Sunday, June 26, 2011

JPost Article on the Altalena

This Week in History: The sinking of the ‘Altalena’

Decision to send Jewish soldiers against fellow Jews has never been forgiven by some who view it as betrayal of the purpose of a Jewish army.

On June 20, 1948, just over a month after the State of Israel was established and shortly after the first cease fire in the War of Independence, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, gave one of the country's most controversial orders ever - to take the Altalena by force.

Prior to the establishment of the state, several armed Jewish militias protected early Jewish settlers and fought against the British and hostile Arab forces. The largest of these groups were the Hagana and the Irgun Zva’I Leumi (Irgun or IZL). The Hagana, led by Ben-Gurion, became the Israeli Defense Forces once the state was declared in May 1948 and the Irgun was under the command of Menahem Begin.

In mid-May 1948, during the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion ordered the various militias disbanded and integrated into the IDF in order to create one army under a unified command. While some of the militias willingly sent their fighters and weaponry to the IDF, others were unwilling to relinquish the established paramilitary organizations they had built. Notably, the Irgun, for both ideological and political reasons, was unwilling to put itself under Ben-Gurion’s command.

Begin and other Irgun commanders were still attempting to ship significant amounts of weaponry and fresh immigrant fighters into Israel in the last days of the British Mandate. The Irgun organized a large ship carrying weaponry and fighters from France, scheduled to arrive on Israel’s shores in mid-May. Due to logistical and operational factors, however, the departure of the Altalena was delayed.

By the time the ship was ready to sail, loaded with nearly 1,000 immigrant fighters and thousands of tons of materiel, the first ceasefire in the War of Independence had already been reached and importing weaponry would have constituted a violation of it. The Jewish state, however, was in need of weaponry and ammunition, so when Begin approached Ben-Gurion to inform him of the shipment, the two attempted to negotiate a deal that would see the ship’s cargo safely unloaded.

In order to evade detection by United Nations observers overseeing the ceasefire, the Irgun and the newly anointed leaders of the state and its army decided that the Altalena should be offloaded at Kfar Vitkin, near Netanya.

Negotiations between the Irgun and Ben-Gurion were complicated by Begin’s insistence on transferring most of the ship’s cargo to Irgun units operating within the newly established IDF, a condition to which Ben-Gurion could not agree. The new leader of Israel was already wary of having non-state controlled armed forces operating independently of the army and believed that directing the weaponry to IDF units from the Irgun would lead to an “army within an army.”

The fighting begins

As the ship began its final approach to Kfar Vitkin, IDF forces were ordered to surround the area in order to seize the payload. Following failed negotiations, the government decided to issue an ultimatum. The military commander on scene sent Begin a clear message: “I shall use all the means at my disposal in order to implement the order and to requisition the weapons which have reached shore and transfer them from private possession into the possession of the Israel government… You have ten minutes to give me your answer.”

Small-scale fighting between the two sides broke out at Kfar Vitkin, but Begin and the Irgun, aware of their numerical and tactical disadvantage, decided to send the Altalena south to Tel Aviv where more fighters could be assembled and the army was not yet situated to intercept the ship. Irgun fighters who had already joined the IDF began defecting from their commands and headed to Tel Aviv to fight for their weaponry.

As the two forces descended on Tel Aviv, fighting erupted along the shore and throughout the city, “mainly in the center and the south,” The Palestine Post reported in the aftermath of the clashes. The Israeli navy and artillery pieces on shore fired warning shots at the ship in a last-ditched attempt to force a surrender, but eventually hit the ship, setting it ablaze. Ultimately, over 20 Irgun fighters and more than a handful of IDF soldiers were killed in the fighting between the two Jewish forces. The Altalena was eventually brought out to sea and sunk.

Ben-Gurion has been both praised and disdained for his decision to take the Altalena by force. Fearing a civil war and a lack of government legitimacy based on the concept of a monopoly of force, Ben-Gurion ultimately decided that he could not tolerate Begin’s brazen refusal to put himself, his fighters and weaponry under the state’s command. Following the Altalena incident, however, Irgun and other militia forces were integrated into the IDF and the non-democratic challenges to the state’s legitimacy came to an end.

