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.
Begin refused to retaliate. However viciously Ben-Gurion’s government had acted, or might act in the future if this slaughter elicited no response, nothing, as he later wrote in his memoir, The Revolt, could be as bad as a “fratricidal war” that would “destroy the Jewish state before it was properly born.” For any Jewish state was better than none at all.
This is a message both left and right in Israel desperately need to relearn. But, for lack of space, I’ll defer the left until next week and focus on the right, where young hooligans are attacking both Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in a paroxysm of rage at what they see as the state’s betrayal of its mission.
As I wrote last week, their disdain for democracy and the law is understandable, but their disdain for the state itself is another matter – because, by every parameter they themselves claim to value, our imperfect Jewish state is infinitely better than no state at all.
Jewish settlement? Yes, the 2005 disengagement uprooted some 9,000 settlers; outpost evictions have uprooted additional dozens, maybe even hundreds, and more may well follow. But, under the Jewish state’s protection, the number of Jews inhabiting the Land of Israel has risen from 650,000 in 1948 to 5.9 million today, including hundreds of thousands in the Biblical heartland of Jerusalem and the West Bank. And, without that protection, a mass exodus like the one that followed the destruction of the last Jewish state 2,000 years ago would ensue, leaving the land once again devoid of all but a handful of Jews. If you care about Jewish settlement, then preserving the state – any state, even one that sometimes uproots settlements – should be your highest priority.
Access to holy places? Thanks to the Jewish state, Jews can pray freely at the Western Wall, Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs and other sites from which successive foreign governments barred them for 2,000 years. That Jewish worship remains forbidden at some sites, like the Temple Mount, is indeed shameful. But, without the Jewish state, the list would be far longer.
Saving Jewish lives? Yes, the state is sometimes delinquent in protecting its citizens; its ongoing tolerance of rocket fire from Gaza, for instance, is disgraceful. But the approximately 14,500 Israelis killed in all wars and terror attacks combined since 1948 pales beside, say, the six million Jews murdered from 1939-45. And that is precisely the right comparison, because those Jews died, in large part, for lack of anywhere to flee to. That no comparable slaughter of Jews has occurred since then is thanks to the Jewish state, which enables endangered Jewish communities, like those that used to inhabit many Arab countries, to get out before they are murdered.
Observance of Jewish precepts? True, Israel isn’t a halachic state. But it’s the only state in the world where government offices serve, and major supermarket chains sell, only kosher food; where the army is forbidden to make soldiers do nonessential work on Shabbat; where the government subsidizes yeshiva studies; where Shabbat and many Jewish holidays are mandatory days off. In short, it’s incomparably more Jewish than any non-Jewish state would ever be, and makes it incomparably easier to live a Jewish life.
Yet all these achievements are endangered by right-wing extremism. First, when self-proclaimed defenders of Jewish values engage in thuggery, they make nonobservant Jews despise Judaism. That could well lead to a less Jewish state, rather than the more Jewish one the extremists claim to want.
Second, in the name of saving “the Jewish people,” these extremists are endangering actual Jews. Already, the IDF’s Central Command is reportedly diverting 30 percent of its forces to dealing with right-wing extremism, at the obvious expense of counterterrorism. And, while terrorist activity has been muted lately, the extremists could easily cause a flare-up by stoning Palestinian cars and torching mosques.
But the worst danger of all is civil war. Certainly, that isn’t the extremists’ goal. But, if they keep attacking soldiers, some soldier will eventually feel threatened enough to open fire. That might well cause the extremists to escalate, driving more people into their ranks, creating a vicious cycle: Each new incident would deepen and widen the sense of grievance on both sides until the situation spiraled out of control.
A country like America, protected from external enemies by two oceans, can survive a civil war. Israel, surrounded by enemies, cannot, as Jewish history amply proves. It’s a pity that famed historian Josephus’s The Jewish War isn’t required reading in all schools; its chilling depiction of Jewish factions too busy fighting each other to unite against the Romans might dampen enthusiasm for civil war among left and right alike. But the same message is clear in the Bible, which these youngsters presumably have read: The civil war that splits the nation into two kingdoms, Judah and Israel, sparks a long decline that culminates, first, in the destruction of Israel and the permanent loss of 10 tribes and then in the destruction of Judah and a devastating exile. Indeed, Jewish history is one long lesson in the catastrophes that occur when Jews raise their hand against other Jews.
Begin understood that, and taught it to his followers. We desperately need someone who can do the same today.
The writer is a journalist and commentator. She is currently a JINSA Visiting Fellow.