Why should anyone remember a notorious pariah ship from Israel's war for independence? If for no other reason (and there are many), because it is likely to resurface from the depths of memory should Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, if and when they ever begin, focus on Jewish settlements.
The prospect of expelling thousands of Jews from the biblical homeland of the Jewish people will surely widen, perhaps violently and irreparably, the deep chasm that already separates secular from religious Israelis. Such a dangerously polarizing conflict has not roiled Israel for more than sixty years. When it did, in 1948, it brought the fledgling Jewish state to the precipice of civil war.
During its first weeks of independence, Israel confronted a military invasion from five Arab nations that were determined to annihilate it. The new state was already battered from months of Palestinian Arab violence within its porously unstable borders, climaxing with the fall of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. Israel was desperate for an infusion of weapons and fighters to prevent its annihilation.
Enter the Altalena, with more than nine hundred Holocaust survivors, war refugees and fighters, and tons of desperately needed military supplies. It sailed for Israel from Port-du-Bouc in southern France on June 11, the day when a month-long United Nations ceasefire began. Inspired, funded, and provisioned by loyalists of Menachem Begin's Irgun, it would join the roster of ill-fated ships that had exemplified the Zionist struggle to rescue Jews from annihilation and return them to their homeland.
If the Exodus - popularized in the romantic novel by Leon Uris that became an iconic Hollywood movie - is still revered as the valiant ship, the Altalena instantly became the reviled pariah ship. It arrived with the permission of the Israeli government - meaning Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion - at Kfar Vitkin, north of Netanya, on June 21. While weapons were unloaded on the beach, fighters were taken to a nearby immigrant camp to prepare for induction into the army.
But Ben-Gurion, fearing a right-wing insurrection, ordered the beach surrounded. Altalena passenger Dov Shilansky encountered an Israeli soldier in a command car. "I spoke to him in Hebrew," he recalled. "It was my first speech in Israel." Shilansky (who, forty years later, became Speaker of the Knesset) told him: "We've just arrived. We survived the Holocaust. We've come here to fight by your side. The homeland is in danger. We will join the army."
The soldier instructed him to go no farther. Shilansky replied: "We have no other way. I won't go back to Dachau. If we can't come to Israel, we'll go back to the sea." The soldier replied: "I don't care. Go back to the sea."
Later that afternoon, Begin - disregarding a ten-minute ultimatum to surrender all weapons - spoke to his assembled fighters. Suddenly, Israeli soldiers raked the beach with machine-gun bullets. Yaacov Meridor, Begin's second in command, ordered: "Don't shoot back." An Irgun fighter realized: "I couldn't shoot. My brother was on the other side."
Another newcomer was uncomprehending: "Instead of welcoming us they were killing and wounding many of our men whose only purpose was to help." Six Irgun men died in the fighting.
The Altalena sailed south, running aground off the Tel Aviv shore. After a battle erupted on the beach, Ben-Gurion ordered the Israel Defense Forces to destroy it. Some IDF soldiers refused to obey.
An officer protested: "I'm here to fight the enemy. I won't fight another Jew." He instructed the soldiers in his squad: "Do what your conscience tells you." (He became one of eight soldiers to be court-martialed for their disobedience that day.)
An Irgun fighter remembered: "If Begin had told us to fight we would have, but he did not want war between brothers and we accepted his leadership." Irgun fighters obeyed his command not to return fire.
Ben-Gurion was convinced - without a shred of supporting evidence (then or since) - that the Irgun was launching a putsch to overthrow his government. Late that afternoon, he ordered cannons to open fire on the ship. Hilary Dilesky, a volunteer from South Africa who had arrived in Israel only two months earlier, commanded the battery that was chosen to fire the first shot. Receiving his orders, he recalled, "I suddenly was struck with a heavy, deep feeling that I didn't want to shoot."
Dilesky approached his corps commander, telling him - in English, for he could not yet speak Hebrew: "I hadn't come to Israel to fight Jews." The commander yelled back that his job was to obey orders. It was, Dilesky recalled, "a fateful moment" when he realized that "following orders was the right thing to do." But "my heart was broken when we began firing," he confessed nearly fifty years later. "This has been a burden all my life," he recalled, "and still is."
