The Altalena seems to be on many commentators’ minds these days, mine included, but most of those who cite this incident misidentify its hero. The man Israel needs today isn’t the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, he’s former prime minister Menachem Begin.
The Altalena was an arms ship belonging to the Irgun, Begin’s pre-state underground. The ship reached Israel in June 1948, a month after statehood was declared, and Ben-Gurion ordered the arms transferred to the provisional government unconditionally (Begin had agreed to the transfer in principle, but wanted input into where the arms were sent). When Begin refused, Ben-Gurion – in a move subsequently credited with establishing the principle of the government’s monopoly over armed force – ordered the ship shelled. Survivors reported being shot at, even after they fled the burning ship and were helpless in the water. Sixteen were killed, and Irgunists begged Begin to authorize revenge attacks.