The past has been present lately, especially among right-wing Zionists. First, Moshe Arens of the Likud wrote a book arguing that the members of Betar fought as bravely as the left-wing Zionists in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. And now, Jerold Auerbach has written a book reexaming the story of the Altalena...In this version of what happened, Menachem Begin comes out as the hero, and Ben Gurion comes out as the villain. Auerbach claims that Begin sincerely believed that some compromise could be worked out, and that he was stunned by Ben Gurion's decision to destroy the boat. To his eternal credit, Begin refused to permit his followers to fire back, because he would not allow Jews to fight against Jews, especially at a time when six Arab armies were fighting against Israel. And this book is an effort to set the historical record straight and to place the blame where Auerbach believes it belongs — on Ben Gurion and on the young officer, Yitzchak Rabin, who carried out the order to fire on the Altalena.
Why is the story of the Altalena so topical today? Because it raises the issue that Israel may have to confront once again in our time. Are there limits to what a government can do to its own people? Are there limits to what protesters can do against a government policy? What happens when the fabric of society is split apart by drastic actions and counter actions?
...What is the legitimacy of a government that uses brutal tactics against those who challenge it? How can you tell when a government is defending its legitimate powers and when it is using excessive force in order to crush its opposition and maintain itself in power?
...These are the kinds of questions that the sinking of the Altalena raised in Israel for the first time and that are now on the minds and hearts of Israelis. For the left, the Altalena established the principle that there can only be one government and one army in Israel.
For the right, the Altalena was a model of self restraint by a group that naively believed that the government was negotiating with them in good faith and was betrayed.
Who knows where the truth lies? Auerbach makes a very good case in this book for the right wing version of what happened. Many in Israel believe the left wing version of what happened. But everyone in Israel agrees that nothing like the Altalena must ever be allowed to happen again. Whoever is right on what happened that day, the Altalena remains as a warning to the settlers and to the soldiers and to the haredim that there are limits to what a country can allow from dissidents and it remains as a warning to the government and to the army that there is a limit to what a government can impose upon people who disagree.