Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena, by Jerold Auerbach, (New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro Books, 2011).
MILCHEMET ACHIM!—Brothers at war!—is a subject that has preoccupied Jews throughout their literature and history, from the narratives of Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, in Genesis, the mutiny of Korach against the authority of Moses in Numbers, and the post-biblical civil war that undermined the Jewish state from within while Roman legions were besieging it from without in the year 67 C. E. That was when Jewish national sovereignty came to an end until 1948. In his War of the Jews, Flavius Josephus, the Jewish military commander (and deserter), recounted the Jewish conflict within the larger one between Jews and Romans. If Josephus’ account is to be believed, the Roman general Vespasian told his warriors (who had already killed 40,000 Jewish men) to hold back from further battle because “The Jews are vexed to pieces every day by their civil wars and dissensions, and are under greater misfortunes than, if they were once taken, could be inflicted on them by us….Permit those Jews to destroy one another.”
It is against the background of these wars between brothers that Jerold Auerbach, professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College and the author of numerous distinguished books about Jewish and American history, has written a luminous and probing history of the calamity of the Altalena, the ill-fated Irgun ship that tried to bring desperately needed refugee fighters, arms, and ammunition to the soldiers of Israel in June 1948, just weeks after the declaration of statehood and the ensuing invasion by five Arab armies. Readers familiar with Auerbach’s own political views may be surprised to discover that his impulse to write the book came from an Israeli friend who had fought with the Palmach in the War of Independence and who still equates the Altalena expedition with the Zealots of Jewish antiquity. Brothers at War is a disinterested study of its subject, impeccable in its scholarship (with the sole exception of an index insufficient to its task). Although Auerbach concludes that there is not a shred of evidence to support Ben-Gurion’s accusation that the Altalena mission was Begin’s attempt to overthrow his government, he reserves judgment on whether Ben-Gurion’s course of action against it was justified.
The broad outline of the story is well-known. Revisionist leaders bought a mothballed American ship, named it Altalena (using Vladimir Jabotinsky’s pen-name), and recruited a 25-year-old Navy veteran from Chicago named Monroe Fein, who had commanded a similar ship in the Pacific, to be its captain. His ship sailed on June 11 from Port-du-Bouc with 940 passengers, including 120 young women. For the Altalena’s mission to succeed, its planners would have to secure the cooperation of France (whence it originated), to evade the British navy (which had already diverted the Exodus 1947 and Ben Hecht ships from their course), and to coordinate the plan with the Provisional Government of David Ben-Gurion, who loathed Menachem Begin. (Both men had the nasty habit of flinging the epithet “Nazi” at the other.)
On May 26, that government had established the Israel Defense Forces as the army of the State of Israel and prohibited the “continued existence of any other armed force” (such as Palmach to its left and Irgun and Lehi to its right). Ostensibly, Begin accepted this decision: “Within the boundaries of the Hebrew independent state there is no need for a Hebrew underground. In the State of Israel, we shall be soldiers and builders. We shall respect its Government, for it is our Government.” But there was a hitch. Jerusalem was outside the boundaries of the new state. Shmuel Katz, member of Irgun’s High Command, later explained: “We never forgot Jerusalem, where the Israeli government refused to claim sovereignty.” (Perhaps I should here mention that I was a longtime friend of Katz, who died in 2008. But I was also a longtime friend of Hillel Daleski, who fired the cannon that destroyed the Altalena; he died late in 2010.)
In the event, the cooperation of the French was indeed secured: they armed and supported Irgun’s project because it was likely to hasten British departure from Palestine. The anticipated attack on Altalena by the Royal Navy did not occur (perhaps because Fein chose to travel mainly at night). But, Auerbach tartly observes, “no one on board imagined the attack would come from the government of Israel” and destroy sixteen lives and millions of ammunition rounds.
Begin, alarmed by a BBC broadcast announcing both an agreed UN ceasefire and news of the Irgun ship headed to Palestine, decided to abort the mission. But faulty radio communication kept his message from reaching the Altalena; and Eliahu Lankin, Irgun commander of the ship, ordered Fein to “continue en route to Israel with all possible speed.” In view of the calamitous outcome of the whole episode, one is still surprised at the degree of mutual understanding that seemed to exist. Begin was willing “that the government decide and tell us whether the Altalena should proceed and arrive in Israel, or whether we should send it back.” Deputy Defense Minister Yisrael Galili told Begin that “we agree to the arrival of the vessel. As quickly as possible…” and designated Kfar Vitkin, near Netanya, as the place to land. On June 16, Ben-Gurion mentioned the Altalena in his diary: “Tomorrow or the next day their ship is due to arrive. …They should not be turned back.” The Irgun units were to be equipped to fight anywhere beyond Israeli rule, i.e., Jerusalem. The sticking point was the distribution of the ship’s weapons and munitions; Galili insisted that all be turned over, unconditionally, to the IDF. This was more than a technical matter; it brought to the fore Ben-Gurion’s determination that there be a single government and military under his exclusive command. “There are not going to be two armies. And Mr. Begin will not do whatever he feels like. We must decide whether to hand over power to Begin or tell him to cease his separatist activities. If he does not give in, we shall open fire.”
