The Altalena: Israel’s (almost) civil war

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Just a month after its establishment, the State of Israel was on the brink of civil war, with two of its greatest leaders — David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin — facing off in the ultimate power struggle. Noam Weissman unpacks an event that continues to reverberate through Israeli society to this day. Join him as he asks how the Zionist dream nearly imploded and who deserves the credit for ending one of the biggest crises in Israeli history.

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Episode Transcript

I’m more of a non-fiction guy than a fiction guy. I love history and biographies. I love the world of thought and ideas, and I love being able to say, here are new things I now know because of what I read. But ever since the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve sort of expanded my horizons and I’ve been reading a bunch of fiction. My favorite book, the one that I can’t seem to get out of my head is John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.”

If you haven’t read it, or if you haven’t read it in a while, make sure to pick it up and spend precious time with it. The theme — or the motif — of sibling rivalry recurs throughout. First, it’s with Adam and his brother Charles, and then Adam has two sons named Cal and Aron. Playing off the first instance of fratricide — that is a brother killing a brother — in the Bible, when Cain killed Abel (see the theme of C names and A names there), Steinbeck tells the story of brothers fighting brothers, which is the “symbol story of the human soul.” 

Normally, when we think about the concept of the original sin, certainly more of a Christian concept than a Jewish one, we think of Eve and Adam, but Steinbeck forces us to reconsider this idea and instead basically highlights the sin of brothers fighting brothers, siblings fighting siblings, which is what really drives society, even today.

This is at the heart of the story of the Altalena, in which Israeli brothers fought each other, almost causing a civil war. I believe that we can all learn so much about Israel and Jewish history just from this episode — the story of the Altalena. 

All scars leave marks but some scars are more painful than others.

A little over one month old, the Jewish state was on the verge of civil war. Yes, a civil war. Not only were the Israelis now constantly fearful of fighting and war from their neighbors, but there was fighting within their own country. So, how did the Jewish State avert civil war and who deserves the credit for avoiding civil war altogether?

I am going to try to unpack this initial part of the history quickly. In the 30s and early 40s the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, then called Palestine, had three different militias who did not always get along…to say the least. 

The biggest was the Haganah, which was an underground defense militia. “Haganah,” means, “defense.”  The Haganah exercised a policy of restraint,  being careful to defend Jews from Arab violence, with no focus on counter attacking or preempting Arab attacks.   

Opposite the Haganah was Lechi, the freedom fighters for Israel. They were also derisively called the Stern Gang, because of some of their well, saltier tactics. I’m not really going to discuss them much, but you should definitely look into them. Also a rival of Haganah was another underground military organization called “Ha’Irgun Hatzvai Haleumi”, or the Irgun for short. The name means the “National Military Organization” and the Irgun intentionally took a more aggressive role against any threat to the Jewish state, and even carried out multiple attacks against the British.. David Ben-Gurion was the face of the more restrained Haganah and Menachem Begin, his arch nemesis was the leader of the Irgun. I’m not being dramatic, they were really like arch nemeses.

There would be some serious disagreements along the way. Some that stand out. A notable one is referred to as  the hunting season, or Saison — in which the Haganah even arrested members of the Irgun and handed them over to the British, fearing that Irgun attacks would put their cooperative relationship with the British in jeopardy.  But, no matter what, Menachem Begin ordered his Irgun men never to fight back against the Haganah, hoping to prevent a civil war. (This will sort of become a theme of sorts) Needless to say, this period of arrests intensified the animosity between the Haganah and the Irgun.

Oh, and of course, there was the infamous King David bombing in 1946 which was a serious source of conflict between the Haganah and the Irgun.

Fast forward a little bit. Then on November 29th, 1947 the big day arrived.

The United Nations voted to end British control of the Palestine Mandate, and to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state — a proposal that ultimately the Jews accepted and the Arabs rejected. So in May 1948, due to economic turmoil in the UK following the war and because of the incessant violence between the Jews, Arabs and themselves, the British finally decided to leave the area to allow the Jews and Arabs to “figure it out” on their own.

On May 14, 1948 when the British were packing their bags, David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. 

The Jewish people had a state! Wow. Just like that.

