Jewish Journal

Sinking the Altalena

The affair defined and galvanized the ethos of Israel’s right-wing minority. But today it plagues and derails the ethos of the new right-wing majority. After 70 years, it is time to forget.

Seventy years ago this week, on June 21-22, 1948, Israel got as close as it ever has to a civil war. Patriotic Jews fired on patriotic Jews. Battle-ready Jews bombed battle-ready Jews. The enemy was attacking and trying to destroy a very young country. But for two days, its defenders were busy fighting and killing one another. Some wounds never heal, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin said recently about this short affair. Rivlin was not even 10 years old when the “holy cannon” fired on the beach of  Tel Aviv.

This affair has a name, short and easy to remember. Just say the word “Altalena” and everything comes back to life: David Ben-Gurion, then-prime minister and the leader in charge; Menachem Begin, leader of the victims and a future prime minister; Yigael Yadin, future Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff and defense minister; and Yizhak Rabin, future IDF chief of staff, defense minister, prime minister — and the future victim of a civil-warlike atmosphere. Say “Altalena” and emotions surface,  pitting the Labor movement against the “revisionists,” and pitting the secular, socialist Israel against the traditional, Sephardic nationalists of the “second Israel.”

The Altalena was a ship, and its name invokes a defining moment in Israel’s history. 

Originally a U.S. Navy landing craft used during World War II, the Altalena was purchased for the Etzel, better known in English as the Irgun. The Etzel was an armed Zionist organization that operated in pre-state Palestine from 1931 — an organization that began as an offshoot of the Haganah, the armed faction of the Zionist movement. While the Haganah was dominated by Labor Zionists, Etzel was a group of Revisionist Zionists who based their philosophy on the writings and ideology of Zeev Jabotinsky. Altalena was Jabotinsky’s pen name. 

Some wounds never heal, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin said recently about this short affair. Rivlin was not even 10 years old when the “holy cannon” fired on the beach of  Tel Aviv.

The Altalena was loaded in a French port with refugees and volunteers — almost 1,000 men and women. It also was loaded with tons of arms and explosives intended to assist the young state that was fighting for its life in a bloody war of independence.

But there were complications. An agreement was signed in early June to absorb all Etzel units in the newly formed IDF — as the state needed a unified military and not the fighting forces of different pre-state factions. A United Nations-mandated cease-fire was declared as the Altalena was leaving France. Because of the cease-fire, a debate ensued over both the timing of the ship’s arrival and the destination of its arms cache. Ben-Gurion believed that the state owned all arms and hence had the authority to decide how the weapons would be distributed. Begin wanted to arm the units of former Etzel members within the IDF, which was poorly equipped and dismissively treated by the high command. 

More complications have entered into the story today, with perspectives often tainted by the ideology of and sympathy for — or antipathy toward — the leaders involved.

Begin at some point did not want the ship to sail, and there was a power struggle within Etzel concerning the ship’s fate. Begin, some believe today, was forced by his colleagues to board the ship. Mistakes were made during the crisis. Misunderstanding might have been the reason the first shot was fired. And of course, it was all shrouded in great animosity between people who fought for the same goal — guarding a state that was just born — while keeping an eye on their ideological rivals. 

To say that Ben-Gurion disliked and distrusted Begin would be an understatement. Thus, when Capt. Monroe Fein and military commander Eliahu Lankin steered the Altalena to the shores of Kfar Vitkin on June 20, 1948, Ben-Gurion issued an ultimatum that was handed to a military officer on the scene. The Etzel commanders were given 10 minutes to consider it: “I was authorized to demand that you hand over the weapons for safekeeping, and also to ask you to contact the supreme command. You are required to carry out this order immediately. If you decline to carry out the order, I shall use all the means at my disposal and implement the order.”

Begin did not accept the demand. The ship was then attacked but escaped. Its next destination: Tel Aviv — where Begin and some of his friends believed the atmosphere would be safer and calmer for negotiations. 

This was not to be. Suspicion and animosity derailed all such attempts. Some senior members of Etzel believed that the government was determined to assassinate Begin. But Ben-Gurion was determined to prevent what he perceived as mutiny.

A few years ago in an interesting, thought-provoking article,  historian Moti Golani argued that Ben-Gurion’s true fear was not the Etzel, a relatively small, relatively weak fighting force. Rather, he was more worried about the activist left — political rivals from within the establishment who had much more effective means to challenge his authority. So, Ben-Gurion made this show, when the city was watching, to make it clear that only one man was issuing orders to the armed forces of the new state, Golani wrote.

Ben-Gurion gave orders to block all attempts to unload the ship. When such attempts were made, an exchange of fire ensued. He then decided to use a cannon to sink the ship. Yadin requested the order in writing. He got it. At 4 p.m. on June 22, the ship was bombed and engulfed in flames. The people still aboard — many had disembarked earlier — jumped into the water.

Altalena was a seminal affair that we must remember and retell as we educate the next generation of Israelis. It is also a long-ago affair that should no longer play a role in Israel’s political arena. 

Rabin was standing on the beach, watching the scene. “The members of Etzel on the beach are hysterical,” he wrote in his diary that day, describing the events. “They are crying ‘Begin is on the ship! Begin is on the ship. Save Begin.’ … I do not know if Begin is in the ship. I do know that the ship is burning and that this affair is over, and that we don’t need more casualties.”

Begin was not hurt. An order to arrest him was issued, but he managed to escape. A ship was sinking and a legend would be born — a multifaceted, intergenerational legend. For the establishment, it was the legend of the “holy cannon” that stopped an armed rebellion. For the opposition, it was a legend of oppression and libel. 

