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"No Civil War with the Enemy at our Gates"
Seventy-three years to the day after the sinking of the Altalena
I have a distant cousin who lives in the Jezreel Valley in the north of Israel. In a few weeks, he’ll be 99 years old, so we visit him as often as we can. A couple of years ago, when we went to visit, we brought him a copy of my biography of Menachem Begin.
He took the book, looked at it, made a face of disapproval, and asked, “Did you know Begin?” No, I admitted, I never met Begin. “Then how did you write a book about him?”, he asked more than a bit oppositionally. Well, I said, people still write biographies of Genghis Kahn and George Washington, don’t they? He admitted that I had a point. But he still wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t sure why. “So, did you know Menachem Begin?”, I asked him, anxious to change the subject and chiding him ever so gently.
“No,” he replied. “I never met him. But I shot at him.”
He didn’t need to say anymore. It had to have been the incident of the Altalena, the ship that Ben-Gurion ordered sunk off the coast of Tel Aviv on June 21, 1948, seventy-three years ago today.
“It’s a good thing you were a lousy shot,” I said. “If you hadn’t missed, there would have been no book to write.” He was not amused.
It wouldn’t be difficult to get the impression—both from what we do and don’t teach about Israeli history, as well as from the international press—that (a) it is Israel’s political right that has been responsible for the (thankfully limited) political violence that has taken place here, and that (b) even now, extreme voices are drowning out voices of moderation.
Israel from the Inside is about, among other things, pointing to the sides of Israel less often seen outside its borders, so today, on the anniversary of the sinking of the Altalena, I want to try to upend both of those assumptions. The Altalena is the classic example of political violence initiated by the “left”, and related to the Altalena, far from the headlines, there are passionate and compelling voices calling for a very different future.
We’ll get to that. But first, the story of the Altalena, and the brief but pivotal battle in which my cousin tried to kill Menachem Begin, and thankfully, missed.
The story of the Altalena is complex, so I’ll boil it down to its essentials.
For subscribers, I’ll post in the new few days sections of the much longer description from the biography.
At two points in Israel’s War of Independence, there were periods of cease-fire, during which neither side was allowed to import arms. Unbeknownst to Menachem Begin, who had led the Irgun (one of the underground paramilitary organizations in the period before Statehood), a fringe element of the Irgun based in the US had purchased a ship it named the Altalena (Altalena was Jabotinsky’s nom de plume). The ship had sailed to France, was loaded with arms and some 940 immigrants headed to the new state; among their goals, they hoped that the arms would get to Begin and his Irgun men to help them defend Jerusalem (which ultimately fell to the Jordanians).
Begin knew nothing about the ship and found out about it only as it approached Israel’s territorial waters. He ordered that the ship be told to turn around, but either because the wireless didn’t work or because the captain ignored him (we don’t know for sure), the ship continued to sail. Begin met with government officials, told them what had happened, and insisted that he had had no hand in sending the ship.
Ben-Gurion didn’t believe Begin for a second. Again, to highly simplify a much more complex story, Ben-Gurion told Begin that all of the arms had to be turned over to the IDF, into which all the pre-state military groups had by now been folded. Begin agreed to hand over most of the weapons, but insisted that some portion of the arms be given to his men who were barely holding on in Jerusalem. The cease-fire, he pointed out to Ben-Gurion, only applied to Israel inside its borders. Jerusalem had not been included in the UN’s map of the Jewish State, and Israel and Jordan were battling for it. His men were desperate, and he wasn’t going to let them be slaughtered. Nor was he going to be party to giving up on Jerusalem.
Ben-Gurion refused to budge; so, too, did Begin.
Eventually, the ship came ashore near Kfar Vitkin, a few kilometers north of Tel Aviv. Men started to unload some of the arms, and on the shore, the former leaders of the Haganah (which had unsuccessfully hunted for Begin in order to turn him over to the British years earlier), now officers of the fledgling IDF, insisted that all the arms go to the IDF. Begin and his men insisted on sending some to the Irgun fighters. Begin saw it as a matter of saving Jerusalem and saving his men. Ben-Gurion and the IDF saw it as an insurrection, the Irgun insisting on its independence, refusing to be wrapped into the IDF.
On June 20, Ben-Gurion called an emergency meeting of the cabinet, at which he said:
There are not going to be two states and there are not going to be two armies. And Mr. Begin will not do whatever he feels like. We just need to decide whether to hand over power to Begin or to tell him to cease his separatist activities. If he does not give in, we shall open fire.