Nonetheless, the decision to order Jewish soldiers to act against fellow Jews – who too were fighting for the infant state’s survival – has never been forgiven by some who view it as a betrayal of the very purpose of a Jewish army. Until this day, the Altalena is invoked at times when state security forces are pitted against Jews, albeit not with the deadly consequences of June 1948.

Yossi Sarid on Begin and Shamir

Yossi Sarid asks

Are Begin and Shamir also considered terrorists? and writes:-

Amir Oren's glance rested for a moment on the press release published by the Defense Ministry that the people who fell on the Altalena were to be defined as "murdered." But there are no murdered people without murderers, and in this case they are David Ben-Gurion (who gave the order ) and Yitzhak Rabin (who commanded the Haganah unit that sank the Irgun ship off the Tel Aviv coast in June 1948 ).

The memorial for the Altalena fallen was held this week in the presence of former members of the Irgun militia and those who followed in their footsteps. Not one word of reservation was voiced, not even by the prime minister. Only two weeks previously, they had been agitated by a comparison I had made - during a Shavuot study session at Tzavta in Tel Aviv - between Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and Yasser Arafat. Then I said that they, like him, had been contaminated by terrorism. "This guy, Sarid, has gone berserk," was what they said.

I do not particularly like historical analogies. The one who makes them suffers in the same way as the one who made the changes - he loses out because there will always be differences that can be highlighted.

However, my methodological mistake does not alter their biographies. Many people who headed movements of national liberation adopted violent and indiscriminate methods of resistance that brought death and injury to the innocent and the wicked alike, to civilians as well as soldiers, and which deliberately sowed panic among the public. We have to be sorry but not to deny this, and those who do the rewriting should not be hopeful. Later on, the terrorists became legitimate leaders, presidents and prime ministers; and Begin and Shamir are among these.

At one stage, B. Michael drew attention to the book, "The History of the War of Liberation," which was written by people who had been involved in the Irgun and the Lehi prestate right-wing underground movements. It is based on documents from the archives of the Israel Defense Forces and of the Irgun, of the Jabotinsky Institute and the Betar Museum. In their dedication, the authors thanked Uri Zvi Grinberg, Abba Ahimeir, Arthur Szyk, Shmuel Schnitzer and Shmuel Tamir; the prologue and summary were written by Israel Eldad.

There is no room here to mention all of the activities for which these organizations took responsibility, but here are a few typical cases: On 4.11.1937 - five dead and eight wounded in shooting at a bus in the Jerusalem suburb of Romema; 16.7.38 - 10 killed and three wounded including four women, a boy and young girl, by a bomb hidden in a basket of vegetables; 26.7.38 - 27 killed and 46 wounded when a bomb exploded in Haifa's Arab market; 29.5.39 - five killed and 18 wounded when mines were detonated in the Rex Cinema in Jerusalem, and among the seriously wounded were a Jewish man and woman; 20.6.39 - 78 killed by a bomb in the Haifa vegetable market.

And we have not mentioned the best known incidents - the explosion at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the massacre at Dir Yassin, the executions of Jews who were suspected of cooperating with the foreign occupier (at least 10 cases ), and the assassinations of some of the representatives of His Majesty's government and of the international community in the region or in the country.

From the end of 1937 until the middle of 1939, in less than two years, the terrorist activities of the Irgun and Lehi claimed 232 victims with another 370 wounded - men, women and children. All of this was detailed in the semi-official book, that was republished in 1981 with the assistance of the Defense Ministry.

I had difficulty calculating the exact number of the hundreds of fatalities from the period of terror between 1946 and 1948. Anyone interested in the figures can find them in the book and do the calculations themselves.

The acts of the fathers served as a lesson for the sons, and even after 1948 and 1967, the acts of Jewish terrorism did not stop. Many of these terrorists walk among us, free, today and those who were caught and sentenced were pardoned.

Every nation holds its own terrorists close to its heart and considers them heroes. And even if there is someone who feels revolted, he too does not oppose forgiveness because even though they have sinned, they are part of the people of Israel.

