Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Location of the Begin Center as Photographed Almost A Century Ago

As photographed from the Jaffa Gate:

Having difficulty?

Follow the arrow to the plot of land under the Scottish Church and the building that was a Turkish tower that became the British Consulate:


Saturday, August 27, 2011

An Incident At Sadat's Funeral

Dunsmore: Ambiguous Ending

Ccommentator Barrie Dunsmore recalled a dramatic and potentially dangerous moment - that ultimately ended in ambiguity.

(DUNSMORE) I'm Barrie Dunsmore, and this is about "The Anwar Sadat Funeral Mystery."

On October 7th, 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by a group of Islamic fundamentalists serving in the Egyptian Armed forces. I greatly respected Sadat and was personally touched by his murder. Many times over the years I had met with him - sometimes for formal interviews, often just for casual chats.

I was covering the State Department at the time he was murdered. Because of security concerns it was decided President Reagan would not attend the funeral but a unique American delegation was formed - and I was chosen to be one of three pool reporters that would accompany that delegation to Cairo.

On October 10th, former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford walked slowly a few feet behind the casket of Anwar Sadat. I was about twenty, twenty-five paces behind the three presidents, in a line that included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Suddenly members of the Egyptian Presidential Guard stepped in front of the Kissinger/Begin line, forcing us all to stop. The guards un-slung their rifles and assumed the high ready position - that's barrels pointed slightly upwards and directly toward us. Immediately, American and Israeli security agents tensed up and began barking into their radios.

Picture this: Less than seventy two hours before, another Egyptian military unit had killed Sadat because he had dared to make peace with Israel . Now the Prime Minister of Israel and the famous American diplomat who had helped bring about that peace were virtually in their gun sights - not to mention numerous other notables and yours truly. For a few moments, probably no more than thirty seconds, I truly thought that my fifteen years of reporting on the Middle East was about to come to a very dramatic end.

But just as suddenly as they had blocked our passage, the guards re-slung their rifles to their shoulders, moved to the side and allowed us to continue. None of the officials or the security people I spoke to then or since knew what had happened. There were theories but no explanations. Now, it could be that the guards were simply trying to control the speed of the procession. Perhaps. But it's hard to escape the suspicion that the real story might have had a much more ominous ending.

And you can listen, too.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Historical Photograph

British troops during the Mandate period marching along Hebron Road just under where the Begin Center is located:


On nRemembering the Altalena

The Altalena Remembered

By Jerold S. Auerbach

Ever since 1836 Texans were taught to "Remember the Alamo," the San Antonio siege where two hundred fighters for freedom and independence from Mexico (the legendary Davy Crockett among them) defended their mission fortress to the last man.

Now Israelis of a certain persuasion are remembering the Altalena, the ship packed with more than nine hundred fighters and tons of desperately needed munitions that arrived six weeks into the Independence War in 1948. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, hallucinating a putsch to overthrow the government by his despised Irgun political enemies, ordered the ship destroyed. In two days of fighting nineteen Jews were killed by fellow Jews, bringing the fledgling nation to the brink of civil war.

One year later, after a memorial commemoration on the beach, in full view of the burned hulk 150 meters off shore, Ben-Gurion ordered the ship towed out to sea and sunk. It disappeared from sight and, for decades, from Israeli memory. But at a recent annual memorial ceremony, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared his intention to raise and display the Altalena wreckage. A memorial to the slain Jewish fighters, it would also celebrate the firm command from Irgun leader Menachem Begin (who would become prime minister in 1977) not to return fire. Jews must not kill Jews.

Researching this tragic story for the first history of the Altalena to be published in more than thirty years (and the first to be written by a historian), I encountered poignant testimony from fighters on both sides of the political divide expressing the acute pain of Jewish brothers at war.

With Ben-Gurion's approval, the Altalena arrived at Kfar Vitkin, north of Tel Aviv, on June 20th. The fighters disembarked for transportation to a nearby village to prepare for their induction into the Israel Defense Forces.

One of them, Dov Shilansky, was halted by an Israeli soldier. "I spoke to him in Hebrew," he recalled. "It was my first speech in Israel." Shilansky (who would become Speaker of the Knesset forty years later) said: "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."

But Shilansky was instructed to go no further. He 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 bluntly responded: "I don't care. Go back to the sea."