The ship’s burned-out hull sat on the Tel Aviv coast for almost a year, until Ben-Gurion ordered the navy to drag it out to sea and sink it.

The event left a deep scar that is still evident. The old establishment is no longer in power. It was toppled in 1977 by Begin, a knight of democracy who would never raise a hand in rebellion against the elected government of the Jewish state. Begin took Rabin’s seat, then passed it to his successors, members of the Likud Party. The Altalena was for many years their battle cry — the political fuel that ignited great fire. In 1959, when Begin was a reviled opposition leader boycotted and mocked by Ben-Gurion and his colleagues in power, he spoke out to accuse them of murder:

“Mr. Ben Gurion,” Begin declared on the Knesset podium, “from this stage you accused me of planning and organizing an armed rebellion. This is a very serious allegation. I — compatible with the truth — accuse you of false charges and blood libel. I accuse you of conspiracy and of secretly conniving to kill and destroy. … I accuse you of an attempt to ignite a civil war in Israel while the enemy is upon us. I accuse you of a murder of 20 volunteers, pure and holy.”  (Actually, 19 were killed during the Altalena affair — 16 Etzel fighters and three IDF soldiers.) 

As Begin continued his accusations, the speaker of the Knesset — Beba Idelson, a member of Labor —  demanded that he stop.

Idelson: “I am very sorry. I cannot let you say such things.” 

Begin: “Not a single word will be taken back.”

Idelson: “You said, ‘murder.’ ”

Begin: “Madam speaker, that is the truth, and one does not take back a word of truth.”

Idelson: “I will demand to erase this from the protocol.” 

Begin: “I will not agree to it. I will not erase a single word from the protocol.”

Was the attack on the Altalena murder? A few years ago, an invitation to the official ceremony commemorating the event contained the word “murdered,” referring to the victims. Then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered a corrected invitation be issued. But the 1959 debate between Begin and Speaker Beba Idelson never died. A second and third generation of Likud Party members consider the Altalena affair “murder.”

A few years ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the Altalena affair was the result of a mistake made by a young government, Minister Yariv Levin, the nephew of Altalena’s commander, challenged him: “We need to say it clearly,” Levin said. “The 16 victims of Altalena were murdered by their own brothers.”  

Likud members also consider the Altalena affair proof that their leader was morally superior to Ben-Gurion. Begin, according to multiple testimonies, was standing on the ship’s deck, warning his friends not to return fire, so as not to start a civil war. They consider it proof that their political rivals will do everything to retain their positions of power.

Thus, the Altalena affair lives. The decendants of its dead and wounded are no longer the hunted minority, their leaders are no longer lepers cast aside, their ideology no longer considered a fringe insignificance. Still, these decendants often engage in self-righteous pity, bombast and populism of the weak. They often act as if they are a struggling faction pitted against a mighty establishment armed with “holy cannons.” From 1948 to 1977, the Altalena affair defined and galvanized the ethos of Israel’s right-wing minority; from 1977 until today, the Altalena affair has plagued and derailed the ethos of Israel’s right-wing majority.

An especially ugly demonstration of this derailment came after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin. Almost 50 years after the Altalena affair, Rabin’s murder was another painful reminder that Israel was not immune to internal violence. It was also, for some, a reminder of the role Rabin played in the Altalena affair. As the nation was mourning, conspiracy theorists whispered a legitimizing argument hinting that the assassination was a payback for him sinking the Altalena. In fact, some scholars believe that the Altalena story was instrumental in legitimatizing Rabin as a target for assassination even before the murder.

As is usual for such theorists, the campaign against Rabin involved truth and lies, historical facts and historical fabrications. And it slowly creeped into the narrative that mainstream Likud members are willing to repeat, as fact or at least as a question. “The Jew who pulled the trigger, later a prime minister, scarred the history of Zionism,” Minister Ophir Akunis said at an Altalena commemoration ceremony, no doubt referencing the myth that Rabin was the operator of the holy cannon. 

Rabin was not the operator of the cannon. Historian Shlomo Nakdimon detailed his exact participation in the battle. Rabom threw a grenade, as he admitted in his diary. He demanded that soldiers obey the orders — when some of them hesitated to shoot. But his role in the affair was incidental and marginal. His role was exaggerated, manipulated and distorted to achieve a political goal — to delegitimize him and his legacy, and even to legitimize his bitter end. 

So, the Altalena affair is, indeed, a cautionary tale. It cautions Israel against letting itself deteriorate into such a situation. It cautions potential rebels against challenging the government. It cautions the government against using violence when other means are available. It cautions politicians that using aggressive means against a rival can have long-term, unexpected consequences. It cautions citizens against succumbing to peculiar theories of little validity. 

It also cautions — or ought to caution — against having too long a memory. Altalena was a seminal affair that we must remember and retell as we educate the next generation of Israelis. It is also a long-ago affair that should no longer play a role in Israel’s political arena. The establishment no longer threatens the revisionist minority. The government is no longer fragile and in doubt. Hence, the inclination of a certain political faction to keep utilizing the story of the Altalena as justification for keeping a fight alive is becoming dangerous.

Because, in these people’s eyes, Israel seems like an ocean, and all its disliked institutions — the media, the courts, the nongovernmental organizations, the opposition,
the critics, the leftists, you name it — seem like sinkable ships.

It is one thing, when one is in the minority, to derive energy for a political fight by utilizing a shared, agonizing memory. It is quite another to utilize the same story of victimhood and injustice when one has been, for quite some time, a majority.

At 70, it is time to let this history be history.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.