And with a state, there could only be one official army — and they would need one quickly for the War of Independence — so the underground Haganah morphed into Tzva HaHagana l’Yisrael, or the Israel Defense Forces, also known as the IDF.  The much smaller Irgun — led by Menachem Begin — agreed to be absorbed into the ranks of the IDF so they entered the War of Independence as a unified force. Kind of.

Listen, there was still massive distrust between the two leaders and their groups, and in this toxic environment, armed conflict against each other was not only likely but almost inevitable.  In fact, the British themselves had predicted that the Jews were too divided to successfully work together to fight against the Arabs.

On June 20, 1948, and I don’t think this is too dramatic to say, Jewish history was hanging in the balance.

A month into Israel’s War of Independence, the UN brokered a ceasefire and one of the conditions was that no new weapons could be brought into the country by either side during this ceasefire. This condition put Israel between a rock and a hard place because at the time not only was Israel very short on weapons and ammunition, but was facing invading Arab armies who were intent on wiping this nascent state off the face of the earth. 

The Altalena affair would bring to the surface the existential challenge of building a state. 

tHere’s what happened: The same day the UN ceasefire was announced, an Irgun boat, named the Altalena packed with 5000 rifles, 250 bren guns, 5 million bullets, and 50 bazookas set sail to Israel from France. The boat also had 940 fighters onboard, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. Little factoid here — the ship was named the Altalena because it was the pen name of the founder of revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Altalena is Italian for seesaw, but funnily enough, Jabotinsky thought it meant elevate.

Anyway, the background here is complicated but stick with me. The Altalena was a ship sent by the French because they were supporting the right wing Irgun against the left wing haganah, and to make sure the Irgun had support in Jerusalem against King Abdullah of Jordan, who was seen by the French as a British agent. GOT ALL THAT? See, what we have to remember is that while it’s true that the Irgun disbanded once Israel formally declared a state, but in Jerusalem, they still functioned, because Jerusalem was designated as an international city. 

Either way, the history seems to be clear that Begin hadn’t given the order to set sail, and when he found out about the boat, he actually alerted the Haganah — not wanting to appear as if he were undermining Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and the new IDF’s command.

Begin planned for the ship to land in Tel Aviv but Ben-Gurion feared that this violation of the ceasefire would be too obvious.  Instead, he preferred to land the ship in Kfar Vitkin, a few miles north, away from the public in an area that was deeply loyal to the Haganah forces and Ben-Gurion’s side of the political divide.  

Begin agreed to change the destination but was adamant that the Irgun keep 20% of the ammo. Ben-Gurion on the other hand, thought that arming thousands of Begin loyalist Irgun soldiers didn’t sound like the best idea. Ben-Gurion believed that there could only be one army, with one central command, and as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Ben-Gurion viewed Begin’s request as insubordinate at best and treasonous at worst.  The distrust between them was so deep, that Ben-Gurion feared that Begin might be planning a military coup. With clarity and purpose, Ben-Gurion explained, “There are not going to be two states. There are not going to be two armies! If Begin doesn’t give in, we shall open fire.”

The Altalena made its way to Israeli waters, and finally anchored off the coast of Kfar Vitkin.  Most of the passengers disembarked and went to join the IDF.  Both Haganaי and former Irgun soldiers worked together to help unload the cargo…but unfortunately, this is where things really went south.  Ben-Gurion, sending instructions to his officers at Kfar Vitkin, ordered Begin to hand over all of the cargo to the Haganah immediately with no preconditions, and warned Begin that he was surrounded by IDF troops.

Begin refused to acknowledge the ultimatum. I know there are a lot of perspectives out there on this, but it probably didn’t occur to him that Ben-Gurion actually considered him a danger to the state and maybe a threat to his power. He assumed this was the usual tussle between the two men, and tried to negotiate.  In this confusing and tense atmosphere, shots were fired…and I mean real shots.  We don’t know who fired first or why, but within minutes there was an open fire fight between the Haganah and Irgun members of the IDF. 

