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.