When Israeli soldiers opened fire on the Altalena fighters, the ship pulled away, with Irgun leaders on board. It sailed down the coast to Tel Aviv, where Begin hoped for negotiations with Ben-Gurion's representatives to deter further tragedy. At an urgent 4 a.m. meeting, Ben-Gurion's navy commander assured him that the Altalena could be disabled without gunfire. But Ben-Gurion, "upset and angry," paced back and forth, "talking and yelling." He would not relent.

Twelve hours later came the order to open fire on the ship. Hilary Dilesky, the cannon crew commander, had arrived in Israel from South Africa only two months earlier. "I suddenly was struck with a heavy, deep feeling that I didn't want to shoot." He told his corps commander -- in English, for he could not yet speak Hebrew -- that he had not come to Israel "to shoot Jews." The commander shouted back that his job was to obey orders. Dilesky realized that "following orders was the right thing to do."

Three cannon shells passed harmlessly over the ship. The fourth slammed into the Altalena, igniting a blazing fire as tons of munitions exploded. Passengers and crew abandoned ship to swim ashore, while some Israeli soldiers on the beach shot at them. A young soldier long remembered: "Before my eyes was waged a war between brothers, Jews are shooting Jews -- in order to kill!" Nearly fifty years later Dilesky, in evident anguish, recalled: "My heart was broken when we began firing. This has been a burden all my life, and still is." To Ben-Gurion, however, it was a "holy cannon."

Soon after the battle, 21-year-old Altalena fighter Rafael Khirs, a Zionist Orthodox refugee from Transylvania, expressed his anguish and rage: "We brought you revolutionary courage and an arms-ship to liberate you. . . Of brothers-in-arms we dreamt but encountered the cannon blast." Less than four months later, Khirs (along with sixteen other Altalena fighters) was killed in battle defending the State of Israel.

As the recollections of Shilansky, Dilesky and Khirs reveal, Altalena memories were irrepressibly painful. To be sure, there are Israelis - largely on the political left - who prefer forgetfulness. But that would obliterate memory of Ben-Gurion's ruthless determination to suppress his political opposition by any means necessary and Begin's unrelenting insistence that his fighters not shoot other Jews.

Sprinkled throughout the biblical text is the injunction to remember (zachor). In its Proclamation of Independence, the new Jewish state remembered: "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and national identity was formed." Since 1948 Israel has been the community of Jewish memory. It is appropriate for the Altalena to be remembered as a warning against sinat hinam, the ancient Jewish admonition against brothers at war with each other.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena (Quid Pro Books), published in June.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

When Begin Toasted Ben-Gurion

From the December 1, 1948 issue of The Palestine Post:-

Menachem Begin was on his first visit to the United States which began at the end of November, 1948.

The rest of the quotation includes Begin's remark that Ben-Gurion "granted me an exit visa to come to the US and whom we hekped to become Prime Minister".


The Enduring Power of The Altalena

The Altalena’s Enduring Power

Matthew Ackerman

The Forward reported today the Israeli government has set in motion plans to raise the Altalena, an armed Jewish ship sunk by Palmach troops in the early days of Israel’s independence. The incident has long been recalled as the moment of potential civil war for the new state, when a challenge to its authority by the independent-minded (and terrorist to boot) Irgun led by Menachem Begin​ was forcibly put down by David Ben-Gurion​, who understood that to function properly a state must have a monopoly on arms.

The current fight, though, has less to do with the Altalena itself than the more potent battle over historical memory.

That may sound like a fight about the past, but it is really a fight about the future. In that Forward article, the Israeli left-wing writer Gershom Gorenberg is quoted comparing arguments Ben-Gurion (and not Begin) was to blame for the 19 deaths in the incident to attempts to cast the American Civil War as the South’s effort to preserve the Union. That’s really just his way of saying he doesn’t want the issue reopened, because the narrative that suits his politics has won the day. Any aspersions at hand (raising the wreck is a waste of money, the matter is settled and there’s nothing new to know) will do, for Gorenberg and those who think like him are dedicated most to defending their political camp’s continued monopoly over history.

