As a first generation direct descendant of both Irgun and Palmach fighters, I have an intense love, respect, and admiration for all the incredible Youth of 1948, who sacrificed life and limb to birth the modern State of Israel. As a right wing follower, I can no longer bear the decades long selective memory with which we present the terrible tragedy of the Altalena, and by so doing continue the embers of hatred and animosity burning amongst our Holy People. Have we forgotten that we have suffered history’s longest exile of 2,000 years because of our internal conflict, bickering and rivalry?
The midst of the fog of hatred permeating our Holy People and Land has become so thick that even the Prime Minister’s own son, Yair, has steeped so low as to misrepresent the facts and context of that horrible day in June of 1948, even crossing all boundaries of political warfare by entering the forbidden land of outrageous slander by insinuating that a Left wing Jew — Yitzhak Rabin — purposefully murdered Holocaust survivors. All for the manipulative purpose to instigate the masses to vote for his father, Bibi, in the upcoming elections by implying that those who vote for the Left are corrupt and beyond redemption.
Did Yair forget that the Palmach, which Rabin had been a prominent leader of, was full of Holocaust survivors who fought valiantly? Why didn’t Rabin murder them too, as Yair’s cynical statement seems to suggest about Rabin’s “moral depravity and betrayal,” which would be assumed to be part and parcel of all left wingers.
We have all witnessed the lingering animosity of that tragic day and how it has continued to infiltrate its poison into the Jewish State and thus divide the smallest nation besieged by bloodthirsty enemies to fight among itself no matter the outside existential threat.
Years after the sinking of the Altalena, Mr. Begin said, “My greatest accomplishment was not retaliating and causing civil war.” Nonetheless for the last 72 years many in the Right wing have been using the Altalena to instigate hatred between Jews when rather such a terrible tragedy should had been buried in the annals of modern Jewish history. Hence in the footsteps of Prime Minster Begin I present the context of that terrible day in order to stop the insane hatred within our glorious State.
As a child who grew up in both worlds of the right and left, since my family, as mentioned above, were half Etzel (Irgun) and half Palmach, I have firsthand knowledge of the Altalena, the historical mindset of that time, and mistrust on both sides.
The events leading to the tragedy of the Altalena began long before June 22, 1948. The Altalena was the culmination of a decade long feud by the Left and the Right wings of Zionism and the strategy and tactics used to achieve a Zionist Jewish State.
The Left Wing believed in reclaiming the Land by using the tactic of piecemeal settlements until a state was achieved, employing both covert and overt military tactics against the British, havlagah (defensive warfare) against the Arabs and British, political cooperation with the British to outwit them, and labor socialism. The Right Wing believed in conquering all of Israel by force, militarism, capitalism, and overt tactics against both the Arabs and British. Both branches were suspect of each other’s methods, loyalty, commitment and moral compass. A conflict best symbolized by David Ben Gurion and Zeev Jabostinsky. Ben Gurion even referred to Jabostinsky as a Jewish fascist.
And though the Eztel and the Palmach were rivals, they united in the Jewish Resistance Movement in 1945 and carried out several operations, such as the The Night of the Trains (or Operation Party) , a sabotage operation, targeting the British railways in the Land on November 1, 1945. “During the operation Palmach units sabotaged a network of railways around the country and blew up three British guard boats in Jaffa port and in Haifa, and a combined Irgun–Lehi unit attacked Lydda railway station, which is the key junction between the Haifa – El Kantara main line and the Jaffa–Jerusalem railway. An estimated 1,000 men were involved in the operations.”
After the bombing of the King David Hotel on July 22, 1946 their united efforts came to an end. And unfortunately again, suspicion of each other’s motives and tactics reared its ugly head.
Hence by June 1948, two years of intense mistrust had reached its boiling point. To Ben Gurion, Begin seemed like a young upstart who had no regard for the Yishuv’s leadership. One must take into account that Prime Minister Ben Gurion had immigrated to the Land in 1904. By 1948 he had been the leader of the Yishuv, in one capacity or another, for nearly 35 years and was now 65 years old. While Begin, the successor to Jabostinsky, arrived in the Land in 1942, had only been in the Yishuv for 6 years and was 35 years of age by the War of Independence. And to make matters worse, neither met each other.
In fact, to Ben Gurion all paramilitary organizations were suspect, since he was wary of military factions overthrowing the Yishuv and becoming either a state ruled by extreme young, impassioned left wing or extreme right wing idealists.
But more so, his main and fundamental concern was that instead of one united army fighting the Arab onslaught, there would be four independent paramilitary armies fighting without an unified head. As a student of the Jewish People and history and its tendency towards inner conflict, Ben Gurion feared that now in the midst of the budding State the inner rivalries would lead to a civil war and end the emergence of the third State even before it took its first baby steps. Unity of all had to be achieved against the common enemy.
And so, two weeks after the State was proclaimed the first established Jewish government in nearly 2000 years issued the Defense Army of Israel Ordinance No. 4 on May 28, 1948, stating that all private armies, including the Palmach, Etzel, Haganah, and Lechi had to disband and submit to the newly formed IDF – the Israel Defense Forces. This proclamation intended to establish an unified army that would be subservient to the burgeoning democratic State that was now facing six invading armies on three fronts.