Let that soak in for a second…

Five weeks after the establishment of the Jewish State, Jewish soldiers of the brand new IDF were shooting at each other. Brothers shooting at Brothers…

At this point, Menachem Begin and his crew literally jumped aboard the ship and rushed towards the coast of Tel Aviv, where Begin hoped to speak directly with Ben-Gurion’s government.  On the beach lay dead and wounded soldiers from both sides.  Rumours spread and former Irgun members began leaving their posts.  Civil War was actually a real possibility.  The Altalena exchanged fire with IDF warships, eventually running aground off the coast of Tel Aviv, in full view of anyone strolling down the street, including the UN ceasefire observers. 

IDF soldiers were ordered to surround and attack the Irgun fighters.  Another firefight erupted, this time on the busy Tel Aviv beach.  Begin ordered Irgun fighters not to fire even if fired upon, but perhaps in the fog of battle his orders weren’t followed.  

On the Hagana side, IDF commander Yitzchak Rabin, just 26 years old at the time, but a senior military man at the time, and another future Prime Minister of Israel, found it nearly impossible to communicate with his soldiers in the chaos. Nevertheless, in much of Israeli historiography,  Rabin was blamed for the shooting, and it was something that haunted him his entire career. 

For many people, it is Rabin who got the blame. In fact, when Yigal Amir, you know, Rabin’s assassin, was interrogated in 1995, 47 years after the Altalena Affair, he said, “Rabin was responsible for the sinking of the Altalena…”Amir was essentially explaining why he hated Rabin so much. One of the reasons? The Altalena.

Back to the story.

The reality is that the order to shell the ship and sink it at sea came from the top — Ben-Gurion.The Irgunists abandoned ship just as the ammunition on board exploded, sending the Altalena to the bottom of the sea.  All told, 16 Irgunists and three IDF soldiers were killed in the battle.

Irgunists were rounded up, and IDF soldiers who refused to fire on fellow Jews were court martialed.  Begin went on the radio and demanded that his followers not fight the IDF, declaring “Do not raise a hand against a brother, not even today. It is forbidden for a Hebrew weapon to be used against Hebrew fighters.”

The two narratives / Who was responsible for preventing civil war?

Ostensibly, that’s where the story ends. The Haganah absorbed the Irgun, and they would have a unified army. But as is the case with the study of history, in the aftermath of the Altalena Affair, two very different narratives emerged. Both Ben-Gurion and Begin believed that they had each prevented civil war and saved the country due to their actions. But which one was actually the hero of the day? 

Ben-Gurion viewed his actions that day as essential in establishing a united front and the integrity of a unified army, the IDF. He believed that the greatest accomplishment of the Altalena Affair was that he maintained the rule of law at ALL costs even in a situation in which there were casualties. Ben-Gurion called the cannon that sank the Altalena, the “Holy Cannon.” He said it was so sacred, it “deserved to stand close to the Temple if it is built.” 

Menachem Begin, on the other hand, saw things quite differently. From his perch, he and those in his camp, believe he saved the state in its most vulnerable state. He went so far as to say, “After my death, I hope I will be remembered as someone who prevented civil war.” For him, not shooting was his life’s greatest accomplishment. 

However we look at it, the Altalena was shocking. It’s hard to imagine that during Israel’s war for its very existence, with Arab armies attempting to destroy it, there was so little unity amongst the Jewish population that Jews were fighting each other. 

Almost 2000 years ago when the Jewish Temple, the Beit Hamikdash, was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Romans, many point to the infighting amongst the Jewish community — you know, brothers fighting brothers — as the root problem that  allowed the destruction of Jerusalem and exile to take place. You can imagine how Jews felt when after nearly 2000 years of waiting, and only five weeks of regained statehood, the same strife almost brought the Jewish State tumbling down once again.

And yet, Begin made a startling decision: “Do not shoot back!”. That Begin chose to sublimate himself and his organization to the will of the newly-founded state is perhaps one of the defining moments in modern Israeli history as well as broader Jewish history, and he deserves credit for transcending his beliefs in the service of a cause bigger than himself.

Ultimately, this was a game changer for the young Jewish State and for Jewish history in general.

For one, the affair marked a critical point in Ben-Gurion’s early government and his system of authority. One country has one army! Secondly, and in a sadder way, it poisoned the relationship between the left and the right in Israel for decades. 

But…it’s about even more than that. If you spend time in Israel, speaking with Israelis or engaging in conversation about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the term “Altalena moment” has become part of the lexicon. An “Altalena moment” is basically when you take on your rivals within your group who threaten sovereignty. 

