recognise it can happen here."

Spielberg's love for Israel comes through in Above in Beyond, which offers a refreshingly positive look at the country's origins (we're reminded that it was the Arabs who rejected a two-state solution in 1947) at a time when it is facing persistent demonisation by pro-Palestinian groups such as BDS.

The film-makers did their best to make the documentary a celebration of the pilots, not a political statement, and left out interviewee comments that could have been seen as "fighting words". But these are difficult times for Israel, and Spielberg admits they haven't been able to win everyone over. "I failed a little, but I didn't fail completely," she says. "Because the European film festivals basically said, 'Thank you very much. Lovely film. No thank you. We're not programming it.' So I still couldn't break a hundred per cent that barrier."

This is a pity because Above and Beyond presents an inspiring story of men who found themselves by risking losing everything. Their legacy is a strip of land which, rightly or wrongly, is some diaspora Jews' only hope of security as attitudes towards them grow increasingly more hostile.

Spielberg suggests the fate of millions might have been different if people had had Israel to escape to during the Second World War.

"I think there wouldn't have been a Holocaust. I'm not sure, but maybe there would have been a safe place to go when Jews were turned back from America and other countries."

Hopefully this will never have to be tested.

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