Begin, of course, was not engaged in any “separatist activities,” but the two men’s vicious history and complex circumstances combined to create a perfect storm. Matters only got worse.
Begin had been in hiding for years prior to statehood, hiding from the British and those Jews would have happily turned him over to the British, so when rumors spread that Menachem Begin himself would soon be on the beach at Kfar Vitkin, the men who had served under his command but had never seen him in person left their units (remember, there was a cease-fire in place) to lay eyes on him. To Ben-Gurion, it seemed that they were abandoning their units and joining their former commander.
Israel Galili, the Haganah’s Chief of Staff, ordered the air force to bomb the ship, but the pilots, most of whom were Americans, refused. “We came here to fight for the Jews, not against the Jews,” they said.
If you have not seen Nancy Spielberg’s movie, Above and Beyond, about the origins of the Israeli Air Force and the American men who were its first pilots, it’s an absolute must.
When the ship ultimately came to shore at Kfar Vitkin, the Hagana leadership ordered Begin to hand over all the arms, giving him ten minutes to respond to the ultimatum. They thought they’d given Begin an honorable way out; Begin thought the timeframe was so absurd that they couldn’t possibly be serious. At some point, in all the confusion, shooting broke out; to this day, it is not clear who fired first. Throughout, Begin was screaming, “No civil war with the enemy at our gates!” But there were casualties. The Irgun had six fatalities and eighteen wounded, while the IDF had two dead and six wounded.
Eventually, the Altalena set sail southward, for Tel Aviv, and came ashore where Frishman Street meets the beach. The Altalena was now in view of the entire city (see the photograph above). Eventually, after another round of negotiations went nowhere, firing broke out again. IDF soldiers, now under the command of Yitzhak Rabin (who was then 26 years old, and who, heartbreakingly, would himself fall victim to Jew-vs-Jew violence many decades later), were firing at the Altalena (many Irgun men were convinced, and the few still alive concur, that Ben-Gurion was trying to kill Menachem Begin), and disregarding Begin’s orders to hold their fire, the Irgun men fired back.
At one point, Begin’s men on the ship shouted at Rabin, “Why are you shooting at Jews?” Rabin responded, “When Jews stop shooting at us, we will stop shooting at Jews.”
Ben-Gurion would not relent, and as negotiations and shooting started and stopped throughout the day, he said to Yigal Alon, who had commanded the Palmach (the Haganah’s elite strike force), “The entire future of this country is in the balance. You might have to kill Jews.”
Eventually, the IDF used a cannon to sink the ship, and the ship, still heavily laden with arms, exploded and burned. As we mentioned in a previous posting, one of those killed was Avraham Stavsky, the Revisionist who had been accused (almost certainly unfairly) of having killed Chaim Arlosoroff fifteen years earlier. In the shooting that followed on the shores of Tel Aviv, more men on both sides were killed; Begin called on his men not to shoot. “Do not raise a hand against a brother, not even today,” he yelled. And then he continued, “It is forbidden that a Hebrew weapon be used against Hebrew fighters.”
As cooler heads prevailed, the fighting died down, but not before more men had been killed. It was short-lived, but it was a taste of civil war.
Both men reflected on the incident in the decades that followed (Ben-Gurion died in 1973, a few months after the Yom Kippur War, while Begin died in 1992). Later in life, Begin said, “After my death I hope that I will be remembered, above all, as someone who prevented a civil war.” As for Ben-Gurion, in 1965, after a government inquiry into the Altalena affair cast much doubt on the narrative he had spun, Ben-Gurion simply said, “Perhaps I was mistaken.”
Today, seventy-three years to the day after Ben-Gurion ordered Rabin to sink the Altalena, and with Israel barely five weeks old, civil-war erupted but subsided, there are many possible takeaways. Here are just a few:
This was essentially yesterday:
This is not Alexander Hamilton and his rivalry with Thomas Jefferson, hundreds of years removed so that the sting is gone. No Israeli Lin-Manuel Miranda could even think about writing Altalena-the-musical, because it’s still all raw. There are still people walking around, like my cousin in the Jezreel Valley, who can’t stand even the sight of a book about Begin, and who take pride in the fact that they shot at him.
