Sunday, July 22, 2007

Two Altalena-connected Stories

Tales from the underground

Jul. 18, 2007

With the green lawns of the Charles Clore Park on three sides and the azure waters of the Mediterranean on the fourth, the stone and black glass Etzel Museum building on the Tel Aviv shoreline is certainly impressive. A blue cloudless sky and attractive layered Jaffa skyline in the near distance are additional factors making the museum building stand out - while at the same time somehow blending in with its surroundings.

An enormous Israeli flag flaps high in the sea breeze above the museum, built over the ruins of a former Ottoman-period building. The museum is dedicated to the memory of operations officer Amihai (Gidi) Paglin and 41 fighters of the pre-state paramilitary Etzel (an acronym for Irgun Zvai Leumi, or National Military Organization) who fell in the campaign to conquer the nearby Arab town of Jaffa, and also documents other battles that Etzel members fought in during the 1947-8 War of Independence.

Active in Palestine from 1931 to 1948, the Jewish underground organization retaliated against attacks by Arabs on the Jewish population and rebelled against the British government's "White Paper" policy that imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine.

The integration of the Etzel fighters into the newly-formed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was brokered in an agreement signed between then-I.Z.L. Commander-in-Chief Menachem Begin and Israel Galili on behalf of the government of Israel. But even after the agreement was signed, there remained a great deal of bitterness between Begin and Ben-Gurion and their supporters, much of which centered around the June 1948 Altalena affair when Palmah soldiers attacked an arms-carrying Etzel ship close to the Tel Aviv shore.

The Etzel Museum on the Tel Aviv beachfront belongs to the Museums Unit of the Ministry of Defense, which explains the four girl soldier-guides manning the reception desk. The day Metro visited, the museum was empty, apart from the soldiers and a young security guard - which on the one hand was useful as nobody got in the way of photographs or obliterated the prolific texts alongside exhibits, but on the other was a little eerie.

The first portion of the museum deals with the organizational structure of the Etzel. A map of Israel according to the UN partition resolution of November 29, 1947 is displayed on one wall, alongside another map with the boundaries of Israel following the armistice agreements of July 1949.

The map is accompanied by explanations and documents of the Etzel's response to the partition plan and the hostilities that broke out after the plan was announced.

A model of steel helmeted soldiers defending their post, surrounded by sandbags and barbed wire, greets the visitor on the first corner turned in the museum, set out in serpentine fashion. An electronic map serves as an introduction to the entire exhibit showing Etzel positions, attacks and raids and the capture of Arab villages during 1947 and 1948, including the infamous attack on the village of Deir Yassin in the Jerusalem corridor. Maps, documents and photographs are on display as well as a diorama presenting the heroism of two Etzel women fighters, who chose death over
surrender, in the battle for Yehudiya.

Up on the next floor one finds a description of the attack on Ramle. Fifty-one Etzel fighters died in the battle and many were wounded. On the same floor an area focuses on the fighters' training and purchase of arms, as well as somewhat tongue-in-cheek details of the "requisitions" of British ammunitions, which included 20,000 81mm mortar bombs swiped from a British train transporting ammunition to Arab fighters in Gaza.

Following the infiltration of a British army camp near Pardess Hanna, Etzel fighters also "requisitioned" weapons, ammunition and an armored vehicle from the British paratroopers stationed at what is today a large IDF training base known as Mahane 80 on the main Wadi Ara highway.

A large exhibition is dedicated to battles waged in the liberation of Jerusalem, and operations with the pre-state Haganah and Lehi militias. Two interesting dioramas deal with a stronghold of the British in the city, Zion Gate and in the background, the Old City of Jerusalem.

Another section concentrates on operations in the north such as the battle at Mishmar Hayarden, cooperation between forces of the Haganah and Etzel in the defense of Safed, and the taking of the Wadi Nisnas Arab neighborhood in Haifa - in present times the venue for an annual co-existence festival of art, music and culinary delights held during the month of the Hannuka, Christmas and Ramadan holidays.