However, there is still a very small minority in whose eyes all the terrorists in the world - irrespective of race or religion - are considered outcasts, no matter what their motives may have been. And the aim does not, in their opinion, justify the means: instead, the means defile the aim.


Haaretz Op-ed On Altalena Search

Motti Golani, professor in the Department of Land of Israel Studies at the University of Haifa, writes in Haaretz that the operation to recover the remains of the Irgun-controlled ship the Altalena represents a golden opportunity to refine the dispute over the dangers currently lurking for Israeli democracy.

Raising the Altalena

It can be assumed that those seeking to recover the remains of (Irgun-controlled ship ) the Altalena, which was sunk off Israel's coast in June 1948, would be followers - at least in this instance - of the heritage of Revisionist Zionism, which holds that speaking about something is an act in and of itself. Whether advocates of the operation are successful or not, this represents a golden opportunity to refine the dispute over the dangers currently lurking for Israeli democracy. This includes the growth in power of those who view democracy as a burden, and an Education Ministry that is openly hostile to dealing with democracy.

It is essential today that we show support for then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's decision to sink the ship in the most central location possible, off the coast of Tel Aviv, so that it served as an example. Whom and from what was Ben-Gurion seeking deterrence? Bloody civil warfare has been the fate of many nation states that have been established over the past 150 years. It did not happen, however, in Israel. Why? Was there no such danger from the military forces beyond the new Israeli army, notably the Irgun?

Truth be told, Ben-Gurion was not afraid of the Irgun, whose power was limited and where, at the time, interest in integrating into the new state had taken preeminence over refusal to recognize Israel's sovereignty. In any event, the outbreak of a civil war was not dependent on a decision by the Irgun. That's a baseless story that Irgun leader and later prime minister Menachem Begin and his followers have cultivated. The Irgun's refusal to turn its arms over to the new Israel Defense Forces, i.e. to the state, was a rebellion that was suppressed by force within a matter of hours, even though the Irgun fought back.

It is not hard to predict what would have happened if the Irgun members had expanded their revolt after the ship was sunk. Begin understood this well. He even managed to turn his weakness into a positive force to attract followers and as a means to subdue those within the Irgun who opposed integration. This incident is to his credit.

Ben-Gurion had a different reason to shell the Altalena. Precedents were being set in the newly-born State of Israel that would last for generations. The superior authority of the civilian government over those in arms and in uniform was not at all clear. The prime minister was actually concerned about trends that were widespread at the time among activist leftists, particularly the two factions of the Mapam party, Ahdut Haavoda and Hashomer Hatzair. In addition to its hostility to Ben-Gurion's Mapai party and to Ben-Gurion himself, Mapam had extraordinary influence over the Palmach (the central fighting force of the IDF at the time ). In addition, many senior IDF commanders came from these circles or had sympathy for them.

There was a high level of awareness within Mapam about the political significance of the apparent high-quality military power at the party's disposal. They never used it and their discipline was exemplary, but Ben-Gurion couldn't have known this in June 1948. During that period, he had to solidify his standing and the standing of his government opposite the IDF General Staff. The controversy over which party the commanders of each front would come from disturbed him and his government a great deal more than what the Irgun would do.

The mortar shell fired on the Altalena was therefore of the highest fundamental importance. It decided the question, once and for all, of who commanded the army in Israel, who had the authority to bring arms into the country, who gave orders to open fire, and when and where. The Palmach command was dismantled a matter of months after the Altalena incident, and the two developments were not unconnected.

There is no doubt that the deaths from the ranks of the IDF and of the Irgun in the Altalena incident were senseless. It is difficult for their families and friends to come to grips with their losses, particularly under such circumstances.

It is some consolation, however, for us to understand that the mortar shell fired on orders from Israel's sovereign, civilian government headed off other future civil wars, the cost of which we can only imagine.


When Begin Was Barred From Britain

Why 'hook-nosed' Begin was denied entry to UK
By Marcus Dysch
Created 23 Jun 2011 - 1:10pm

UK newsExtremismTerrorism
Menachem Begin was refused a visa to enter Britain in 1955 after the Foreign Office warned that his admission could damage relations with the Israeli government.