With the Altalena ablaze from a direct hit, and the explosion of its munitions imminent, Irgun leaders (including Begin) and members of the crew jumped overboard, filling lifeboats and swimming ashore. An astonished American crew member observed that "continuous small arms fire from shore ... was directed at everyone in the water."
A 17-year-old Haganah soldier on the beach never forgot that "there were people on our side who waited until they saw heads above water, and then they fired at them."
A Palmach soldier recalled, "Firing on each other: it seemed illogical, unbelievable." He confessed: "I had many doubts, when I pointed the gun at the approaching boat filled with Jews." But he overcame them. "You tell yourself, you are guarding Israeli democracy. And with this belief, you shoot."
Another Palmach soldier was stunned by what he saw: "Before my eyes was waged a war between brothers. Jews are shooting Jews - in order to kill!"
Ben-Gurion enthusiastically blessed the "holy cannon" that destroyed the Altalena. He denied as false rumors the eyewitness reports from soldiers and journalists at the site of the Tel Aviv battle that Israeli soldiers on the beach had fired on desperate swimmers. That day, ten more Irgun men were killed. In the months that followed, eighteen Altalena fighters died for their country during the War of Independence.
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The Altalena marked a tragic climax to fifteen years of bitter acrimony between Zionists on the left and right that had plagued the Yishuv during the years of British Mandatory rule. To some, it was a sorrowful reminder of the groundless hatred (sinat chinam) that was said to have plunged Jews into their devastating civil war in 1st century Jerusalem.
By now, however, most Israelis have long since repressed any memory of the Altalena, while few Jews outside of Israel have even heard of it.
But within the past decade, members of the Israeli left, taking Ben-Gurion's order to sink the Altalena as a model for the proper treatment of political opponents, proposed it as the solution to Yasir Arafat's internal conflict with Hamas.
The Arafat-Altalena analogy quickly caught on as a teachable moment. A Palestinian Authority official told the Jerusalem Post that in confronting Hamas and Islamic Jihad, "we have to act like Ben-Gurion in 1948."
Not long after proposals for an Arafat-style Altalena had receded, a far more volatile analogy erupted. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to remove 9,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza provoked wrenching and acrimonious debate over the future of Jewish settlements. The Israeli press, which enthusiastically supported the Gaza expulsion, vigorously defended Ben-Gurion's action in 1948 as a model to emulate.
To exercise its "sovereign duty," Yaron London wrote in Yediot Aharonot, Israel must once again use its "muscles" against those who violently opposed its decisions.
Moshe Negbi, legal commentator for the Israel Broadcasting Authority, complained (in Haaretz) that "Ben-Gurion's successors have demonstrated total limpness in imposing law and order on extremists.... It is this limpness that has brought down upon us the malignancy of the Jewish settlements" and their "fanatics."
On the political left, Ben-Gurion remained the inspirational leader who certainly could not be accused of "limpness."
The barrage of encouragement for an Altalena reprise roused 91-year-old Shmuel Katz, who had been a member of the Irgun high command at the time, and then a founder of the Herut party and Member of the Knesset.
These "pundits," Katz wrote in the Jerusalem Post, were "conjuring up the Altalena myth of a revolt that was never planned and never took place, a fiction woven by an unscrupulous politician at the cost of a score of innocent young lives and the loss of a valuable ship and an invaluable store of arms."
He claimed: "The memory of the Altalena is being manipulated for political purposes to facilitate the expulsion of the Jews from Gush Katif [Gaza]."
That same year, during the bitter Knesset debate over the expulsion of Orthodox settlers from the outpost of Yitzhar, Prime Minister Sharon was accused of wanting "a second Altalena" so that he, too, could "fire the 'holy cannon.' "
He was warned by settler groups: "You will not get a second Altalena from us. You will not get a civil war from us, because we - the citizens whom you wish to go to war against - will not fight against our brothers."
As national debate over settlements became increasingly acrimonious, some Israelis urged soldiers to refuse to obey orders for the forced evacuation of settlers. They cited the precedent of Palmach soldiers who had disobeyed orders to fire on the Altalena: "Refuse to obey the transfer order against your brothers, just as ... soldiers refused to shoot at their brothers in Ben-Gurion's day."
Recalling the tragic war between brothers in 1948, 82-year-old Yosef Nachmias, then a company commander on board the Altalena, recounted the refusal of his own brother, a Palmach fighter, to shoot at the ship because he knew that his sibling was on board. For Nachmias, killing brothers was not merely a metaphor.
During a military ceremony at the Western Wall in October 2009, two religious soldiers displayed a sign protesting settler expulsions. They served time in jail for their misbehavior; one of them was discharged from the army after refusing to express regret for his protest. Then, when Israeli security forces destroyed two Jewish homes in the settlement of Har Bracha, two religious soldiers displayed a banner from the roof of their military base opposing the expulsion of its residents. Sentenced to thirty days in military jail, they were demoted in rank and dismissed from command and combat duties.
Amid this simmering political and religious confrontation, Altalena parallels proliferated. Writing in Haaretz, Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri accused settlement defenders of attempting to undermine the "historic achievement of Zionism," the creation of "a single binding [national] authority" for the Jewish state.
Ben-Gurion's decision to attack the Altalena, he suggested, may have displayed "ruthless determination," but it assured to the Israel Defense Forces "a monopoly on the legitimate use of force." The pain and distress of settlement supporters was understandable, Avneri conceded, but "in the Jewish state only one legitimate body is authorized to enforce political decisions."
When six infantry soldiers refused to participate in demolitions in the settlement outpost of Negohot, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - sounding very much like Ben-Gurion in 1948 - asserted ominously: "If you support this refusal, it will bring about the collapse of the state." Israeli leaders, claimed Defense Minister Ehud Barak, were confronting "the same fateful decision that David Ben-Gurion faced in the first days of the state."
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Should Israel and the Palestinian Authority ever reach agreement on the terms of peace between peoples who have engaged in bitter conflict over the same land for nearly a century, it will likely require the forcible removal of many tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from their homes.
Yet few Israelis who argue passionately for this outcome are likely to realize that soldiers who refuse to force settlers from their homes would be responding precisely as did the Haganah and Palmach soldiers in 1948 who refused to shoot their Irgun "brothers."
Such a confrontation would expose the core of Israel's still unresolved national identity struggle: Jewish state, secular state, democratic Jewish state? It has the ominous potential to reduce the Altalena to historical insignificance by comparison.
At a crucial moment in 1948, David Ben-Gurion faced the urgent necessity to protect the fledgling Jewish state and defend its sovereignty. But did he decide wisely when he issued the command to shoot Jews on the Altalena who wanted only to fight for the independence of Israel?
In his unrelenting determination to concentrate authority in his hands, did Ben-Gurion undermine, rather than strengthen, legitimacy in the new nation? Did he set a dangerous precedent for battles between brothers that has haunted Israel ever since and may yet explode into a far more volatile internecine conflagration than anything that happened in 1948?
The confrontation over the Altalena, and the tragic killing of Jews by Jews that accompanied it, remains a lingering, self-inflicted, wound from Israel's desperate fight for independence. It cuts to the very core of the enduring Israeli struggle over political legitimacy - then, now, and in the foreseeable future.
It also braids themes that are woven into the biblical narrative. In the beginning, after Creation went awry, Noah's ark - the first ship to be mentioned in a Jewish text - transported a righteous man and his family from impending disaster to safety.
There is also the recurrent tragedy of sibling rivalry, even fratricide. Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers. And in 1st century Jerusalem, Zealots ruthlessly slaughtered their fellow Jews in a civil war that shattered national sovereignty for two thousand years.
Whether secular and religious Jews can live together in Israel without the groundless hatredthat retains the potential to destroy their nation from within remains an open question. If not, the Altalena may finally - but disastrously - be supplanted by a far more devastating Jewish tragedy.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of "Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena," from which this essay is adapted, to be published later this month by Quid Pro Books.
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