The sad saga of the ‘Altalena’ – 70 years later

In 2012, the wreckage of the Altalena was discovered by marine experts who were tasked with finding the vessel by the Begin Center, in an effort partially funded by the Israeli government.

BYSTANDERS WATCH as the ‘Altalena’ burns after being shelled near Tel Aviv on June 22, 1948 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
BYSTANDERS WATCH as the ‘Altalena’ burns after being shelled near Tel Aviv on June 22, 1948
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As a boy in the US a few years before Israel came into being, I was slightly exposed to the roots of the “Altalena Affair.”
My mother and I were living in Norfolk, Virginia in 1945 and 1946, while my father was serving overseas in a military government unit after World War II ended. Being a native of Norfolk, my mother had family in town, and we came to live there with my Bubbie Birshtein and Uncle Easy for 14 months.
My uncle became a father figure during that time as we fished together and one day, he started to talk to me about the Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary organization in pre-state Palestine which would not halt its many actions aimed at destroying the British will to remain in Eretz Yisrael. Uncle Easy had been approached by an American representative of the Irgun who was seeking funds to aid these “patriotic fighters.”
I did not see him actually hand over any money; however, he did tell me he hoped his dollars would purchase equipment for the battles then in progress in the Holy Land and those to come.
For me, writing about the Altalena is a way of recalling my late uncle, who was not religious but was Zionistic and deeply committed to the birth of a Jewish state.
On May 14, 1948, Israel was born, and the Arabs immediately attacked with rifle fire, cannon fire and bombs from the air provided by the Egyptian Air Force. The fighting was unceasing day and night. Many people were killed and Jerusalem’s Old City came under heavy fire. Menachem Begin, who would later become prime minister, had by then been the leader of the Irgun for many years. The British sought his capture, but Begin went into hiding and their efforts were to no avail. The initial fighting in 1948 raged from May 15 to June 1, until the United Nations mediator was able to organize a truce.
IN THE fall of that year, the Associated Press described the confrontation over the Altalena – between Begin and rival David Ben-Gurion, head of the Hagana paramilitary organization and Israel’s provisional government – in this fashion: “At the heart of this incident was a bitter, long-festering conflict between two of the main factions that characterized the founding period of the state... on the one hand, Ben-Gurion, left-leaning Zionist, against the militant right-winged group headed by Menachem Begin.”
The two leaders faced an explosive situation a few weeks after the founding of the state. On June 15, Begin announced, “The ship, with fighters and armaments, which was supposed to be halted from France, has already sailed.”
In his diary, Ben-Gurion recorded the steps that were being taken to deal with the ship and its cargo of ammunition. On June 16, 1948, he wrote: “[Hagana high command members] Yisrael Galili and Levi Eshkol met yesterday with Begin. Tomorrow or the next day their ship is due to arrive, bringing 800 to 900 men, 5,000 rifles, 25 Bren guns, 5 million bullets, 50 bazookas, 10 Bren carriers.”
He then added: “Zipstein, director of Tel Aviv Port, assumes that at night it will be possible to unload it all. I believe we should not endanger Tel Aviv Port. They [ship, ammunition, fighters] should not be sent back. They should be disembarked at an unknown shore.”
Tensions were high because the initial truce of the War of Independence had gone into effect on June 11. The Israeli leadership was afraid that by openly bringing in combatants and arms they would be breaking the truce. So a port had to be found where the ship could be unloaded quietly. Initially, Netanya was selected.
Another AP story reported: “An Israeli communique revealed that six Irgun men were killed and 14 wounded in a battle near Netanya on the Mediterranean coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa when the Irgunists made an abortive attempt to land arms near that diamond center. Hagana, the Israel Army, lost two killed and three wounded.”
The following details fill out the story a bit more.
On June 1, 1948, an agreement was signed between the provisional government and the Irgun for the absorption of the Irgun into the IDF. Stated in that agreement was that the Irgun would cease all independent arms-acquisitions activities.
When it became known that the ship was coming with men and military equipment aboard, Ben-Gurion met with Begin to discuss the allocation of the cargo. Ben-Gurion agreed to Begin’s initial request that 20% of the weapons be allocated to the Irgun’s Jerusalem Battalion, which was still fighting independently.