Interestingly enough, something similar has been happening of late in the United States in the efforts of a school board in Texas to dramatically revise many sections of public school American history texts. As repeatedly reported by the New York Times, the board has particular weight because the size of Texas’ population means the textbook publishers generally use the edition they make for that state for the entire country. Just as the Israeli left will likely be upset by the effort to revisit “settled” history, so too has the American left become upset about the efforts of that Texas school board to inject into the text less secular interpretations of the ideas of the Founding Fathers and more sympathetic interpretations of conservative philosophers.

The truly interesting story then is–in America and elsewhere–the political right has in recent years woken up to the tremendous victory the left won in recent generations over education and history and come to understand the incredible power this has handed to their political opponents. Though the left today may still see itself as a revolutionary force, it really is mostly made up of partisans to the established order and its 80-year dominance over the assumptions of government and public debate.

For Israel, it may all add up to only one more sign of the entrenchment of the right’s political dominance. It would be foolish, though, to believe the question of the rights and wrongs of the Altalena is an unimportant one.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

NY Sun Editorial On The Altalena

Raising the Altalena
The New York Sun Editorial
August 4, 2011

Just when one wonders what sort of teaching moment is available for Israel and, for that matter, for those betting on the so-called Arab awakening comes news that Israel plans to raise the Altalena. That is the hulk of a World War II-era transport ship that has lain at the bottom of the Mediterranean just off the coast of Tel Aviv ever since it was sunk in June 1948 in a conflict between two Jewish armies.

The combat lasted only hours, but the event looms large in the tale of how Israel, even though its factions were bitterly divided, turned away from civil war and toward long-lasting democracy. Though parallels are dangerously inexact, it holds lessons for those participants in the Arab spring who also have their eye on democracy. Its most important lessons obtain for the Israelis themselves, which is no doubt why the plan is underway to raise the vessel.

The Altalena, once an American Navy landing craft, was purchased by backers of the Irgun, the fighting organization that had led the revolt against the British. Its leader was the young Menachem Begin. The vessel was given the pen name used by one of Zionism’s most visionary figures, Vladimir Jabotinsky. The boat was loaded at the port of Marseille with some 940 refugees and volunteers and, with the help of the French government, tons of arms and explosives. Then it sailed for Israel to help in the defense of the newly formed Jewish state.

According to a new book about the Altalena, “Brothers at War,” by Jerold Auerbach, Begin tried to get word to the Altalena not to come ashore at Israel, which was still under a British blockade. Begin’s secretary sent a message warning the vessel to stay away. In the event, the vessel did come ashore, following negotiations between Begin’s followers and the provisional government of Israel led by Ben-Gurion.

The landing spot was north of Tel Aviv, at Kfar Vitkin. The vessel deposited its passengers. It took on several members of the Irgun, including, Begin. An already nigh-mythic figure, Begin had only recently emerged from underground and had already placed the Irgun under the command of Israel’s Defense Force. Yet Begin, a rightist, was despised by Ben-Gurion and the Labor-oriented leadership of the new state.

So with hindsight it is not surprising that the Altalena’s passengers were, when they came ashore, arrested, and those unloading the vessel discovered they were surrounded by Israeli soldiers. It turns out that while the vessel was being unloaded, Ben-Gurion’s government had decided to demand that Begin surrender the vessels, its arms, and its passengers. When the ultimatum was sent, Begin was given 10 minutes to decide whether to obey.

Begin, seeking to avoid a clash between Jewish factions, ordered the vessel to move away from shore and proceed to Tel Aviv, where, according to an account by a former defense minister of Israel, Moshe Arens, he reckoned Ben-Gurion would be reluctant to attack. He turned out to have misjudged. The fight that ensued involved not only Ben-Gurion and Begin but two other future prime ministers. One, Levi Eshkol, was an aide to Ben-Gurion; another, Yitzhak Rabin, led the military attack on the Altalena.

[Here is a short clip with Rabin and with a Palmachnik admitting shooting at unarmed Irgunists:

One of weapons that fired on the Altalena was dubbed, by Ben-Gurion, the “holy cannon.” Within minutes the vessel was engulfed in flames, and there is a famous photo of the thick plumes of black smoke pouring into a breeze that carried them up the coast as a knot of gawkers watched from the beach. Those on board the boat plunged into the Mediterranean, though it is said that in Begin’s case the future premier was so reluctant to abandon ship that he had to be manhandled into the sea by his own supporters.

