This month, sixty-five year ago, as the Altalena burned on the beachfront of Tel Aviv, the Jewish people were poised on the brink of civil war.
The “Altalena Affair” reflects the birth pangs of the new nation. It was the continuation of the ideological struggle between the left-of-centre socialist Zionist ideology championed by David Ben-Gurion and the right-of-centre Revisionist Zionist way of thinking, whose leader was Menachem Begin. The affair is still capable of raising emotional reactions more than six decades later!
In the course of the first month of the War of Independence the renascent Jewish State lost 1176 soldiers. Although no exact statistics are available, the losses of the invading Arab armies were also extremely high. Therefore both sides readily accepted the UN brokered truce. They both had valuable breathing space for rest, redeployment, training and planning. It was on the same day as the truce agreement that the Altalena left the same French port the ill-fated Exodus had set sail from the previous year.
On June 20, 1948, at the beginning of the first cease-fire during the War of Independence, the Altalena, charted by the European branch of Menachem Begin’s Irgun carrying, in addition to nine hundred immigrants, “two hundred and fifty light machine guns, five thousand rifles, and a large quantity of ammunition,” (Judaica, 368) arrived off the shores of the newly created State of Israel. A few days later, the Altalena was a burnt-out gutted wreck seven hundred meters off the same Tel-Aviv sea shore Chaim Arlosoroff had been killed on almost fifteen years to the day previously.
The Altalena Burning off Tel Aviv (Israel Government Press Office)
There are two different accounts as to why the Altalena was destroyed on Ben Gurion’s orders. Begin claims that he was bringing the much needed arms both to his Irgun fighters, who had been integrated into the IDF a month previously, and to the independent faction fighting in Jerusalem. Ben Gurion claimed that the Irgun was attempting a military takeover. The ship initially landed at Kfar Vitkin, North of Tel Aviv, with the knowledge and tacit acceptance of Ben Gurion and the IDF, and unloaded most of the refugees. The IDF forces then gave Begin and his men a ten minute ultimatum to hand over all of his arms. Begin wanted to negotiate. The tense stand off was broken by small arms fire and there were casualties on both sides.
In the midst of the shooting at Kfar Vitkin the Altalena weighed anchor and headed for Frishman Street in Tel-Aviv. Begin hoped that he would be able to negotiate, and thereby avoid further blood shed (Revolt, 237). Ben-Gurion saw it in a more serious light. At a press conference once the ship reached Tel-Aviv the Foreign Minister announced:
The Government is resolved to maintain its sovereignty and its ability to fulfill its international obligations. It will not permit undisciplined armed groups to foster political and military anarchy. The Etzel (Irgun) ship must be turned over to the Government immediately and unconditionally.
The Commander of the Palmach forces on the beach, Yitzchak Rabin (the late Prime Minister of Israel) recalled that, “there was a feeling of a military putsch…it was one of the most difficult moments I remember” (from the Documentary film “Altalena,” by Ilana Tzur). Another Palmach officer recalled, “It was a battle to save Israeli democracy…it was a clash between the blue shirts (socialist) and the brown (Revisionism)” (Tzur).
When the firing started on the beach in Tel-Aviv, it was intense, as every one had strong feelings and emotions about the other faction. Rabin in justifying Ben-Gurion’s decision to use force declared that, “if Ben-Gurion hadn’t done what he did, the result would have been disastrous for Israel and the IDF” (Tzur). The mutual hatred was so intense that even after an artillery shell fired from Camp Yonah hit the Altalena and ignited the ammunition, the Irgun survivors who were swimming ashore were being fired on by the Palmach/IDF forces on the beach!
The burnt out wreck of the Altalena lay for a year on the beach of Tel Aviv, like a wound that refused to heal. Ben-Gurion justified his action by declaring: “ Let us not judge one another. History will decide where Justice lies. One army, one government, one national authority.” He also made another far more controversial statement regarding the Altalena affair. According to newspaper reports, David Ben-Gurion declared; “Blessed is the cannon that blew up the arms ship.”
In contrast, Menachem Begin, even though his followers were clamouring for revenge after sixteen additional Irgun soldiers were killed on the Tel Aviv beach, rose above the atmosphere of mutual hatred and distrust and declared: ”Civil war? Never!”
Ben-Gurion wanted no separate armies within the IDF and therefore ordered the integration of the Irgun and the Palmach into the IDF. Initially the mutual distrust made such cooperation difficult. Of Ben-Gurions’ character, Walter Laqeuer writes:
He introduced an element of toughness, resolution and single-mindedness uncommon among the men and women of that generation, and he was a wholly political animal, sometimes suspected of Machiavellianism. In some respects more far-sighted than his colleagues, he could be incredibly stubborn and idiosyncratic in his decisions…
So, was Begin attempting a military coup? In Begin’s own words:
The evilly-disposed whispered that we intended to convey the arms to our underground armories. But the truth is that by that time we had no more secret armories. We had given the army all of our arms and equipment, and they had full knowledge of where all our concentration points had been. How on earth after we had emerged from the underground and after all our people were known to the army, could we have hidden arms enough to equip ten infantry battalions?
Courage or Treason? Ultimately how one assesses the Altalena Affair still depends on ones political ideology.