On June 1, an agreement had been signed for the absorption of the Irgun into the IDF and one of the clauses stated that the Irgun had to cease all independent arms acquisition activities. Consequently, the Irgun informed the Israeli government about the Altalena which had yet not arrived from France. Aboard the ship were 940 fighters prepared to fight against the Arab onslaught. As well as 5,000 rifles, 250 Bren guns, 5 million bullets, 50 bazookas, 10 Bren carriers.
On Sunday, June 20 the ship dropped anchor at Kfar Vitkin. 940 passengers disembarked and were taken to an army camp for induction into the IDF. Arms were unloaded throughout the night. In all, 2,000 rifles, two million rounds of ammunition, 3,000 shells, and 200 Bren guns were unloaded.
Yet the remaining 3000 rifles, 50 Bren guns, and 3 million bullets were not given up to the IDF but kept by Begin and the Irgun.
And now began the beginning of the end.
The new Jewish government was faced with its first test of leadership.
One must recall, no generation in 2000 years had succeeded in creating a Jewish government and army. All was at stake.
Suspicion. Doubt. Fear. And the Unknown were all contributing to a ticking time bomb. Who was this Begin? Did he really want to work with the Yishuv? Did he respect the government’s laws and proclamations? Could the Jews prevent the mistake that destroyed the Second Temple, and which had caused our 2000 year exile, namely rival Jewish armies? Why didn’t Begin give up the arms?
And so the IDF under Commander Dan Even on June 22, 1948 surrounded Kfar Vitkin and issued the following ultimatum:
To: M. Begin
By special order from the Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, I am empowered to confiscate the weapons and military materials which have arrived on the Israeli coast in the area of my jurisdiction in the name of the Israel Government. I have been authorized to demand that you hand over the weapons to me for safekeeping and to inform you that you should establish contact with the supreme command. You are required to carry out this order immediately. If you do not agree to carry out this order, I shall use all the means at my disposal in order to implement the order and to requisition the weapons which have reached shore and transfer them from private possession into the possession of the Israel government. I wish to inform you that the entire area is surrounded by fully armed military units and armored cars, and all roads are blocked. I hold you fully responsible for any consequences in the event of your refusal to carry out this order. The immigrants—unarmed—will be permitted to travel to the camps in accordance with your arrangements. You have ten minutes to give me your answer.
D.E., Brigade Commander
Evening had now arrived and Begin did not respond. Shooting began. A battle between the IDF and the paramilitary army, the Irgun, was underway. Two IDF soldiers were killed as well as 18 Irgun fighters were killed.
But the conflict did not stop. Instead Begin ordered the ship to set sail to Tel Aviv, where other Irgun fighters were stationed.
And now the final straw of years of a lack of communication and dialogue along with Begin’s action of ordering the ship to Tel Aviv instead of surrendering it, had sealed in Ben Gurion’s mind that his suspicion was right all along; a coup was in the air in the worst possible times, just when the Jewish State was facing a genocidal war by the Arabs.
What was there to do? Rebellion had to be stopped no matter the cost. The lives of 650,000 Jews were at stake. It was only two and a half years after the Holocaust. The whole Jewish world cannot endure another Shoah. It would destroy our national will to live. All of these thoughts were running through everyone’s mind.
Midnight arrived and the ship was in Tel Aviv. The final standoff was underway. The shelling of the ship began. The ship was captured. 200 Irgun fighters were arrested.
Now all the private militias understood. The government had meant business. The IDF had proven itself as the army of the government, for better or worse.
And Begin realized that he was now fighting the army of the Jewish State. Factionalism and private armies had come to an end. Begin understood that retaliation was pointless, dangerous, and would truly led to the end of the beginning.
In fact, years later, even Begin, when he was prime minister, understood that for a State to remain a State of law and order, no matter if other Jews might be right, ordered the IDF to use force to uproot the Jewish settlement of Yamit in 1979, in order to carry out the dictates of policy.
Whether Rabin, purposefully or not, shelled directly on the ship, only Hashem – G-d knows. But his actions did prevent civil war. Rabin was not a depraved and morally bankrupt man who hated Holocaust survivors. He was responsible for conquering Jerusalem in 1948, leading the IDF in the Six Day War, and ordering the rescue of Entebbe.
The issue before us is about Jewish unity and character, and the regard we place on not slandering others and causing division within our great and Holy People. And yet when Jews should unite and end our 2000 year old civil war, history’s longest exile, but instead incite hatred solely for the ambition of who will win the seat of political power, by instigating the sick, dysfunctional hatred within our People, no matter how many Jews will be damaged, then the Jewish State is at great peril.
True leadership as Moses, our Teacher, taught us, in finding the good and holy within each and every Jewish man, woman, and child.
I can guarantee that after 72 years of enmity, the Youth of 1948, who fought with an commitment and courage that none of us can ever grasp, for the establishment of the third and eternal Jewish Staten, did not and do not want to leave as their legacy the hatred, suspicion and divisiveness that caused that terrible day in June. Enough with misconstruing the tragedy of the Altalena.
Most people are not aware, or they prefer not to remember, but on the eve of the Six Day War, Menachem Begin joined a delegation which visited Sde Boker to ask David Ben-Gurion to return and accept the premiership again.
After that meeting, Ben-Gurion said that if he had then known Begin as he did now, the face of history would have been different.
And the same is true today. If we but only communicate as brothers should communicate, then the face of the future history of the Jewish State and People will be different. We will truly be worthy of Redemption.
Am Yisrael Chai
Shana Tova uMatukeh to all my Jewish Family. Have a Happy and Sweet and Life Fulfilling Year.