Remembering the ‘Altalena’

Few people remember that the Jewish state was born amid its own domestic legitimacy crisis.

June 20, 2011 22:24
3 minute read.

JEROLD S. AUERBACH 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Israel is confronting increasingly virulent worldwide challenges to its legitimacy.

An expanding chorus of politicians, journalists and academics relentlessly denounces the Jewish state as a racist, apartheid abomination. The resemblance between their shrill diatribes and the rhetoric of anti-Semitism during the past 2,000 years is not coincidental.

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Few people remember that the Jewish state was born amid its own domestic legitimacy crisis. Its echoes still reverberate through the country, and may yet determine its future. In June 1948, six weeks after declaring independence, Israel confronted internal conflict that raised the specter of civil war. Surrounded by invading Arab armies, the fledgling Jewish state seemed on the verge of reenacting the first-century tragedy of fratricide that terminated Jewish national sovereignty for nearly two millennia.

To prime minister David Ben-Gurion, the arrival of the Altalena – a ship that sailed from France with desperately needed munitions and fighters – was the spearhead of a right-wing putsch to overthrow the government. Alleging a menacing challenge to the state and to his own authority, Ben-Gurion seized the opportunity to quash his detested right-wing political opposition, led by Menachem Begin.

His order to destroy the ship ignited a two-day battle in which 19 Jews were killed by their Jewish “brothers.”

The Altalena remains a sorrowful reminder that groundless hatred – condemned in Judaism ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE – tormented the Jewish people even at their wondrous moment of national rebirth.

In recent years, that doomed pariah ship has occasionally resurfaced from buried memory to roil Israeli politics.


On the Left, Israelis still claim that Begin’s Irgun got what it deserved for daring to challenge the authority of the state. For those on the Right, however, Ben-Gurion acted with ruthless determination to delegitimize, if not destroy, his despised political opposition.

Israel's internal legitimacy problem focuses on Jewish settlers in the West Bank, biblical Judea and Samaria. Some rabbinical authorities have justified military disobedience in response to settlement evacuation orders from the government – citing the precedent of conscience-stricken soldiers who disobeyed orders to fire on Altalena fighters.

Some religious soldiers have been discharged or jailed even for expressing opposition to settler expulsion. Others (following the precedent set by thousands of secular Israelis who refused military service during the first Lebanon war) have indicated their unwillingness to participate. It seems inconceivable that Israeli soldiers would – ever again – shoot fellow Jews. But the Altalena precedent hovers over the Jewish state as a perennial reminder of the tragic possibility of internecine violence.

The current crusade to delegitimize Israel as a racist, apartheid state occupying someone else’s land has become an international obsession. Pressure from the United Nations (and the Obama administration) to offer “land for peace” is unlikely to relent. Even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, during his recent Washington visit, indicated his willingness to relinquish settlements (and remove settlers) outside the larger “blocs” closest to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Should that happen, Israelis may confront yet again the wrenching choices of 1948: When must political decisions and military orders be obeyed? When is disobedience justified? Who decides? Secular and religious Israelis have been unable to agree upon terms of Zionist unity that will finally resolve their enduring struggle over internal legitimacy. Any attempt by their government to expel tens of thousands of Jews from their homes, effectively undermining religious Zionism by eradicating its geographical base, could be catastrophic.

It might even provoke a confrontation that would make the battle over the Altalena, which erupted 63 years ago on June 21, seem like a minor historical blip. In Israel, once again, Jews could become brothers at war.

The writer is the author of Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena, published in May by Quid Pro Books.

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