The Altalena on fire after being shelled near Tel Aviv in June 1948. Wikipedia.
For most of the period between 9/11 and Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza I lived in Israel, the last couple of years in Jerusalem. By a series of coincidences, and because Israel is a very small country, I found myself working for Benzion Netanyahu, translating some of his old Hebrew articles for an English-language collection eventually published as The Founding Fathers of Zionism. Benzion was a historian of Spanish Jewry who, having failed to secure tenure at Hebrew University, had taught for years in the U.S. and subsequently published a biography of the late-medieval Spanish rabbi and courtier Don Isaac Abravanel and a monumental history, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain.
While in the U.S., he and his wife also raised three sons: one, Jonathan, a military commander felled in the daring 1976 raid on Entebbe; another, Iddo, a radiologist by profession and a gifted playwright; and the third, Benjamin, to become the longest-serving prime minister of Israel. Benzion, in his nineties by the time I worked with him, didn’t use e-mail and didn’t own a photocopier, so once or twice, while his secretary went down the street to make copies, I had occasion to sit and chat with him. I don’t mean to suggest we had long soulful conversations, but what he did say he said with considerable authority—when he called my house once and announced himself, “Netanyahu here,” my wife said he had the scariest voice she’d ever heard—and a few remarks stick in my mind.
Naturally, because of the book and the five fathers of Zionism he saw fit to include in it—Leon Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill, and Zeev Jabotinsky—we spoke occasionally about Zionism itself. In addition to his academic specialty of medieval Judaism, he was a keen student of Zionist politics, having been in his younger days an active member of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement and for a brief time Jabotinsky’s secretary in New York. That was in 1940; following Jabotinsky’s death later that same year, he had taken over the directorship of the movement’s American branch.
I think of the book especially when this time of year rolls around and we pass the anniversary of the sinking of the Altalena. I don’t expect you to know about it; today even most Israelis don’t know the details. I asked my mother about it the other day and she said, “The Altalena was sunk by the British, wasn’t it?”
Well, no. The Altalena was a ship carrying 153-million-francs’ worth of arms donated by the French government to Menachem Begin’s Irgun, as well as 940 volunteers seeking to join that underground movement made up mostly of Jabotinsky’s faithful followers. David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Mapai party, had declared independence on May 14, 1948, and on June 1 an agreement was signed committing Irgun members to enlist in the newly-created Israel Defense Force (where they would serve in their own battalions), to turn over all their weapons to the IDF, and to desist from any further arms acquisition. The agreement was part of a plan, begun in 1947, to transform the Haganah from a militia into an army capable of defending the nascent Jewish state, and to subsume under its control the various other Jewish paramilitary organizations in Palestine.
But beneath the new accord was a chasm of ill feeling that Begin was trying to paper over. Not long previously, the Haganah and Irgun had been at each other’s throats. Only days before the declaration of independence, the Haganah had persecuted the Irgun, going so far as to inform on some of its members to the British, thus expediting their executions. Now Begin signed the IDF agreement with a fountain pen previously owned by his mentor and was deeply moved to have lived to see, as Jabotinsky did not, the formation of a Hebrew army.
There remained, however, one outstanding problem: the Altalena. The Irgun tried to sell it to the Haganah, but the Haganah’s commanders refused because there had been so much talk about the ship they doubted it could arrive without being intercepted. By then a cease-fire was in place between Israel’s provisional government and the Arab armies, which at this point were in possession of a third of the territory designated for the Jewish state by the November 1947 UN partition plan.
The cease-fire forbade entry of any further combatants into the country, and Begin had no desire to let the Irgun play the spoiler. But when the Altalena set sail on June 11, Begin wasn’t notified. Irgun representatives met with their IDF counterparts to discuss what to do about the ship, and left with the impression that if the arms did arrive safely, they would be a welcome contribution to the war effort.
But Ben-Gurion didn’t want the ship to dock in Tel Aviv and instead suggested Kfar Vitkin, a Mapai stronghold further north along the coast, leaving unresolved the question of who would get the arms.
This question mattered. At the time, there was an all-around dearth of ammunition. Only some 1,500 rifles were in Israeli hands, while Irgun units had no arms to speak of. The ship held another 5,000 rifles and much ammunition. Representatives of the two sides met again, but failed to come to an agreement.
At some point while the Altalena was still at sea, the Haganah lost faith in Begin’s pledge of cooperation and concluded that the Irgun was intent on keeping the arms for itself in order to form an autonomous army within the IDF. The provisional government nonetheless agreed to Begin’s request that 20 percent of the Altalena’s arms be given to the Irgun’s Jerusalem battalion—which retained its independence—after the entire shipment went first to an IDF depot. Begin agreed on condition that the remaining arms would then be allocated to other Irgun units—a condition the IDF wouldn’t accept.
When the ship docked at Kfar Vitkin, the human cargo was unloaded without much trouble. Unloading the weapons was another matter, however, as the IDF had set up roadblocks around the area. Former Irgun members began deserting their IDF units and making their way to Kfar Vitkin to support their comrades. Ben-Gurion, stirred from his bed by a telegram asking whether to fire on Irgun forces if they began to unload the ship on their own, authorized the nascent Israeli navy to sink the Altalena.
At 1:00 am on June 21, the IDF sent Begin a written ultimatum demanding that he hand over the ship and all of its contents within ten minutes. There were now two rings of roadblocks around Kfar Vitkin: IDF forces outside and an Irgun ring within. As the message was making its way, the fledgling Israeli air force was instructed to prepare to bomb the Altalena. The pilots refused. When the IDF ultimatum reached Begin, he said he wanted to talk to the commander of the IDF forces, who said Begin could come to him, which Begin refused to do. And there negotiations stalled.