Ben-Gurion rejected the second request that the remainder of the armaments be transferred to the IDF to equip the newly incorporated Irgun battalions, which he thought to be a demand to reinforce “an army within an army.”
On June 20, 1948, the Altalena reached the shores off Kfar Vitkin about midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, a location considered less visible to the British. Begin and other Irgun figures were on-site to welcome the arrivals. The fighters disembarked from the ship and some of the military equipment was brought ashore.
However, the next series of events radically changed the tone. June 20 was a Monday, and the provisional government was meeting in Tel Aviv. When word of the landing made it to the meeting, Ben-Gurion demanded that “Begin surrender and hand over all the weapons.”
The meeting produced several resolutions, one of which read: “We must decide to hand over power to Begin or to order him to cease his separate activities. If he does not do so, we will open fire.”
The next resolution, which has been the source of endless debate, sanctioned the provisional government “to empower the army to use force if necessary to overcome the Irgun and to confiscate the ship and its cargo.”
When the request was made to hand over its weapons, the Irgun refused, and a deadly battle ensued. Seven Irgun fighters and two IDF soldiers died at the initial landing. Ultimately, the fighting ended when the residents of Kfar Vitkin were able to negotiate a cease-fire.
BEGIN THEN took a boat from shore, boarded the Altalena and told the captain he should sail to Tel Aviv. It has long been felt that Begin was hoping for a compromise. However, Ben-Gurion ordered Yigael Yadin, who was then acting chief of staff of the IDF, to concentrate large forces on the Tel Aviv shore in order to be able to capture the ship.
People in Tel Aviv watched in amazement as “heavy guns” were transferred to the beach. When the Irgun issued a statement of surrender, Ben-Gurion ordered the Altalena to be shelled – and the vessel eventually began to burn.
I located a picture published in an Atlanta newspaper on June 24, 1948, of a large crowd on the beach watching the ship go up in flames. The caption reads: “An Irgun Zvai Leumi ship loaded with guns and ammunition burns fiercely off the coast of Israel at Tel Aviv after shelling by Israeli government forces to keep Irgunists from landing and breaking the Arab-Jewish truce arranged by [UN mediator] Count Folke Bernadotte. The beach scene is less than 50 yards from UN truce headquarters. The ship, a converted American landing craft, had sailed from Marseilles with supplies for the Jewish terrorist organization.”
In the picture, you can see children in shorts and others, some holding bicycles, as they look out at the scene.
A short item near the picture states, “Irgun causing internal crisis, the seriousness of which cannot be minimized. In this situation, the government used every effort to stave off the threat of civil war.”
We can only imagine the anguish felt by those who watched from the shore on that day 70 years ago. Begin insisted he would not leave the ship until all the wounded on board had been evacuated safely to dry land; his men finally pushed him into the sea to ensure his escape.
As Jews around the world have come to realize, there are two distinct opinions about who was right. Herzl Makov, director of Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center, has a very defined position: “Begin decided not to fight back. He realized it was a strategic issue. If we, the Jewish people, were now going to have a war among ourselves, there was no chance for independence to work. So he ordered ‘Don’t shoot back.’”
The other side emphasizes that Israel became a truly sovereign state with the sinking of the Altalena. Prof. Anita Shapiro, a noted scholar of Israel’s history, said: “The idea that small minorities are entitled to use force to change the course of the story was a basic tenet of all Jewish underground movements. Ben-Gurion wouldn’t have any of it.”
In 2012, the wreckage of the Altalena was discovered by marine experts who were tasked with finding the vessel by the Begin Center, in an effort partially funded by the Israeli government. The craft was eventually found on the seabed several kilometers off the coast of Rishon Lezion at a depth of about 300 meters. The government subsequently announced plans to raise the wreck at some point in the future, and install it on dry land either in Tel Aviv or at the Begin Center as a monument – and a cautionary tale of how close the fledgling Jewish state came to civil war.
The writer is the author of American Heritage Haggadah, which can be found in the libraries of three American presidents.