Ships, their comings and goings, have lately been a fixation over at Israel's flagship left-wing (sporadically post-Zionist) Haaretz newspaper. Adding a new twist to what it means to be "embedded" with the enemy, one of the paper's stable of advocacy journalists, Amira Hass, has been writing adoringly about hooking-up with a pro-Palestinian flotilla that intends to smash Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
No less earnestly, the paper's front pages have been devoted to beating back challenges to the left's narrative about how the Irgun arms ship Altalena came to be sunk off the coast of Tel-Aviv 63 years ago this month (June 21, 1948) on orders from David Ben-Gurion. Haaretz has been incensed, too, by an Israel Defense Ministry reference to the fallen Irgun members as having been "murdered."
Now, historian Jerold S. Auerbach, author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009) has further undermined the leftist canon with Brothers At War, a succinct, emotive, and levelheaded summation of the Altalena tragedy.
Auerbach frames his Altalena account in terms of what he sees as Israel's ongoing identity struggle – "Jewish state, secular state, democratic state, democratic Jewish state, state of the Jewish people" – and the constraints this lack of clarity places on the legitimacy of massively consequential government decisions.
He asserts that this conundrum actually has ancient origins traceable to Josephus whose laments about the "seditious temper" of the Jewish people erroneously framed history's understanding of Rome's victory over the Jews for the past 2,000 years. In modern times, this dilemma manifested itself in the Altalena; in the 1952 Knesset clash over whether to accept German government reparations for the Holocaust; in the 1993 Oslo Accords, and has yet to find resolution notwithstanding the dreadful assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
It persists still over whether left-wing IDF reservists should be required to serve over the Green Line and whether right-wing Orthodox conscripts ought to be required, contrary to the wishes of their rabbis, to obey orders to dismantle unsanctioned West Bank outposts.
Put another way: Is the bigger threat to the Jewish commonwealth zealous Jews who reject disputed governmental decisions on divisive issues or the chronic failure of successive Israeli governments to foster consensus positions?
Where to begin the telling of Altalena calamity? Auerbach reasonably starts by differentiating the two Zionist camps; one led by Ben-Gurion which controlled Zionist officialdom and was inspired by a Jewish national renewal rooted in notions of socialist utopia; the other motivated by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and carried forth by his disciple Menachem Begin whose vision was one of a society based on middle-class entrepreneurial values. Long before the Altalena, Auerbach points out, there was a record of bad blood between the two camps exacerbated by the mysterious murder of Chaim Arlosoroff, bitter disputes over whether and how to confront the heartless British policy of closing the gates of Palestine prior to and during the Holocaust and over how best to respond to Arab brutality against Palestinian Jewry in the years before Israel's independence.
The Altalena (Jabotinsky's pen name) was purchased in America by Irgun operatives and, ultimately, loaded at Marseilles, France with desperately needed weapons and munitions along with a "melting pot" of 940 recruits for the nascent Hebrew fighting force in Palestine. As far as its American Jewish captain knew, his mission had the "acquiescence of the Israeli government."
Begin had indeed been negotiating directly with Ben-Gurion's man, Israel Galili, over how to disburse the ships weapons and troops. The Altalena's mission was unfortunately tracked from the start by various intelligence agencies and its secrecy blatantly exposed in a BBC news broadcast.
A series of disastrous miscommunications, logistical blunders and lack of internal Irgun discipline led to the ship's arrival seemingly at the wrong place and at the wrong time while the Begin-Galili talks were still in progress. In fact, Auerbach writes, Galili informed Begin on June 16: "We [i.e. Ben-Gurion] agree to the arrival of the vessel. As quickly as possible." And in his diary entry that day Ben-Gurion wrote: "Tomorrow or the next day their ship is due to arrive." So it was Ben-Gurion himself who ordered the ship to land at Kfar Vitkin (near Netanya) to avoid UN aerial surveillance.
As the Begin-Galili talks proceeded, some of the weapons and almost all of the personnel on board were unloaded near Netanya. By then, Ben-Gurion had allowed himself to be convinced that Begin was planning a putsch against his authority even as the Irgun leader – perhaps naively – felt certain the weapons negotiations would succeed in the fullness of time. But there was no time. Ben-Gurion edgily ordered the Haganah (now the IDF) to start shooting. Six Irgun men and two soldiers were killed before the ship fled Netanya south and ran aground off the Tel Aviv coast not far from Palmach headquarters!
Ben-Gurion insisted on unconditional surrender or else. Yitzhak Rabin, age 26, was appointed on the spot to command the beach fighting. When the Altalena crew hesitated perhaps because of poor communications with Irgun headquarters, Palmach commanders ordered an all out attack on the ship. Even though the crew raised a white flag, Rabin's snipers continued to pick off targets bobbing in the waters. Begin, who had earlier boarded the ship expecting a deal with Galili, barely escaped with his life. The ship went down along with 300 Bren guns, 500 anti-tank guns, 1,000 grenades and millions of bullets that could have been used during the War of Independence.
Auerbach's conclusion, citing historian Ehud Sprinzak, was that there had been no "mutiny on the right" no intention to defy the legitimate authority of the land and certainly no intention by Begin to challenge Ben-Gurion militarily with a putsch. Begin had only wanted enough men and guns earmarked to carry on the fight for Jerusalem's Old City (which Ben-Gurion had abandoned) and thought he had Galili's tacit approval.
Begin abhorred the idea of a Jewish civil war and ultimately, swallowing his pride, ordered his Irgun men into the IDF on September 20, 1948. It was Ben-Gurion's "quasi-totalitarian" personality that led the socialist leader to "a reprehensible abuse of state power," as Begin later plausibly asserted.
Auerbach's sensitive re-telling of this tragic chapter in Israel's early history concludes with the unhappy, though sadly correct, assertion that Israel's "problem of legitimacy" remains unresolved.
How can Israeli decision makers emphatically steer clear of future Altalena's in implementing wrenching policies that have monumental consequences for the country's survival and character? Auerbach argues simply that they can't. In connection with dismantling settlements, my reading is that he believes the right to disobey orders is scared.
Yet surely for most Israelis, in the unlikely event that a Palestinian leadership emerges ready to make genuine peace, the legitimacy of the deal could be appreciably bolstered and the moral justification of violent disobedience diminished by some combination of Knesset vote plus national referendum.
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