menachem begin heritage center.
(photo credit: iTravelJerusalem)
For the 63rd anniversary of the sinking of the Altalena on David Ben-Gurion’s
order, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center have
announced plans to initiate a search for the remains of the ship, which might be
used to construct a memorial for those killed during the event.
Altalena still evokes strong emotions in Israeli society. Until the 1977
upheaval, when Begin’s Herut Party beat out the long ruling Mapai, it was the
Labor Movement’s narrative about the event that dominated.
presented the IZL as an organization having difficulty accepting the reality of
an independent Jewish state led by its enemy of old – Labor – and the principle
that in a sovereign state, it is the state, by means of its democratically
elected government, that monopolizes all military forces and all decisions
concerning national issues. The right-wing narrative claimed that this
description was misleading, and that the event was the result of blind
It was inevitable that following Menachem Begin’s assumption of
power, the official narrative would undergo change.
Within a year, two
books about the Altalena affair appeared – one presenting the position of the
Right, and the other the position of the Left. Nevertheless, Begin himself
refrained from officially reopening the Altalena issue. Magnanimity and
political wisdom undoubtedly guided his decision.
The Prime Minister’s
Office stated last week that “we wish to preserve the heritage and story of the
Altalena, and especially the values around it. It is especially important to
thus preserve the value of preventing civil war, and preserving unity among the
people.” This is indeed a noble cause, but the question is whether the Prime
Minister’s Office and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center have the will and power
to ensure that this intention is in fact realized, and that a reopening of the
issue will be used to foster national unity and – more importantly – strengthen
How can this be done, especially when one is dealing with an
issue that is still the basis of deep disagreement? The Altalena affair ended
without civil war because Menachem Begin bowed to the superior power of the
then-majority, accepted the rules that it laid down (largely because he was a
true democrat), and abhorred the thought of civil war. For the following 29
years, he worked tirelessly worked toward a change in the political balance of
power in the country, and was finally victorious.
IS THIS still a message
that is acceptable to some of the disaffected Jewish minority groups in Israel,
who pose a threat to national unity and democracy today? I’m not so sure. For
example, Rabbi Dov Lior and his followers reject a basic principle accepted by
the majority to the effect that everyone is equal before the law, including a
revered (and controversial) rabbi, and that anyone summoned for a police
investigation must turn up.
Whether or not the police acted wisely on
Monday when it set an ambush for the rabbi and detained him is debatable.
However, no police act forcing Lior to attend the investigation would have been
considered legitimate by him and his followers. They simply do not accept the
rules of democracy, and no matter how the heritage of the Altalena is presented,
that will not change.
The same applies to the prospect of Israel
voluntarily relinquishing parts of Judea and Samaria within the framework of an
Israeli-Palestinian political settlement.
Should a majority finally
approve such a move (and the right wing in the Knesset is doing its best to
place as many legal obstacles as possible on the road), the hard core of
ideological settlers and their supporters will not accept this lying down. Once
again, the Altalena heritage concerning national unity and democracy will have
no effect on their views and actions. As Harold Auerbach stated in his article
last week, for the settlers, the part of the Altalena heritage that is relevant
is that there were some soldiers who refused to cooperate with the attack – the
forefathers of today’s soldiers who have been permitted by their rabbis to
disobey orders on ideological grounds.
In other words, “heritage” is in
the eyes of the beholder, and it is questionable whether the Altalena affair can
be mobilized to promote national unity and democracy among those who pose a
threat to them.The writer is a former Knesset employee