The last section of the museum deals with the Altalena incident. The Etzel's
armaments-carrying ship had embarked from the port of Marseilles. Upon arrival at the shore of the newly-founded State of Israel opposite Kfar Vitkin, Ben-Gurion's demands that the armaments be handed over to the unified Jewish forces were refused. An attack on the ship was ordered, and a massive explosion set off by a shell destroyed the ship and cargo.

The exhibit dealing with the Altalena is the last section of the museum. A large encased flag of Israel, flown on the deck of the Altalena, hangs on the wall. In the accompanying text one reads that the flag was saved minutes before the ship blew up, an Etzel fighter risking life and limb in an effort to rescue it.

Under a model of the ship, photographs and additional text, a large white lifebelt from the ship is propped up against the wall, the name ALTALENA silently shrieking of the tragic circumstances that brought Jews to battle Jews in the State of Israel -appropriately memorialized in a museum just meters from the sea.

New immigrants shape their identity around the Altalena story
By Lily Galili

On June 22, about 100 people climbed aboard the ship Sababa in Jaffa port, and sailed toward Tel Aviv. On board were veterans of the prestate Etzel underground and Russian-speaking new immigrants. They were sailing to the point where the arms-laden Altalena sank 59 years ago after being fired on by order of prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Etzel (the Irgun Zvai Leumi) had bought the arms and was led by Menachem Begin.

While Etzel veterans have learned to keep to their stories circulating among the their few thousand still-living members, the initiative for the voyage this June came from the Russian-speaking contingent: The new immigrants took upon themselves to widen the circle and even to create their identity as Israelis around the story.

The shipboard ceremony was beautiful, albeit a bit strange. In a heavy Russian accent, a member of the group invited his friends to cast a wreath of sunflowers into the water where the Altalena had sunk. Another proclaimed: "This is a memorial wreath to our brethren who were butchered by Cain."

The state is almost 60 years old, and still it is Cain and Abel.

Red, heart-shaped balloons were released. There was the sense of an elite unit not only preserving a memory of the past, but also seeking to shape the future.

A few days later, we met at the Etzel Museum on the Tel Aviv beach. Representing the veterans was Yoske Nahmias, 82, a sixth-generation Israeli and an Etzel company commander who was on board the Altalena; representing the immigrants was Dr. Mark Radotzky, 50, who came to Israel 17 years ago and thought up the idea of the commemoration voyages.

They explained the surprising alliance, filling both with new energies.The Etzel people say their new immigrant supporters are the fresh Zionists who have sprung from roots that have withered. The new immigrants say that like in a family, when one member is tired or busy, another straightens things out for him.

"My heart is still bleeding," Nahmias said as he remembered every second, every bullet fired, every order Menachem Begin gave not to return fire. "Sixteen of my friends were killed. The hate has gone down, but the wound has not healed. Then, I hated very much. If I would have met Ben-Gurion I would have strangled him with my bare hands. Today I am angry, but I don't hate."

Radotzky sees that day as the beginning of the destruction of civil society in Israel. He learned about it after he came to Israel. "History defined which political side I would take here," he said, explaining his rightist tendencies. "It I were looking for the brotherhood of nations, I would have stayed in Tashkent," he added. "I came to live in a Jewish state, and in the ideological search I came to [Ze'ev] Jabotinsky," he said, referring to the right-wing prestate leader.

When Radotzky went to buy the wreath for the Altalena ceremony, he said the florist challenged him: "But you weren't there." Radotzky answered: "Were you at the Exodus? But you mark that event every year."

It all began when Rabin was assassinated, Radotzky said, and he was put off by the collective response to the murder, which he said reminded him of the Former Soviet Union. Then he heard for the first time about the Altalena and Rabin's role in giving the order to open fire on the ship.

He experienced a moment of truth when he came across the monument on the Tel Aviv beach to those killed and it bothered Radotzky that the place was so neglected and forgotten.

"On the Altalena, not only people were killed, so was the Israeli democracy; Israeli civil society ended." Radotzky said. "We have not come to rebuild it again," he added.