The detail was revealed for the first time in documents released by the National Archive this week. They included a 1946 British passport control card for Mr Begin describing him as "thin faced, bad teeth, long hooked nose, may wear black horn-rimmed spectacles".

In 1955 Mr Begin was leader of the revisionist Herut Party and hoped to travel to Britain to meet supporters. It would be another 30 years before he became Israeli Prime Minister.

A file on Mr Begin, reviewed by MI5, recommended barring from the country because he was a "member of the extremist anti-Arab Herut Party and a fervent member of the Irgun". It would be "impolite to allow admission to a former head of the terrorist movement" states one document.

A Passport Control Department official at the Foreign Office wrote to the Home Office in 1954 stating: "It is the view of the Levant Department that Menachem Begin should not be allowed to enter the United Kingdom and I would be grateful for your authority to instruct the visa section to refuse a visa."

Max Seligman, a British lawyer in Tel Aviv, had written to the British Embassy in Israel to ask whether a visa would be available. Mr Seligman defended several Irgun members in the final years of British Mandate Palestine.

But the Foreign Office believed Mr Begin "should not be allowed to come here as he is the leader of the right-wing extremist party in Israel which advocates an aggressive policy towards the Arabs". In the Foreign Office view, "a visit by him would not do anything to improve our relations with the present moderate government of Israel."

MI5 said that he was "an extreme nationalist and chauvinist right-wing [sic] and is well-known as the former leader of the notorious terrorist organisation Irgun Zvei Leumi".

The Home Office had suggested that if Mr Begin were admitted, then Special Branch should be "informed immediately, since the security responsibility for Jewish terrorists rests with them".

Abraham Abrahams, chairman of the Zionist Revisionist Organisation in Britain, also wrote to the Foreign Office with a potential itinerary for Mr Begin's visit including a suggested meeting with Winston Churchill.

The files contain a clipping of a story from a 1971 edition of the JC, detailing plans for Mr Begin to visit Britain that year. A Home Office note suggested that Mr Begin was not considered a security risk by that point.

Mr Begin became Israeli Prime Minister in 1977 and later came to Britain to meet Margaret Thatcher, who found him the "most difficult" man she had to deal with in the early years of her premiership.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Searching for the Altalena


Underwater search for sunken Altalena ship set to begin

Altalena was a ship belonging to the Irgun, a prestate Jewish militia, which was shelled and sunk by Israeli government forces when it tried to land an arms cargo shortly after the state's establishment.

The Prime Minister's Office and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center are expected to carry out an underwater search for the remnants of the Altalena in the coming weeks.

The Altalena was a ship belonging to the Irgun, a prestate Jewish militia, which was shelled and sunk by Israeli government forces when it tried to land an arms cargo shortly after the state's establishment.

At Sunday's annual memorial service for those who died on the Altalena, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that a commemoration of its story will be included in the government's national heritage sites program.

A source in the Prime Minister's Bureau said the proposal to try to locate the remains of the ship came from the Begin Center. Reuven Pinsky, who heads the government office in charge of the heritage sites program, and Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser were thrilled with the idea and brought it to the prime minister, who embraced it.

The initial funding for the project will be NIS 200,000, to cover the underwater search team and the equipment needed to locate wrecks underwater. The initial aim is to determine where the ship is lying.

At a later stage, various possibilities for commemorating the Altalena, its crew and the story will be considered. Currently, there is a small memorial for the Altalena on the Tel Aviv promenade.

"We want to preserve the Altalena's heritage and story, and especially the values it represents," said a source in Netanyahu's bureau. "It is especially important to preserve the value of preventing a civil war and preserving the unity of the nation."

In June 1948, the Irgun tried to smuggle a large quantity of arms for its own use into Israel aboard the Altalena. Since the Irgun would not agree to surrender the weapons to the newly formed Israel Defense Forces, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the ship shelled and sunk when it tried to dock near Tel Aviv.

