Just when one wonders what sort of teaching moment is available for Israel and, for that matter, for those betting on the so-called Arab awakening comes news that Israel plans to raise the Altalena. That is the hulk of a World War II-era transport ship that has lain at the bottom of the Mediterranean just off the coast of Tel Aviv ever since it was sunk in June 1948 in a conflict between two Jewish armies.
The combat lasted only hours, but the event looms large in the tale of how Israel, even though its factions were bitterly divided, turned away from civil war and toward long-lasting democracy. Though parallels are dangerously inexact, it holds lessons for those participants in the Arab spring who also have their eye on democracy. Its most important lessons obtain for the Israelis themselves, which is no doubt why the plan is underway to raise the vessel.
The Altalena, once an American Navy landing craft, was purchased by backers of the Irgun, the fighting organization that had led the revolt against the British. Its leader was the young Menachem Begin. The vessel was given the pen name used by one of Zionism’s most visionary figures, Vladimir Jabotinsky. The boat was loaded at the port of Marseille with some 940 refugees and volunteers and, with the help of the French government, tons of arms and explosives. Then it sailed for Israel to help in the defense of the newly formed Jewish state.
According to a new book about the Altalena, “Brothers at War,” by Jerold Auerbach, Begin tried to get word to the Altalena not to come ashore at Israel, because a United Nations 30-day cease-fire had been declared the day it left France. Begin’s secretary sent a message warning the vessel to stay away. In the event, the vessel did come ashore, following negotiations between Begin’s followers and the provisional government of Israel led by Ben-Gurion.
The landing spot was north of Tel Aviv, at Kfar Vitkin. The vessel deposited its passengers. It took on several members of the Irgun, including, Begin. An already nigh-mythic figure, Begin had only recently emerged from underground and had already placed the Irgun under the command of Israel’s Defense Force. Yet Begin, a rightist, was despised by Ben-Gurion and the Labor-oriented leadership of the new state.
So with hindsight it is not surprising that those unloading the vessel discovered they were surrounded by Israeli soldiers. It turns out that while the vessel was being unloaded, Ben-Gurion’s government had decided to demand that Begin surrender the vessel, its arms, and its passengers. When the ultimatum was sent, Begin was given 10 minutes to decide whether to obey. The vessel came under fire and six persons were killed at Kfar Vitkin.
Begin, seeking to avoid a clash between Jewish factions, ordered the vessel to move away from shore and proceed to Tel Aviv, where, according to an account by a former defense minister of Israel, Moshe Arens, he reckoned Ben-Gurion would be reluctant to attack. He turned out to have misjudged. The fight that ensued involved not only Ben-Gurion and Begin but two other future prime ministers. One, Levi Eshkol, was an aide to Ben-Gurion; another, Yitzhak Rabin, led the military attack on the Altalena.
One of weapons that fired on the Altalena was dubbed, by Ben-Gurion, the “holy cannon.” Within minutes the vessel was engulfed in flames, and there is a famous photo of the thick plumes of black smoke pouring into a breeze that carried them up the coast as a knot of gawkers watched from the beach. Those on board the boat plunged into the Mediterranean, though it is said that in Begin’s case the future premier was so reluctant to abandon ship that he had to be manhandled into the sea by his own supporters.
Begin had ordered his forces not to return fire. Ben-Gurion showed no such restraint; his forces fired even at those who were swimming for their lives. It was a ghastly slaughter. At the end of the day, the fight cost the lives of 16 Irgunists and three of the IDF, and even to this day there are those who reckon that they had been “murdered” by their own government. The following day, in remarks to the provisional government, Ben-Gurion made it sound as if he’d averted a coup against the new state.
Others reckon Ben-Gurion’s real aim had been to destroy what might have been his opposition. If so, he failed. Begin did go into the opposition. In the Knesset, Ben-Gurion refused to acknowledge him by name. A generation and a half later, the man who had to be wrestled off the burning Altalena acceded to the leadership of the country and won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Only later would the same prize be awarded the man who’d commanded the forces on the beach that fired the “holy cannon,” Yitzhak Rabin.
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No wonder the scramble is on now to raise the Altalena. The remains of the vessel were long since been towed out to sea and sunk, possibly, according to a dispatch in Haaretz, having been cut into pieces. In Brothers at War, Mr. Auerbach, a former Wellesley professor who is a scholar of both American and Israeli history, contrasts the brutality of Ben-Gurion with the restraint shown by George Washington in the most important challenge to the new American republic, the Whiskey Rebellion. The story reminds that sometimes those who appear to be the losers in the short term, as Menachem Begin appeared to be in the sinking of the Altalena, turn out to be the winners in the long run. By refusing to fire at the new Jewish state, he placed a bet on democracy that, for his own career, took him decades to redeem. It’s an example to inspire that is needed now more than ever.
This edition was corrected to clarify the reasons for Begin ordering the Altalena to stay away from Israel and to make clear that the Altalena had first come under fire while at Kfar Vitkin.