April 2, 2020

What Can We Learn From the Altalena?

The Altalena affair has gone down in the annals of Jewish history as the moment a civil war was averted. A mere five weeks after declaring statehood, Jew was fighting Jew. It was Palmach vs. Irgun. David Ben-Gurion vs. Menachem Begin. Pragmatist vs. idealist.

The Altalena — carrying arms, volunteers and Irgun men — was docked off the coast of Tel Aviv when, soon, the bullets started to fly. This was just as the British anticipated. They warned that after they vacated the land the Jewish people would be too opinionated and too fractured to band together. 

And yet, 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 beliefs in the service of a cause bigger than himself.

In fact, it was not the first time Begin resisted the retaliatory instinct. In 1944, when Ben-Gurion decided to support the Allies (including the British) against the Nazis, Begin was determined to rebel against the British. Ben-Gurion would not allow for such dissidence and even turned in some Irgun fighters to the British. Begin, instead of responding in kind, told his men to restrain their desire for revenge against Ben-Gurion. “Ki Yehudim anachnu,” he said. “Because we are Jews.” 

It would not be intellectually honest, however, to revere Begin as someone who invariably placed the preservation of the Jewish state above his personal convictions. Just three years after commanding his men not to shoot during the Altalena affair, he took a radically different approach when it came to the issue of reparations from Germany.

No matter where we fall on the ideological spectrum, we all ought to internalize the mantra of Begin. Let’s put down our arms. A Jew does not shoot at a Jew.

In 1951, Israel’s economy was in a precarious state. Israel had a severe shortage of housing for the waves of new immigrants, there was food rationing and the country was in a desperate place. On Sept. 27, 1951, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer offered assistance to Israel to bring about a solution to “the problem of material restitution” after Israel absorbed so many homeless refugees. Begin, whose parents were killed by the Nazis, was incredulous that such an offer could even be considered from a country that murdered 6 million Jews.

On Jan. 7, 1952, he unleashed an impassioned diatribe against his archnemesis, then-Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, that would result in his three-month suspension from the Knesset. “There will not be negotiations with Germany, for this we are willing to give our lives. It is better to die than transgress this. There is no sacrifice that we won’t make to suppress this initiative. This will be a war of life and death. Today, I shall give the order: Blood!” 

Still, when push came to shove, there was no blood from Begin. In the end, the Knesset voted to accept the reparations from Germany — despite Begin’s protestations — and Israel’s economy greatly benefited from this decision.

As an educator, when I study Begin’s decision not to shoot back at the Palmach during the Altalena affair and his resistance to German reparations, I am fascinated by the implications for the Jewish community as a whole. So many complex questions come to mind: 

When do we sacrifice? 

When core values collide, how do we determine the right course of action? 

When do we follow pragmatism, and when is idealism not just the preferred approach but the ethical one?

What is our North Star? 

Which principles are existential red lines that we dare not cross? 

As individuals, when do we drive our decisions not by what is in our personal best interest but rather by what serves the interest of the greater good of our community and nation? 

When is survival and self-preservation the primary value, and when is self-transcendence in service of a larger cause ideal?

As a teacher, this is what I ask myself and my students to ponder.

And yet, despite all the complexity, I still see a point of clarity. Yes, Ben-Gurion was the first prime minister and the founding father of the modern state of Israel. In my mind, though, it is the clarity of Begin’s vision that has penetrated more Jewish souls. 

No matter where we fall on the ideological spectrum, whether we’re Likud or Labor, we all ought to internalize the mantra of Begin. Let’s put down our arms. A Jew does not shoot at a Jew. It’s as simple as that. No equations, no proofs, nothing. Why?

It’s a simple maxim: “Ki Yehudim anachnu.” “Because we are Jews.”

Dr. Noam Weissman is senior vice president of education at Jerusalem U.