In the Wake of the Altalena

By Elliot Jager
Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ships and their comings and goings have lately been a fixation over at Haaretz, Israel's chief left-wing newspaper. One of the paper's advocacy journalists, Amira Hass, has been writing enthusiastically about joining up with a pro-Palestinian flotilla that intends to smash Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

No less earnestly, the paper's front pages have been devoted to defending the Left's narrative about how the arms ship Altalena came to be sunk—perfectly legitimately, in its opinion—off the coast of Tel Aviv sixty-three years ago this month (June 21, 1948), on orders from David Ben-Gurion.  Haaretz has been particularly incensed by an Israel Defense Ministry reference to those members of the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun who were killed on board as having been "murdered." 

Now, historian Jerold S. Auerbach has come forward to undermine leftist orthodoxy with Brothers At War, a succinct, emotive, and yet levelheaded summation of the Altalena tragedy.

Auerbach frames his Altalena account as just one chapter in the continuing struggle for the identity of the state of Israel—"Jewish state, secular state, democratic state, democratic Jewish state, state of the Jewish people"—and explores how such a struggle can call the legitimacy of government decisions into question. 

The conundrum, in Auerbach's view, has ancient origins traceable to Josephus, whose remarks on the "seditious temper" of the Jewish people have framed (accurately or otherwise) our understanding of Rome's victory over the Jews for the past two thousand years.  In modern times, Auerbach argues, we've seen the repercussions of this struggle for legitimate authority many times in the history of the state of Israel: with the Altalena in 1948; in the 1952 Knesset clash over whether to accept German government reparations for the Holocaust; in the 1993 controversy over the Oslo Accords, and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.  It persists still in discussions over how the IDF should treat conscientious objectors, from the Left or Right.  Put another way: Is the bigger threat to the Jewish commonwealth zealous Jews who reject governmental authority on divisive issues, or the chronic failure of successive Israeli governments to foster consensus positions?    

Where to begin the telling of the Altalena calamity? Auerbach reasonably starts by differentiating two Zionist camps.  One, led by Ben-Gurion, was the dominant power in Zionist officialdom and was inspired by a Jewish national renewal rooted in notions of socialist utopia.  The other, motivated by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and carried forth by his disciple, Menachem Begin, envisioned a self-assertively nationalist society rooted in a strong entrepreneurial middle class. Long before the Altalena, Auerbach points out, there was a record of bad blood between the two camps exacerbated by the mysterious murder of a Labor-Zionist leader, Chaim Arlosoroff, bitter disputes over whether and how to confront the British policy barring Jewish immigration to Palestine before and during the Holocaust, and over how best to respond to Arab brutality against Palestinian Jewry in the years before Israel's independence.  

The Altalena (named after Jabotinsky's literary pseudonym) was purchased in America by Irgun operatives and loaded at Marseilles, France with desperately needed weapons and munitions along with a "melting pot" of 940 recruits for the nascent Hebrew fighting force in Palestine. As far as its American Jewish captain knew, his mission had the "acquiescence of the Israeli government," led by Ben-Gurion.

Begin, who oversaw the operation, had indeed been negotiating directly with Ben-Gurion's man, Israel Galili, over how to disburse the ships weapons and troops. But the Altalena's secrecy was compromised early on: the mission was tracked from the start by various intelligence agencies and blatantly exposed in a BBC news broadcast. A series of disastrous miscommunications, logistical blunders, and lack of internal Irgun discipline led to the ship's ill-fated arrival while the Begin-Galili talks were still in progress. In fact, Auerbach writes, Galili informed Begin on June 16: "We [i.e. he and Ben-Gurion] agree to the arrival of the vessel. As quickly as possible." It was Ben-Gurion himself who ordered the ship to land at Kfar Vitkin (near the town of Netanya) to avoid UN aerial surveillance.

As the Begin-Galili talks proceeded, some of the weapons and almost all of the personnel on board were unloaded near Netanya. But by then, Ben-Gurion had allowed himself to be convinced that Begin was planning a putsch against his authority—even as the Irgun leader felt certain, perhaps naively so, that the weapons negotiations would still succeed. But there was no time. Ben-Gurion balked, edgily ordering Haganah (now IDF) troops to start shooting on the vessel. Six Irgun men and two soldiers were killed before the ship fled Netanya southward and ran aground off the Tel Aviv coast—not far from the headquarters of the Haganah's elite unit, Palmach. 

Ben-Gurion insisted on unconditional surrender or else, and Palmach commander Yigal Yadin appointed a 26-year-old Yitzhak Rabin on the spot to command the beach fighting. When the Altalena crew hesitated to surrender, perhaps because of poor communications with Irgun headquarters, Palmach commanders ordered an all-out attack on the ship. Even when the crew raised a white flag, Rabin's snipers continued to pick off targets bobbing in the waters. Begin, who had earlier boarded the ship expecting a deal with Galili, barely escaped with his life. The ship went down along with 300 Bren guns, 500 anti-tank guns, 1,000 grenades and millions of bullets that could have been used during Israel's War of Independence.

Auerbach's conclusion, citing historian Ehud Sprinzak, is that there had been no "mutiny on the right," no intention on the part of Begin and his men to defy the legitimate authority of the land, and certainly no intention of staging a coup. Begin had only wanted enough men and guns earmarked to carry on the fight for Jerusalem's Old City (which Ben-Gurion had abandoned) and thought he had Galili's tacit approval. Begin himself abhorred the idea of a Jewish civil war, and had famously restrained his men from action against the Haganah even when it was actively turning them over to the British in 1944.  Here, too, he ultimately swallowed his pride and ordered his Irgun men into the IDF on September 20, 1948, signaling the end of the Irgun as an independently functioning force.  Instead, it was Ben-Gurion's "quasi-totalitarian" personality that led the socialist leader to what Begin later plausibly called "a reprehensible abuse of state power."

Auerbach's sensitive re-telling of this calamitous chapter in Israel's early history concludes with the unhappy assessment that Israel's clashes over legitimate authoritative power remain unresolved, perhaps irremediably so. 

Yet surely there are enough tools nowadays at the disposal of decision makers with the wisdom to use them—new elections, referenda, supermajority Knesset votes, or some combination thereof—so that even wrenching decisions of monumental consequence cannot be legitimately challenged with violence.  After all, with Zionist sovereignty comes governmental responsibility.

You can find this online at:

© Copyright 2024 Jewish Ideas Daily. All Rights Reserved.