In the ensuing exchange of fire, 16 Irgun members and three IDF soldiers were killed. The ship went up in flames. But Begin, the Irgun's leader, refused to let Irgun members retaliate, saying he didn't want a civil war.

The Altalena lay on its side in shallow water off the coast of Tel Aviv for several months, but then Ben-Gurion ordered the navy to drag it out to sea and sink it. Some say he ordered the ship broken into pieces before it was sunk.

People involved in searching for the ship believe it lies some 10 kilometers from the coast at a depth of 60 to 70 meters.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

New Peace Documentary Produced

Newly minted Fisher Klingenstein Films has acquired worldwide rights to the documentary "Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace" [which] focuses on the interplay between the official government channels and the men who acted largely behind the scenes of the peace process between Egypt and Israel, tracing the confluence of factors that led to the Camp David Accords and ensuing peace treaty of 1979.

The film examines the personalities -- Menachem Begin, Anwar El-Sadat, and Jimmy Carter -- who drove the peace process along with the secret liaisons, communications, and third-party world leaders who played roles in forging the agreement.

CEO Danny Fisher, former CEO of City Lights Media, noted that "Channels" is the first theatrical release of the new company. "The film is incredibly timely given the current upheavals in Egypt, Libya, Syria and literally all over the Middle East and delivers a powerful message about value of diplomacy," he added.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Menachem Begin and the New X-Men Film

Found here:

...Devin Faraci, once a fellow writer for, recently posted an opinion piece (linked here) that analyzed X-Men: First Class’ portrayal of Magneto (*) from the point of view as a mirror to Israel. In it, he traces the history of the Jewish nationhood’s establishment from Holocaust to modern day, focusing mainly on the various wars they have participated in.

He connects the mutant’s actions in the aforementioned film to Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League, a fringe group among the nation of Israel’s many viewpoints. No one can deny the connection between Kahane and Magneto, which comes down to the use of the phrase “Never Again” in both the recent X-Men film and it being the JDL’s own slogan (Magneto even started his own JDL in the comics- the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants). This is a stark departure from the comic version of Magneto, it should be noted, who in 1964’s X-Men #4 used the phrase “Never Forget”- the slogan of holocaust remembrance from the point of view of education and peace. Magneto’s character is inherently that of a 20th century Jew, whether by his holocaust origins or (in the comics) his will to establish an independent nation for his own kind, where they could be at peace. But as in real life, that peace has consistently been demolished by attackers, whether from inside or outside the nation.

The producer of the initial X-Men films, Avi Arad, himself an Israeli, said of Magneto: “I would look, ideologically, more to Jabotinsky and Begin… Magneto to me is not a villain. But he becomes more like Kahane the more frustrated he is with the way the world is approaching the ones who are different.” In Rabbi Simcha Weinstein’s book Up, Up ,and Oy Vey!,which traces the very real influence Judaism had on the creators of many comic book superheroes, he quotes writer Chris Clarement, who was responsible for creating Magneto’s holocaust back-story. “It allowed me to turn him into a tragic figure who wants to save his People… I then had the opportunity over 200 issues to attempt to redeem him, to see if he could start over, if he could evolve in the way that Menachem Begin had evolved from a guy that the British considered ‘shoot on sight’ in 1945… to a statesman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.”

Looking to the life of Menachem Begin to try to understand Magneto, from his early life of opposing the Zionist leadership’s bowing to British colonialism (much as one could say Xavier does in X-Men), to fighting for independence through any means necessary with the Irgun, one can see the connection. But as Claremont himself said, over the course of decades Begin’s role changed. In 1977 Begin lead the Likud party to take control of the state’s government and allied himself with many smaller fractions of the multi-party system that makes up Israeli politics. Ultimately, peace between Israel and a neighboring Arab state was reached for the first time in 1978, under Begin’s control, when the Camp David accord was struck with Egypt...

The film's website. A trailer.