In this contest of wills, Ben-Gurion felt he had to make the state’s survival his overriding consideration. Begin, by contrast, commanded his loyal Irgun fighters not to return fire: “Raise not your hand against your brother. Not even today….” Yaacov Meridor, Begin’s second in command, conveyed the order: “Don’t shoot back.” In his study of the radical Right in Israel, Brother Against Brother, Ehud Sprinzak (a Labor Party loyalist and advisor to Rabin on domestic terrorism) lauded Begin’s restraint as “the most outstanding example in the modern era” of a political leader refusing to participate in what would have become “a bloody civil war.”
Ben-Gurion believed that Begin was challenging his authority, endangering the new state, and planning “a putsch.” Giving the Altalena ten minutes to accede to his demands for surrender, he said: “Accept orders and carry them out, or [we] shoot…The time for agreements has passed…and force must be applied without hesitation.” Not all Ben-Gurion’s soldiers were in agreement: the air force, for example, refused his order to take off and bomb the ship. Although assured by Chief of Naval Operations Yanai that the Irgun ship could be disabled merely by using smoke grenades and boarding it from nearby naval vessels, Ben-Gurion insisted that destruction of the Altalena was the only way to prevent civil war. No more than Moses dealing with the rebellion of Korach (by calling down upon his head and that of his co-conspirators a selective earthquake) was Ben-Gurion to be deterred by qualms about “kol yisrael chaverim” and so on. And Auerbach allows for the possibility that Ben-Gurion’s decision was the right one.
Arthur Koestler, for one, was not convinced that the government was surprised by the ship’s arrival ; he called it “an open secret in Tel Aviv for the last four weeks.” Rather, it was “obsessed with asserting its authority” and preferred destroying the military supplies to allowing Begin credit for delivering them. But Palmach commander Uri Brenner, in his 1978 book about the Altalena, accused Irgun of bringing the ship to Israel in blatant disregard of the ceasefire then in place and of not informing the government until it neared the coast of Israel. Irgun also, in his view, reneged on its agreement to turn over military supplies by insisting on the right to unload the ship and distribute its weapons to their own units. No sovereign government, he argued, could accept such conditions. But even Brenner scoffed at the notion that Begin was planning a putsch to overthrow the government.
The task of firing the first cannon shots that destroyed Altalena fell upon a young South African volunteer (with war experience in Italy) named Hilary Dilesky, who had been in the country just two months, spoke no Hebrew, and felt very strongly that “I didn’t come to the Land of Israel to fight against Jews.” But his commander warned him that “an order is an order.” Decades later, by which time he had become the distinguished literary scholar (later the winner of the Israel Prize for Literature) Hillel Daleski, he recalled that “My heart was broken when we began firing. This has been a burden all my life, and still is.” Nor was Daleski the only one who felt the deep shame that Israel, while fighting for its very existence against the Arabs, could not make peace within its own family.
Auerbach’s book about “the pariah ship” is the first to be published in over thirty years, the first in English, the first by a professional historian. It takes full account, within the text and in bibliographical essays about each chapter, of the vast amount of published work on the episode and also the still-accumulating archival material now available (Central Zionist Archives, Begin Archives, Jabotinsky Archives, Etzel Museum, Beit Ha-Palmach, Haganah, and Ben-Gurion). By now, far more ink than blood has been spilled on the Altalena, especially since 1977, when Begin’s election as Prime Minister suddenly made it seem that—in a well-known Israeli wisecrack — the ship had sunk “because 200,000 people were aboard.” Auerbach also brings up to date the long history of Altalena similes and metaphors in Israeli political debate. These have been invoked, with varying degrees of licentiousness, in countless Israeli disputes, from 1967 to the present, over the establishment and also demolition of settlements beyond the Green Line. The Palestinian Arabs and their apologists have also gotten into the act with Arafat-Altalena analogies, as when Thomas Friedman, always eager to offer Palestinians a free ride on the mournful coattails of Jewish history, declared that Arafat needed his “Altalena moment.”
The deftness with which Auerbach explores the ramifications of this noisy, never-ending Israeli conflict of half-truths about Altalena shows how study of history, as Northrop Frye once wrote, “leads to a recognition scene … in which we see, not our past lives but the total cultural form of our present life.” As Auerbach puts it, with fine even-handedness: “Only the assassination in 1995 of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin—Palmach commander on the Tel Aviv beach that June day in 1948—has cast as dark a shadow over the political culture of the Jewish state. But the battle did not end on the Tel Aviv beach. It remains a contested memory to this day. More than sixty years later, the Altalena continues to surface in Israeli consciousness—as a reminder, a lesson, a warning, or even—for some—an inspirational model.”
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers).