September 18, 2018

Struggling With Our Demons

Our memory plays tricks on us. We remember what we want to remember. We remember what makes us feel good. It makes me feel good to remember only the great times from my summers at Jewish camp — the canoe trips, the sports, the laughter, the music. That time a fellow camper made fun of my immigrant English? That’s a memory I’d rather suppress.

Our selective memories rise to the occasion when it comes to anniversaries. If you’re at a party honoring a long marriage, who wants to rain on the parade by recalling moments when the couple almost divorced? Who needs dark memories when we’re celebrating the glorious passage of time?

Countries are no different. This year, Israel turned 70. All year long, it’s been one celebration after another — and why not? The rebirth of the Jewish state after a 1,900-year journey in exile qualifies as a bona fide miracle. All celebrations are justified.

And yet, in the midst of the euphoria, there’s also shame. We tend to forget that something extraordinarily dark happened in 1948, just as Israel was fighting its War of Independence. This has become known as the Altalena Affair, named after the armed Jewish ship that was bombed by the newly minted Israel Defense Forces.

In the spirit of seeking truth and facing up to our demons, we decided to make this 70th anniversary of the Altalena Affair the subject of our cover story this week by political editor Shmuel Rosner. He writes:

How could this happen? How could such division plague the country in the midst of an epic war? How could an Israeli prime minister order the bombing of a Jewish ship?

“On June 21-22, 1948, Israel got as close as it ever did to having a civil war. Patriotic Jews fired on other 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.”

How could this happen? How could such division plague the country in the midst of an epic war? How could an Israeli prime minister order the bombing of a Jewish ship? As you’ll see in our story, it was a perfect storm of circumstances that led to an emotional escalation that reached a tragic breaking point.

If it were a novel, Altalena would be a relentless thriller full of intrigue. But it’s not. It’s real life. It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen when our passions get the better of us.

Rosner calls it a “defining moment in Israel’s history.” I call it a reminder that we’re always vulnerable to our darkest demons, even when the moment calls for our highest selves.

One of the benefits of success is that we can afford to look back on our failures and study them. The failures no longer threaten us. We overcame them. Israel overcame the horror of Altalena and won the war. It prevailed.

That’s why I don’t feel guilty raining on Israel’s 70th anniversary parade. Israel is strong enough to look back and reflect on the hard lessons of Altalena.

One of the benefits of success is that we can afford to look back on our failures and study them. The failures no longer threaten us.

My friend Noam Weissman, who’s an educator at Jerusalem U, has his own take on Altalena: It is Menachem Begin’s decision not to “shoot back” that is his defining moment. As he writes as part of our cover story: 

“Menachem Begin made a startling decision: ‘Do not shoot back!’ he told his men. That Begin chose to sublimate himself and his organization to the will of the newly founded state is perhaps one of the defining moments in modern Israeli history and broader Jewish history, and he deserves credit for transcending his own beliefs in the service of a cause bigger than himself.”

Whichever way you look at it, Altalena is worth struggling with, however painful the memory. But Rosner reminds us that memory can also go too far; that certain elements of Israeli society use the Altalena as justification for keeping destructive political fights alive. “In these people’s eyes,” he writes, “Israel seems like 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.”

The murder of Yitchak Rabin was a ship that sank, a moment of national shiva that was even darker than Altalena.

Maybe that’s the best reason to remember Altalena in the midst of all the celebrations — to remind us how much better it feels to party than to grieve.