Magneto was ranked number 1 by IGN's Top 100 Comic Book Villains list,[9] was listed number 17 in Wizard's Top 100 Greatest Villains Ever list,[10] and was ranked as the 9th Greatest Comic Book Character Ever in Wizard's list of the 200 Greatest Comic Book Characters of All Time, the second highest villain on that list.[11]


Thursday, June 9, 2011

View From Mt. Zion Ascent

Photo credit: YMedad


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

INN report on Shavuot Learn-in

Shavuot Study with Sign Language at Begin Center

A unique Shavuot study session is scheduled to take place Tuesday evening at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. The topic of the learning session will be social justice and all the speakers will be accompanied by sign-language translators. The rest of the year, electronic means are used to serve the hearing-impaired public.

The all-night session starts at 11:00 p.m.


JPost report on the Bombing Raid Exhibition

Former colleagues of PM mark Osirak anniversary

To commemorate the 30-year anniversary of the Israel Air Force strike on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor, the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem unveiled an exhibit about the June 7, 1981, raid on Monday evening.

David Ivry, who commanded the IAF at the time of the mission; Maj.-Gen. Ido Nechushtan, the present IAF commander; Arye Naor, the cabinet secretary in 1981; and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who succeeded Naor as cabinet secretary, spoke at the opening. Some of the pilots who participated also attended.

The exhibit will remain at the Begin Center for a month before moving to IAF bases around the country.

Code-named Operation Opera, the mission required IAF planes to fly more than 1,600 kilometers across Jordanian, Saudi and Iraqi airspace, and success was not assured. Prime Minister Begin gave the order despite opposition from then- Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Yadin, Minister of Interior Affairs Yosef Burg, Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi, military intelligence head Maj.-Gen. Yehoshua Saguy, opposition leader Shimon Peres and others.

Meridor noted that exactly 44 years ago, he was fighting in a tank division during the Six Day War, when Israel’s military might was at its peak intensity for the time.

Some of Israel’s enemies, such as Egypt, came to accept the existence of Israel and chose peace, said Meridor, while Iraq did not, pursuing nuclear weapons because it knew Israel could not be defeated on the battlefield.

“We must identify opportunities to make smart decisions that require courage and vision,” said Meridor, who praised the decision to bomb Osirak as well as Begin’s pursuit of the peace treaty with Egypt. “Begin was such a leader. He was unique.”

After the raid, Begin stated that Israel would never allow its enemies to acquire weapons of mass destruction, a concept that later became known as the “Begin Doctrine.” The doctrine is the backbone of the argument for a preemptive military strike against Iran. Israel also reportedly bombed a nuclear reactor in Syria in September 2007.

“In my view an operation should correspond with the target,” Naor told The Jerusalem Post before he spoke at the exhibit opening.

“We want them not to have nuclear capability – that is the target. The target is not to send the air force to bomb Iran.”

The raid on the Iraqi reactor was very risky, and the risks involved with an attack on Iran would be more numerous, said Naor, adding “That’s why a strike perhaps is not the right answer to this threat. We should find something [else], and perhaps we are doing it.”

Israel was reportedly behind the Stuxnet computer virus which caused significant set-backs to Iran’s uranium enrichment program, as well as several assassinations of nuclear scientists working on Tehran’s nuclear program.

Moshe Arens, who served three terms as defense minister and held that position during the First Gulf War, said there can be no comparison between Operation Opera and a possible strike against Iran because the Iranian program includes multiple facilities, some of which are underground.

When asked if Iraq could have fired a nuclear weapon instead of Scud missiles at Israel during the Gulf War in 1991 had it not been for the 1981 strike, Arens, who did not attend the opening, responded, “It’s a possibility.”

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Uri Avnery Recalls A Chance Meeting

In recalling his wife, Rachel, who just died:

Once we went to see a film set in a small Slovak town during the Holocaust. A solitary old woman did not understand what was happening when the Jews were summoned for deportation to the death camps; neighbors had to help her to the assembly point.

We arrived late and found seats in the dark. When the lights came on at the end, Menachem Begin got up in front of us. His eyes, red from weeping, locked with Rachel's. Oblivious to everybody around, Begin walked straight up to her, took her head in his hands and kissed her on the brow.


Irgun History

From a Haaretz story:

..."The British managed to penetrate deep into the [underground] organizations in an astonishing manner," says [Dr. Eldad] Harouvi [who today heads the Beit Hapalmach center]. "They knew a lot about the happenings in the underground movements."