Irgun forces managed to unload a few tons of arms before being surrounded by government ships. There were about 40 Irgun men on the ship and 100 more on the beach, with more arriving despite the IDF roadblock. An IDF force then set out for Kfar Vitkin, leaving behind eighteen soldiers who refused to wage war on their fellow Jews. Meanwhile, negotiations continued and even seemed to be making headway when Ben-Gurion telegraphed his commanders to say that the time for compromise was over—the Irgun would obey or the IDF would open fire.
Amazingly, the stand-off went on until that afternoon until finally, as Irgun men arriving from Tel Aviv overran an IDF position and started dismantling the roadblock, another IDF unit opened fire. Two Irgun members died and many were left wounded, but after a further stand-off the Irgun broke through the roadblock and drove to Tel Aviv to wait. Some Irgun commanders considered the possibility of seizing the government offices there. Begin wouldn’t hear of it. “Jerusalem fell because of civil war. Shall we now cause it to fall again?”
Back on the beach, under IDF fire, Irgun members began opening the crates of arms to fire back, stopping only when the IDF started shelling them. At 9:30 pm the Altalena’s crew ceased unloading and set sail for Tel Aviv. Begin was convinced that so long as he was on board, nothing would happen to the ship, and that Irgun sympathizers in Tel Aviv would help finish unloading it.
Once the ship was off the shore of Tel Aviv on June 22, Ben-Gurion gave the order to open fire. He had to give it three times. The first soldier said he’d not come to Palestine to kill Jews. The second wavered and then likewise refused. The third was Yitzḥak Rabin, who accepted the order. A shell hit the ship and it caught fire. In the ensuing skirmish, sixteen Irgun members and three IDF soldiers died.
The Altalena was burning, but Begin left it only after the last of the wounded had been evacuated. Onshore, he retreated to the Irgun radio station where he vented his spleen over the airwaves but again insisted his men should not respond and start a civil war among Jews. That night he effectively went into political opposition for the next 30 years. In the Knesset, where he would serve through eight consecutive elections as the representative of the Ḥerut party, the forerunner of Likud, Ben-Gurion refused to call him by name, instead referring to him as “the Member of the Knesset sitting next to so-and-so.”
All of the Irgun units were disbanded and dispersed into the larger IDF. Decades later, Yitzḥak Rabin, by then the prime minister, gave an interview in which he shamefacedly acknowledged that his orders had not been just to fire on the ship but to kill Begin if the opportunity arose.
Benzion Netanyanu’s book, the one that I was helping to translate, was about the fathers of Zionism. I was even more curious about the fathers of the state of Israel, three of whom had been on that beach: David Ben-Gurion, who formed the provisional government; Yitzḥak Rabin, who was willing to kill to protect it; and Menachem Begin, who recognized it as a reality that overrode all political rivalries.
I asked him what Ben-Gurion would have thought of the decline of the Israeli people to the point where, in 1996, one of them had assassinated a prime minister (Rabin) and others were now talking about shooting another (Ariel Sharon, who was then preparing to pull out of Gaza). He replied, “It is not the quality of the people that has declined but the quality of the leaders.”
And what were his thoughts about Ben-Gurion? Netanyahu had edited the Encyclopedia Hebraica for many years and said that Ben-Gurion, who had personally supervised the project, wanted him to continue doing so, but he quit to work on his own books. Ben-Gurion, he added, had many admirable qualities but was nevertheless rodef srarah, an expression with which I was unfamiliar. When I inquired what it meant he replied: “power hungry.”
And what about Begin, who finally became prime minister in 1977? “He deserved power. He’d driven out the British. He was a great man. But he shouldn’t have given back the Sinai” in the 1978 peace agreement with Egypt.
In my own view, the single act that heralded the essence of the state of Israel was what Begin later credited as his own greatest accomplishment: not retaliating against the IDF in June 1948. He deserved power not, as Netanyahu said, because he drove out the British, but for refusing to allow the Jewish state to splinter before it got under way.
Israel is dotted with museums, memorials, official versions of everything. All have a certain grand and heroic tone about them, except for the Irgun museum on the Tel Aviv beach, which was funded by the first Likud government 30 years after the Altalena sank. Any poem or song you read on the walls there has retained its rawness—like the poem by Raphael Kirsch, written in the interval between his landing on the Altalena and his death in the War of Independence in the campaign to conquer the Negev:
We set out on the journey / to fight and to suffer for you
We brought the spirit of liberty / A ship full of arms to free you,
But how you received us / By God I will never forget.
We dreamed about brothers in arms / And met the cannon’s shell.
Whether Benzion Netanyahu’s judgments of the fathers of Zionism will survive as long as his work on the Spanish Inquisition, I do not know. But it is no small irony that the son of Jabotinsky’s secretary has become the longest-serving prime minister of the state whose provisional government opened fire on Jabotinsky’s heir, Menachem Begin.
At the start of his son’s first term as prime minister in 1996, Professor Netanyahu famously remarked that he was probably more suited to be foreign secretary than prime minister. When I suggested to him that perhaps Benjamin (“Never Bibi, please”) would be remembered more for his Thatcherite reforms while finance minister than for that first term, the father made no comment, just stared at me under the huge bust of his eldest son Yoni that dominated his study and then asked if I had a son. I acknowledged that I did. He advised me to look after him. Then he waved me out and shut the door.