To get a sense of Israel, you have to imagine that some of the men who fought for George Washington or knew Paul Revere were still walking around the streets of Philadelphia. History has a very different weight here.
Political violence is not solely the province of the right:
It’s too facile to point to the Rabin assassination and to the tenor of discourse in Israel today and to conclude that it is the right that resorts to violence. The Altalena was an example of the left using violence against the right, violence for which Ben-Gurion never apologized. [Nor were the Altalena and the murder of Yitzchak Rabin the only instances of political violence; there was the 1924 murder of Jacob Israël de Haan by the Haganah, the 1957 killing of Rudolf Israel Kastner (grandfather of Meirav Michaeli, who today heads the Labor Party) by the right-wing Lehi group, and more. We’ll cover all those down the road.]
Without both Ben-Gurion and Begin, there would likely be no Israel:
That David Ben-Gurion laid the foundation for this county is beyond doubt. Yet though he delighted in casting Begin as the terrorist and the radical, it was Begin, not Ben-Gurion (as Bruce Hoffman argues in Anonymous Soldiers) who got the British to leave. It was Begin, not Ben-Gurion or any other Labor party leader, who signed the first peace treaty with an Arab country. The country we have today, we have because of both Ben-Gurion and Begin, not despite either.
They were hardly the only such duo. Theodor Herzl wanted a Jewish State. Ahad Ha’am sought a Jewish cultural oasis, without the burden of statehood. Had Herzl won and Ahad Ha’am lost (i.e., was Israel not the rich repository of Jewish cultural renaissance that it is), what would be the point? And there could obviously be no Ahad Ha’am-ian renaissance without a state, for without the apparatus of a state, an army and more, we’d never survive here. The country we have today, we have because of Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, not despite either.
Some people in this country are delighted that Bibi is out. Others are gravely concerned about the new coalition. One can make a good argument for either position. But in the face of the glee and the disappointment, more and more people here are reminding their fellow Israelis: this country wasn’t built by either/or, and it won’t survive with either/or. [On that, we’ll cover this new, fascinating book, A Brief History of Israeliness (not available in English) in an upcoming column.]
Either/or will not save us; it will sink us. That is true in Israel—and it’s true in Jewish communities abroad.
There’s a healing, learning Israel that hardly makes the international press:
A few years before Ben-Gurion died, when he was no longer in politics and Begin was still heading the opposition, Ben-Gurion showed up at the the Knesset cafeteria at lunchtime. He got a tray and his food, and then looked for a table to join. Begin was seated at a table, but it was full. Yet when he saw Ben-Gurion, recalled the person who witnessed the interaction and told me this story, Begin leapt up, grabbed another chair from an adjacent table, and brought it to Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion sat down next to Begin, and the two chatted away for quite some time—even though Ben-Gurion had tried to have Begin killed seventy-three years ago today.
It rarely makes the international press, but that healing continues. The ad below, from this weekend’s newspaper, is for an event tomorrow night commemorating the Altalena. It’s sponsored by both the Ben-Gurion Heritage Center and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. The large headline says Altalena: Things Can Unfold Differently, while the smaller headline says, “Speaking about the Past, Building the Future.”
A short while after the events of June 21, 1948, Ben-Gurion order the hulk of the Altalena towed out to sea and sunk because he didn’t want it turned into a shrine. A few years ago, the Altalena was apparently located, and there was a plan to bring it to the surface, and to create a museum of some sort. That hasn’t happened.
Instead, though, tomorrow night, the heirs of both Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, and the heirs of both Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, are going to gather on the beach, not far from where the Altalena story unfolded. They’re going to bring their kids. They’ll look out at the ocean and reflect on what lies below the surface. They’re going to remember the past and, like the people who built this state, envision a much better future.
In short, they’re going to do exactly what it is that this country is all about.
Sapir Ganz Eldar is a student at Shalem College, where I work. She comes from a settlement over the green line, is Orthodox, went to an all-girls religious high school, her father was opposed to her serving in the army (he wanted her to do National Service).... So we think we get the picture, right?
Yet we don't, because the picture is always more complicated. Sapir did join the army, over her parents' objections, and once an officer, created a program to assist Israeli Arab soldiers.
"Israeli Arab soldiers"? That, too, might sound surprising. Here's a brief excerpt of my conversation with Sapir.
Here's an excerpt of my conversation with Sapir. The full conversation will be posted on Wednesday, and will be available to subscribers at danielgordis.substack.com.
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