...After reading thousands of documents, hearing testimony from police officers and Mandatory officials and perusing additional documents at the Imperial War Museum in London, Eldad Harouvi concluded that the CID had a senior and very reliable agent in the top echelons of the Haganah and various national Zionist institutions. This agent provided reports about secret meetings at the Haganah's highest level, in which David Ben-Gurion, Jewish Agency political department head Moshe Sharett and others participated. One of the reports, by that senior agent, concerned meetings at the home of Dr. Chaim Weizmann (later Israel's first president) in Rehovot with some 10 of the Yishuv's leaders.

The documents do not give the agents' names, but rather refer to them by nicknames or code names like Y21 or P85.

...The book contains a few documents and testimonies about the explosion of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 by the Etzel, and about the escape of Etzel and Lehi prisoners from the prison in Acre. The Etzel people had blown up the King David, which housed the British Mandate administration in one of its wings. On July 22, they hid explosives in milk containers delivered to the hotel's kitchen. Ninety-one people - British, Jews and Arabs - were killed in the blast; the attack is considered a historic event.

According to Harouvi's book, an Irgun agent provided the CID with reliable information about the organization's intention to blow up the hotel using milk containers. [that would be, perhaps, Yannai, Heinrich Reinhold, see below]

About six months before the attack, the Palestine police commander, Brig. John Murray Rymer-Jones, met John Shaw, the chief secretary of the British government in Palestine, commander of the British forces, Gen. Evelyn Barker, and the high commissioner, Sir Alan Cunningham, and demanded increased security around the hotel. The three ignored his warnings, telling Rymer-Jones that life in the country was in any event dangerous.

Rymer-Jones left his post and returned home some two months before the Irgun attack.

About a year after part of the King David was destroyed in the blast, the Irgun's intelligence and operations specialists organized a daring escape operation of prisoners from a British jail in Acre. A report about the plans for a jailbreak reached one of the wardens in November 1946. As an Irgun prisoner walked one morning in the prison yard, a piece of paper fell from his pocket. On it were drawings depicting a planned escape route to be dug under the prison walls. The warden forwarded the drawing to his superiors and it was then passed to the CID, which stepped up security in and around the jail for a few weeks. When nothing happened, they returned to the regular routine.

The documents show that in the 1940s there were contacts between the Irgun and the CID that led to an understanding and even a "cease-fire." One of the liaisons between the two organizations was David Rosenthal, a Tel Aviv customs broker who in the 1960s published his own book, "Besherut Hamahteret" ("In the Service of the Underground" ). Catling himself initiated a few of the meetings. He even met, twice, with Ya'akov Meridor, who became commander of the Irgun after David Raziel joined the British Army and was killed in Iraq, in 1941.

In one of those meetings, in September 1943, Meridor asked Catling: "Why do you arrest Etzel people who are not operating against you?"

Catling answered: "Why do you kidnap rich Jews, rob and extort them? If you stop, I shall see to it that your people [detained in the British facility in Latrun] will be released," referring to the Irgun practice of financing its operations by committing robberies.

In 1944 Meridor himself was arrested and sent, along with hundreds of other Irgun people, to a detention camp in Eritrea in 1945. That followed the announcement by Menachem Begin, Meridor's successor as commander, in February 1944, of a "revolt" against the British authorities. At the end of 1945 the British offered to release the Irgun leaders in Eritrea if the organization would agree to end its terror attacks. The talks, which were secretly taped, were mainly held with Ya'akov Meridor and attorney Eliyahu Meridor (no relation; later a member of Knesset, and the father of Minister Dan Meridor ). In his book "Aruka Haderekh Leherut" ("Long Is the Path to Freedom" ), Ya'akov Meridor boasted of his ability to remain tight-lipped during his interrogation. According to the documents, however, Meridor answered most of the questions almost without protest.

