Saturday, August 6, 2011

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.

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