Some examples I thought of. When Yosef Lapid, a left-wing minister, once compared Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s dilemma with terrorism with Ben Gurion’s fight with the Irgun, saying Abbas needed to have his “Altalena moment” with Hamas…(Many on the Israeli right did not appreciate the right wing in Israel being compared to Hamas…I kinda hear that point)

Thomas Friedman, the well known author, suggested many times that Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO at the time needed his own “Altalena moment.” Rabin even would invoke this when Hamas was killing Israelis in suicide bombing after suicide bombing, Rabin would announced to his advisors, “Arafat needs his Altalena moment!” i.e take on your rivals! 

There were other “Altalena Moments,” like when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to remove 9000 Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005…or when the Elon Moreh settlement was established in 1974 in the face of government objection, the spiritual leader of the settler community, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook was described as “standing on the Altalena.”

If you want to understand Israel, you’ve got to know this story. 

Really, an Altalena Moment is this bizarre, paradoxical pursuit of unity which may require division.

If you ever catch yourself walking on the tayelet — the boardwalk in Tel Aviv — keep an eye out for a sign that shows where the Altalena sank. It’s hard to imagine Jews shooting at each other on the beaches of Tel Aviv… only a month after Israel’s statehood was declared… but then again, a lot of Israeli history is so crazy that it’s hard to imagine.

I like to think the Altalena story did not end there. Despite their genuine distrust of the other…in the end, Begin and Ben-Gurion kind of respected each other. No story says it better than this. When Israel was about to fight the most precarious of wars, the Six-Day War of 1967, Levi Eshkol, was the prime minister and suffice it to say, the Israelis did not have so much faith in him, especially Begin.

Want to know what he did?

I’ll tell you. He goes to his arch-nemesis’s house, David Ben-Gurion, to ask Ben-Gurion to join the government. It was left wing vs. right wing, pragmatist vs. idealist, secularist and atheist vs. religiously inclined again, and let’s not forget, Formal suit and tie meets khaki shirt and cotton pants. Though Ben-Gurion declined, the gesture softened his attitude to Begin and a tentative relationship began to develop.

“If i knew Begin like i know him now, the face of history would have been different.”

In a diary entry a couple years later, he acknowledges that his wife Paula really admired Begin. He writes, “For whatever reason, my Paula was always an admirer of yours. I opposed your path both before and after the establishment of the state, sometimes aggressively…but on the personal level I never felt ill-will toward you, and the more I got to know you in these past years the more have I come to respect you, and my Paula is happy about that.”

Five Fast Facts

  1. Only weeks after the establishment of the State of Israel, rivalling factions of Jews almost led the country to civil war.
  2. David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were arch enemies, but personally did not have ill will for the other.
  3. Ben-Gurion believes he saved Israel by creating one unified army while Begin believes he saved Israel by preventing his soldiers from shooting. 
  4. 16 Irgun fighters and three IDF soldiers were killed in the shootout.
  5. The term “Altalena moment” is used often in Israeli history.

Final Lesson

Those are the facts but here are the enduring lessons as I see them. No matter where we fall on the ideological or political spectrum, whether we’re Likud or Labor, we all ought to internalize the mantra of Menachem Begin. Let’s put down our arms. A Jew does not shoot at a Jew. It’s as simple as that. No equations, no proofs, nothing. Why?

It’s a simple reason that Begin said himself during the Altalena Affair: “Ki Yehudim anachnu.” “Because we are Jews.” We’re a family, one nation, and should remember that, always.The tensions between these two iconic Israeli leaders — Begin and Ben Gurion — remained deep after the war.  And even though they eventually made peace, a degree of animosity between their followers has persisted for decades, and can still be felt within the political tensions of left vs. right in Israeli politics today. Our greatest lesson might be that within a nation, disagreeing political factions must see each other as opponents, not enemies. No matter how fateful or urgent the disagreement, what unites us must always be more fundamentally important than what divides us. Because Steinbeck does not have to be right. Because perhaps brothers fighting brothers does not need to be the “symbol story of the human soul.”  Perhaps the true symbol story of the human soul is brothers reuniting with brothers.

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