Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Altalena - Unity

National unity, democracy and the heritage of the Altalena


Faith in democracy prevented civil war 63 years ago. Will it do the same in the future?

For the 63rd anniversary of the sinking of the Altalena on David Ben-Gurion’s order, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center have announced plans to initiate a search for the remains of the ship, which might be used to construct a memorial for those killed during the event.

The Altalena still evokes strong emotions in Israeli society. Until the 1977 upheaval, when Begin’s Herut Party beat out the long ruling Mapai, it was the Labor Movement’s narrative about the event that dominated.

This narrative presented the IZL as an organization having difficulty accepting the reality of an independent Jewish state led by its enemy of old – Labor – and the principle that in a sovereign state, it is the state, by means of its democratically elected government, that monopolizes all military forces and all decisions concerning national issues. The right-wing narrative claimed that this description was misleading, and that the event was the result of blind hatred.

It was inevitable that following Menachem Begin’s assumption of power, the official narrative would undergo change.

Within a year, two books about the Altalena affair appeared – one presenting the position of the Right, and the other the position of the Left. Nevertheless, Begin himself refrained from officially reopening the Altalena issue. Magnanimity and political wisdom undoubtedly guided his decision.

The Prime Minister’s Office stated last week that “we wish to preserve the heritage and story of the Altalena, and especially the values around it. It is especially important to thus preserve the value of preventing civil war, and preserving unity among the people.” This is indeed a noble cause, but the question is whether the Prime Minister’s Office and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center have the will and power to ensure that this intention is in fact realized, and that a reopening of the issue will be used to foster national unity and – more importantly – strengthen democracy.

How can this be done, especially when one is dealing with an issue that is still the basis of deep disagreement? The Altalena affair ended without civil war because Menachem Begin bowed to the superior power of the then-majority, accepted the rules that it laid down (largely because he was a true democrat), and abhorred the thought of civil war. For the following 29 years, he worked tirelessly worked toward a change in the political balance of power in the country, and was finally victorious.

IS THIS still a message that is acceptable to some of the disaffected Jewish minority groups in Israel, who pose a threat to national unity and democracy today? I’m not so sure. For example, Rabbi Dov Lior and his followers reject a basic principle accepted by the majority to the effect that everyone is equal before the law, including a revered (and controversial) rabbi, and that anyone summoned for a police investigation must turn up.

Whether or not the police acted wisely on Monday when it set an ambush for the rabbi and detained him is debatable. However, no police act forcing Lior to attend the investigation would have been considered legitimate by him and his followers. They simply do not accept the rules of democracy, and no matter how the heritage of the Altalena is presented, that will not change.

The same applies to the prospect of Israel voluntarily relinquishing parts of Judea and Samaria within the framework of an Israeli-Palestinian political settlement.

Should a majority finally approve such a move (and the right wing in the Knesset is doing its best to place as many legal obstacles as possible on the road), the hard core of ideological settlers and their supporters will not accept this lying down. Once again, the Altalena heritage concerning national unity and democracy will have no effect on their views and actions. As Harold Auerbach stated in his article last week, for the settlers, the part of the Altalena heritage that is relevant is that there were some soldiers who refused to cooperate with the attack – the forefathers of today’s soldiers who have been permitted by their rabbis to disobey orders on ideological grounds.

In other words, “heritage” is in the eyes of the beholder, and it is questionable whether the Altalena affair can be mobilized to promote national unity and democracy among those who pose a threat to them.
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