The Jewish Experience

Settler, Smuggler, Survivor: The Life of a Zionist Pioneer

Allon family around 1929 in Bialystok, Poland

Mordecai's family around 1929 in Białystok, Poland. From left to right: Roza (mother), Mordecai, Moshe (brother) and Elhanan (father).

Photo Credit: Courtesy David Allon

Jan. 14, 2022

By Lawrence Goodman 

In 1948, Mordecai Allon flew to New York from Tel Aviv and began contacting American supporters of the fledgling state of Israel. He was officially listed as an accountant on his travel documents, but his real mission was arms smuggling. 

Mordecai AllonMordecai Allon

When war broke out between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors that year, the 34-year-old Allon was ready. Under his guidance, small cells of Zionist sympathizers in America located leftover World War II military hardware and shipped it to Israel.

"Mordecai once illegally purchased ammunition and hid the bullets in emptied-out cigarette packs," Mordecai's son, David Allon '81, writes in his 2021 memoir of his father, "Oranges to Easels: Journey of an Israeli Pioneer." 

"Knowing my father, he probably smoked the leftover cigarettes — to hide the evidence, of course."

"Oranges to Easels" is full of anecdotes like these, snapshots of the life of a Zionist pioneer who lived his life in service of his country. 

Mordecai Allon emigrated from Poland to Palestine in 1935, leaving behind his parents, who later perished during the Holocaust.

He started out working in the citrus industry but soon became involved in arranging the exodus of Iraqi Jews to Israel, lobbying U.N. members to support the creation of the Jewish state and building a successful business career.

"In a sense, the story of my father's life parallels that of Palestine and the creation of Israel," David Allon wrote in his book.

As Allon portrays him, Mordecai was a man of many dimensions — a loving father and husband, passionate Zionist, wheeler-dealer and keeper of lifelong secrets. He never spoke openly to his kids about his grief over his parents. 

David said his father possessed "tushia" — a Hebrew term that describes the can-do attitude and adaptability of the Jews who forged the Israeli state. 

"You had a task, you had limited supplies and you had to innovate," Allon, who lives in Wayne, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, said in an interview. "You tally your scarce resources, innovate and use your brain to figure it out."

Mordecai was also an artist, working in the early 20th-century French style of Fauvism to paint landscapes, portraits and architectural ruins.

TJE spoke with David Allon about his father's life and the process of writing his memoir. 

Why did you write this book?
I was very close to my father and felt very sad and reflective for about a year after his death in 2003. I realized that I needed some closure.

You learned a lot about your father from the stories he told you about his life when you were a kid. 
When I was 4-years-old, he had a heart attack, and the doctor basically said, you have to lose weight, eat better and exercise. So we would go walking pretty much every Saturday around our neighborhood in Ramat Hasharon [outside Tel Aviv].

He would tell me stories from his childhood and about what it was like landing in Palestine. I think it was a way for him to decompress after a very long week.

And it's interesting because he was working with a blank tablet. I was 5-, 6-, 8-years old, and he would present the story in such a way that he could emphasize the things that were relevant to him at the time, but also modulate them for my age — he never talked about the loss of his parents and the impact it had on him psychologically.

Why do you describe your father as an enigma?
On the face of it, he was a very charismatic guy. He was a good listener and a very good storyteller. He had a warmth to him that captivated his friends. 

So I think the enigma in my mind was, how could a person who lost his parents and never saw them again after age 21 be so positive about life, so driven to support the Israeli cause and do good in the world?

Why was Israel so important to him?
Like most Israeli pioneers, he believed we have to have our own home, we have to have a place where no matter how modest it is, no matter how poor it is, no matter how simple it is, it's ours. This little piece of land is something we can call our own.

You and your siblings chose to settle outside of Israel. How did he feel about that?
I think this is something that pained him. If you read some of the letters he wrote to all three of us in the 1980s, he said, "Look, guys, I know you are all studying in the U.S. and that's wonderful. I'm a big believer in American education." 

But he also said, "There's room for you guys here in Israel and you do belong here." So I think the circle was not complete for him in a way. His dream was for all his children to be in the country he helped build. I think it's a little tragic.