Begin had ordered his forces not to return fire. Ben-Gurion showed no such restraint; his forces fired even at those who were swimming for their lives. It was a ghastly slaughter. At the end of the day, the fight cost the lives of 16 men, and even to this day there are those who reckon that they had been “murdered” by their own government. The following day, in remarks in the Knesset, Ben-Gurion made it sound as if he’d averted a coup against the new state.

Others reckon Ben-Gurion’s real aim had been to destroy what might have been his opposition. If so, he failed. Begin did go into the opposition. In the Knesset, Ben-Gurion refused to acknowledge him by name. A generation and a half later, the man who had to be wrestled off the burning Altalena acceded to the leadership of the country and won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Only later would the same prize be awarded the man who’d commanded the forces that fired the “holy cannon,” Yitzhak Rabin.

* * *

No wonder the scramble is on now to raise the Altalena. The remains of the vessel were long since been towed out to sea and sunk, possibly, according to a dispatch in Haaretz, having been cut into pieces. In Brothers at War, Jerold Auerbach, a former Wellesley professor who is a scholar of both American and Israeli history, contrasts the brutality of Ben-Gurion with the restraint shown by George Washington in the most important challenge to the new American republic, the Whiskey Rebellion. The story reminds that sometimes those who appear to be the losers in the short term, as Menachem Begin appeared to be in the sinking of the Altalena, turn out to be the winners in the long run. By refusing to fire at the new Jewish state, he placed a bet on democracy that, for his own career, took him decades to redeem. It’s an example to inspire that is needed now more than ever.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Criticism in The Forward on Raising the Altalena


...Today, the Israeli right is politically stronger than ever, and it is determined to put this narrative to rest once and for all...Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a recent memorial ceremony for the 19 passengers who were killed...“It was a rash order, a mistaken order.”  His plan is to present the nation with the ultimate monument to his historical narrative — and in doing so, challenge not only Ben-Gurion’s attack, but also what the former prime minister did next...
...so central is the Begin legacy to the project that it is actually being carried out by the Jerusalem-based Menachem Begin Heritage Center...With the wreck, “we will have a monument that will tell the important story of how Israel was almost on the brink of civil war and how this was prevented,” said Moshe Fuksman-Sha’al, deputy director of the Begin Center.

This logic leaves [Gershom] Gorenberg incredulous. “The idea that Begin is the hero of this story is a total rewrite,” he said. Gorenberg likened the Israeli government adopting this narrative to the American government “endorsing Confederate History Month as a celebration of the South’s role in preserving the Union.”

The Begin Center is spending $60,000 — which is being subsidized by the government — on the initial exploration to locate the wreck, which it hopes to achieve by mid-August. It then expects additional government cash to raise the wreck from the seabed.

Fuksman-Sha’altold the Forward that the issue is deserving of public funds. “The general public knows about [the Altalena] and cares about it,” he said, adding that the incident “just doesn’t leave the public discourse.”

But Hebrew University historian Israel Bartal, chair of the Historical Society of Israel, believes that there is little public consciousness of the Altalena and that there is nothing in the plan “beyond a political intention to strengthen today’s right in the eyes of potential voters.”  He said, “For an Israeli who is 40 today, Begin and Ben-Gurion are the same person — people don’t know the difference.”

...He considers the plan “like a bad joke,” saying that it will fall flat even with those it is aimed to impress. “The message of this raising will be that the government is wasting millions on something that’s irrelevant to today’s problems,” he said, “Many will say, ‘Why not pay for more doctors?’ Even the right will say: ‘What do we need that for? Use the money to build another settlement.’”

Arye Naor, Cabinet secretary to Begin during the latter’s premiership, and an emeritus Ben Gurion University professor whose research focuses on the Israeli right, disagrees. While not passing judgment on the plan to raise the ship, Naor said: “I think that right now, there’s a serious message [from the Altalena] of unity looking backwards, because a lot of problems are still ahead of us. There is the issue of settlements, and the issue of withdrawal or evacuation will come sooner or later, so it’s important to remember the message of unity and saying no to civil war.”


Read more:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Program for Tisha B'Av Eve

Lectures by Dr. Michah Goodman on the Book of Psalms and Personal and National Crisis and by Aharon Horowitz on the recently discovered golden bell (in Hebrew):