Remembering the Altalena
Last Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled a new memorial to the 16 victims of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s order to open fire on the Altalena. The Irgun ship, bearing Vladimir Jabotinsky’s pen name, was transporting desperately needed fighters, weapons and munitions for the struggle against Arab nations determined to annihilate Israel following its Proclamation of Independence a month earlier.
An LST that had participated in the D-Day invasion, it was purchased by the Irgun, led by Ben-Gurion’s despised political opponent, Menachem Begin. With permission from the French government, eager to dislodge Great Britain from the Middle East, the Altalena, with 940 passengers on board, sailed from Port-du-Bouc on June 11, 1948. But long-festering acrimony between the rival Israeli political leaders erupted over the allocation of its weapons and munitions between the Irgun and Israel Defense Forces. No less complicating, a UN ceasefire was announced on the day the Altalena sailed. Due to transmission failures, Begin was unable to reach the ship to order it to turn back. Ben-Gurion, fully informed about its progress, agreed to its landing at Kfar Vitkin, near Netanya.
The Altalena arrived on June 20, halting some 40 meters from a small pier extending from the Kfar Vitkin beach. Begin, arriving by motorboat to greet the newcomers, was greeted with joyous excitement. Still without an agreement over weapons allocation between the Irgun and IDF, most of the Irgun fighters departed and were transported to a camp in Netanya for a brief rest before their induction into the IDF. Several dozen men remained behind to transport crates of weapons to shore.
Confronting what the government and military command described as a “traitorous attempt to deny the authority of the State of Israel,” Ben-Gurion insisted upon the application of force – “Immediately” – if all the weapons were not turned over to the IDF. But a mission to bomb the Altalena was aborted when pilots refused to fly. In the late afternoon, while Begin was speaking to his followers, Israeli soldiers raked the beach with machine-gun fire. Yitzhak Ben-Ami, who had helped to negotiate the purchase of the ship, recalled: “Thus I spent my first night on the soil of free Israel, dodging the bullets of my brothers.” Six Irgun men and two IDF soldiers died in the fighting.
The Irgun high command boarded the Altalena and sailed south to Tel Aviv, trailed by Israeli navy ships. It ran aground 150 meters off the beach. Ben-Gurion, fearing an open rebellion, was determined to destroy the remaining munitions still on board. Palmach commander Yigal Allon, convinced that he was “fighting against the forces of fascism threatening to take over the state,” suggested cannon fire.
Amid gunfire from IDF soldiers on the beach – some of whom disobeyed orders and refused to shoot – Ben-Gurion warned his cabinet of “an attempt to destroy the army” and “kill the state.” Late in the afternoon, an IDF cannon shell broke a tenuous ceasefire and slammed into the Altalena, setting the ship ablaze. Plunging into the water to swim ashore, crew members were sprayed with machine-gun fire from soldiers on the beach. It was, an astonished Palmach soldier exclaimed, “a war between brothers – Jews are shooting Jews.” Ten more men from the Altalena and one IDF soldier were killed.
The tragic battles at Kfar Vitkin and Tel Aviv climaxed a decades-long struggle within Zionism over political legitimacy. It reminded some Israelis of the 1st century Jewish civil war recounted by Josephus. Others cited Genesis 4:9, where Cain, after killing Abel, asked: “Am I my bother’s keeper?”
Now, nearly 70 years later, Netanyahu used the Altalena tragedy to draw a different lesson. Referring at the unveiling to “the men of the Altalena [who] gritted their teeth and joined the IDF to help defeat the invading Arabs,” he declared: “We continue in their path. The war against our enemies is not over.” But he evaded the real tragedy of the Altalena, when the enemies of the Jews not only were invading Arab armies poised to destroy Israel — but other Jews. The question lingers: will history repeat itself, or can the new memorial serve as a perpetual deterrent to sinat hinam, baseless hatred, between Jews?
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena (Quid Pro Books, 2011).