EXCLUSIVE: BROTHERS AT WAR: JEROLD AUERBACH, A REVIEW BY RAEL JEAN ISAAC
Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena by Jerold S. Auerbach (Quid Pro Books, 2011)
...The Altalena was a ship bringing nine hundred young fighters (most of them survivors of Nazi camps) and a large arsenal of weapons (most of them supplied by France) to newly-established Israel, attacked by five Arab states and desperate for arms to defend itself. The entire project was the work of the Irgun, the underground organization whose attacks on British forces in Palestine had a major role in Britain’s decision to throw in the towel. Ben-Gurion’s then provisional government gave orders to destroy the ship and its armaments. Sixteen Irgun members were killed as the ship went down, its munitions ablaze, with Irgun leader Menachem Begin himself narrowly escaping the fire aimed at fleeing survivors. (Most of the passengers had disembarked earlier in the two-day showdown.)
Begin was the hero in this squalid story. As Auerbach writes: “Begin commanded his loyal fighters not to return fire. His insistence upon restraint demonstrated his unyielding determination to prevent civil war from once again dividing the Jewish people and shattering Jewish sovereignty, as it had done nineteen centuries earlier.”
...If the hatred that destroyed the Altalena lacked a cause (in the sense of a justifiable ground for the action against the ship), it was not without background, and this Auerbach recounts. The first deep fissure in the Yishuv (as the Jewish community of Palestine was known) grew out of the 1933 murder of Labor leader Chaim Arlosoroff, as he strolled with his wife on a Tel Aviv beach. Arlosoroff had been harshly attacked by the rival Revisionists for making a “transfer agreement” with the Nazi government that brought money and Jews to Palestine, but at the cost of undermining a global anti-Nazi boycott. The Labor movement was convinced at the time (wrongly as subsequent investigations have concluded) that the Revisionists were responsible for his murder.
Hostility was fanned by divergent approaches between Labor and Revisionist factions on how to deal with the violence and terror accompanying the Arab revolt of 1936 and how to react to British betrayal of the Mandate, even as the need for a Jewish refuge from the Nazis became stark...by 1944, when it was clear the Allies would win, the Irgun, now commanded by Menachem Begin, returned to its policy of resisting British rule.
...Ben-Gurion would insist (as Auerbach notes, without a scintilla of evidence) that the Irgun planned to use the weapons for a military putsch. On the contrary, writes Auerbach, Begin was confident that “the arrival of desperately needed weapons and munitions would be recognized as an exemplary demonstration of patriotism. Here, after all, was a significant Irgun military contribution to the struggle for statehood–anything but an attempt to overthrow the government.”
In fact the only genuine disagreement concerned the distribution of arms. Ben-Gurion insisted all the arms should be turned over to him unconditionally. Begin wanted 20% of the arms to go to Irgun forces in Jerusalem. While “what ifs” can never be certainties, it is likely the Altalena’s arms would have made it possible to unite the city under Jewish sovereignty in 1948, greatly strengthening Israel’s negotiating position in the years ahead.
...Nonetheless, ugly episode though it was, what was most important was that the Altalena did not serve as prelude to more fratricidal strife...in the wake of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, there began a new growth of sinat hinam, this time a groundless hatred by secular Israelis directed against religious Jews, especially the religious nationalists who settled outside the ceasefire lines of 1949. Auerbach’s subject is the Altalena so he does not go into the same detail on the growth of this new manifestation...
...In 1975, then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking to young people at seminary Efal, declared: “There is no more dangerous organization in this country than Gush Emunim.” (There were multiple ironies here. Efal was a project of the Hameuchad movement which had been dedicated to settlement throughout the land of Israel. And it was Rabin, as a young officer in the Palmach, who had been in charge of the destruction of the Altalena.) Less than a year later the famous writer A.B. Yehoshua sent a letter to Haaretz: “One should encourage them [the people of Gush Emunim] to settle more and more beyond the Green Line. Thus, when the hoped-for peace comes, and we shall be freed of the territories, we shall also be freed from them.”...
...“The Altalena episode, and the killing of Jews by Jews that accompanied it, remains a lingering self-inflicted wound from Israel’s heroic struggle for independence. If wisely used as historical memory, the Altalena might serve Israelis as a reminder of the ominous possibility that civil war could destroy Jewish national sovereignty. If not, Altalena memories may finally–and disastrously–be erased by an even more devastating tragedy.”