Israel’s 70th anniversary of independence will be a time for joyous celebration. But a dark shadow of sorrowful memory will hover nearby. Barely a month after Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion proudly read the Proclamation of Independence, restoring Jewish national sovereignty after nearly two millennia of diaspora dispersion and the recent horrors of the Holocaust, Jews were once again at war – against each other.
The Altalena, a ship dispatched from Europe by the Irgun commanded by Menachem Begin, arrived north of Tel Aviv with desperately needed weapons and munitions. Nine hundred fighters on board debarked to join the struggle for independence. But Ben-Gurion, perceiving a menacing challenge to the fledgling state – and especially to his authority – viewed the Altalena as the spearhead of a putsch to overthrow his government.
In a recent article (Commentary, April 2018) Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik of Yeshiva University (New York) defined “the moment that made Israel a nation.” It came after Ben-Gurion ordered the destruction of the Altalena, aground off the Tel Aviv beach and under fierce attack. Begin forbade his followers from returning fire: milkhemet ahim le-olam lo (never a war between brothers).
It was, Rabbi Soloveichik writes, Begin’s “greatest moment,” a moment “that will ensure his immortality.” Standing on the deck of the Altalena, “amid the hurling shells and dying comrades and followers yearning to return fire,” Begin insisted, “in words that would define a nation, that Jews do not shoot at Jews.” While describing Begin with compassionate wisdom, Rabbi Soloveichik virtually ignored Ben-Gurion, noting only that he “ordered the ship shelled.”
Ben-Gurion knew in advance that the Altalena was arriving with fighters, guns and ammunition. An agreement had already been reached with Begin’s representatives over the distribution of weapons, with eighty per cent allocated to the Israel Defense Forces and the remainder for Irgun fighters struggling to preserve the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.
After the ship docked off-shore at Kfar Vitkin, Irgun fighters on board departed for Netanya to be inducted into the IDF. Weapons and ammunition were unloaded to the beach, surrounded by six hundred Israeli soldiers commanded by Moshe Dayan. An ultimatum was issued for the “confiscation of all weapons.” Ben-Gurion demanded: “Either they accept orders and carry them out, or [we] shoot.” In his own hand-writing, he added: “Immediately.” As Begin began to speak to his followers, the beach was raked with gunfire. Six Irgun men and two IDF soldiers died in the exchange.
The Altalena, with Begin and Irgun commanders on board, headed south toward Tel Aviv. It ran aground 150 meters from the beach at the end of Rehov Frishman – opposite Palmach headquarters in the Ritz Hotel. Unwilling to negotiate with Begin, Ben-Gurion insisted upon forcing “the enemy . . . to unconditional surrender, by all the means and methods available.” At an emergency meeting Ben-Gurion insisted: “This is an attempt to destroy the army. This is an attempt to kill the state.” He demanded: “get Begin!”
As negotiations foundered over the government demand for an unconditional Irgun surrender and relinquishment of all weapons, the command was given to open fire on the ship. Two machine-gun crews refused. Hilary Dilesky, a recent South African immigrant commanding a cannon crew, protested to a high-ranking officer: “I hadn’t come to Israel to fight Jews.” He was ordered to fire; he obeyed. Nearly fifty years later he confessed, “This has been a burden all my life, and still is.”
Moments after Altalena commander Monroe Fein ordered the Star of David lowered and raised a white surrender flag, a cannon shell slammed into the ship, igniting a blazing fire. Those who jumped from the burning ship met a hail of gunfire from the beach. A Navy doctor on a nearby vessel saw the white flag flying from the Altalena, but “rifle and machine-gun fire kept hitting living targets.”
Menachem Begin was among the last to abandon ship, jumping into the water just before the Altalena was engulfed in flames. Irgun members swimming ashore after the munitions on board exploded were targeted by gun fire from soldiers under Yitzhak Rabin’s command. A young Palmach soldier was stunned: “Before my eyes was waged a war between brothers. Jews are shooting Jews – in order to kill!” That day in Tel Aviv, ten men from the Altalena and one IDF soldier were killed in the fighting. The groundless hatred between Jews that had undermined Jewish sovereignty in the 1st century war against Roman conquerors hovered menacingly over the fledgling State of Israel.
The fratricidal violence that erupted with the arrival of the Altalena left a deep and lasting wound. The question endures: can the government of Israel resort to violence against its citizens without compromising its own legitimacy? Advocates of the forcible dismantling of settlements in Judea and Samaria should remember the worst self-inflicted wound in Israel’s history, only one month after independence, and heed its tragic lesson.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena (2011). His newest book, Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, will be published this summer by Academic Studies Press.