While talking to Etzel, the CID continued to operate agents in the organization. Two of them, "Yanai" (Heinrich Reinhold) and Yaacov Chilevich, were the subjects of books and many articles. Both fled the country with British help after their deeds were exposed. Chilevich handed over to the British dozens of members of the Irgun, including such senior figures as Eliyahu Meridor, Aryeh Ben-Eliezer and Shimshon Unichman. Harouvi discloses in his book that Chilevich was also given the assignments of tracking down Menachem Begin.

"From the British perspective, says Harouvi, "Begin was a mystery. They never detained him, never interrogated him, and did not have his fingerprints. Even the picture they attached to an announcement declaring him a wanted person did not quite look like him. The operational compartmentalization in the Etzel was quite high, especially with everything that had to do with Begin. That was the biggest failure of British intelligence."

Chilevich did manage to get the address of Begin's hideout in Jerusalem, at 23 Alfasi Street, as well as an old photograph of him. These he obtained when he went to congratulate Begin on the birth of his son Benny.

The CID managed to recruit agent-informers in the Lehi underground too. One of the documents talks of an agent code-named "Levine." In 1940 the Lehi (an acronym for Lohamei Herut Yisrael - Israel Freedom Fighters ), in contrast with the Haganah and the Irgun, continued to consider the British the greatest enemy. The British declared a battle to the end against the Stern Gang, as they referred to the organization. In October 1940, agent "Levine" turned over 40 of his comrades, including all of the organization's top echelon excepting leader Avraham (Yair ) Stern. The people who drafted the document ordered the interrogators to free one of the detainees if he presented himself as "Levine."

In many studies of that period, and especially in the memoirs of the Irgun and Lehi people, there is a widespread assumption that the Haganah turned in members of the other underground organizations to the British. In his book, Harouvi says it was the Irgun that handed over many Lehi people - in part because Yair Stern had broken away from the Irgun and created a separate organization. "The Haganah did not turn in Lehi members," he stresses.

One of the most important and most fascinating items published by Eldad Harouvi is something called "The Jerusalem Agreement." This is a document composed by Stern, and dated September 15, 1940, describing a sort of friendship accord with fascist Italy. With 22 clauses, the agreement was to be signed between the "official representative" of side A - that is, the Italian government - and the "Temporary Hebrew government, "hereafter side B," which was the Lehi.

The full text of the agreement appears in a comprehensive study from 1967 by Irgun historian, David Niv, entitled "Ma'arkhot Ha'irgun Hatzva'i Haleumi" ("The Etzel's Campaigns" ). In a parenthetical clause in his research, Niv noted that Yair's agreement was reached with the help of "the agent" or "the mediator." Dr. Harouvi discloses that person's identity: Moshe Rothstein, an agent who worked with the British but also helped the Irgun.

The agreement, it should be noted, was no fabrication. It was designed to reach representatives of the Italian government, and accurately reflected the sentiments of Stern, who sought understandings with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, in keeping with the concept that "My enemy's enemies are my friends." The Irgun's intelligence division got its hands on the agreement and turned Rothstein into a kind of agent provocateur and persuaded Stern that he was representing Italy.

What was fabricated in the agreement was the supposed Italian side. "My argument," says Eldad Harouvi, "is that Moshe Rothstein was managed by the Irgun people for the purpose of slandering Avraham Stern and presenting him and his group as a fifth column and quislings. That is how they were referred to by both the British and the Irgun. It was only more than a year after the operation was launched that a British report, in a secret internal account, said that they were partners to it, that actually it was all fictitious."

A representative of the Irgun's intelligence division, Yitzhak Berman, who was later a minister in Menachem Begin's government and a speaker of the Knesset, was in on the sting operation.

Several years ago Harouvi and Haran invited Berman to visit the Haganah archives. When they showed Berman the British report about the Jerusalem Agreement he smiled and said, "That was me."

When Lehi found out that the Irgun had trapped them, they retaliated with vengeance. Some three years later, in September 1943, at midday, in a Tel Aviv street, they fired dozens of submachine-gun bullets at Israel Pritzker, one of the Irgun's intelligence commanders, and killed him.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Book Review of "Brothers At War"

A book researched, in part, at the Begin Center, has been published and here are exceprts from a book review:


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 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 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.”