The Altalena and the State of Israel

    April 1999            
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The Altalena and the State of Israel


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Opinion & Society


The Altalena - One Sad Story

By Chaim Eliezer

The history of the creation of the State of Israel has always been charged with emotions. Mostly these emotional feelings are positive, but to the old timers of the state, the incidents that surrounded the emergence of the state were causes of deep inter Jewish hatred and suspect amongst brethren. This is highlighted in an extreme manner in an episode called the "Atlalena" from which an important lesson must be learnt.

The Alatlena was the name of a boat that brought in supplies, arms and Jewish soldiers. It met a sad fate which illustrates some of the inborn problems that existed during the formation of the State of Israel and the subsequent government intrigues and prejudices that were and still abound in the national government. To properly understand the rise of the State of Israel and the Altalena affair we must first understand a bit of its background.

Before the British relinquished their rule in Palestine (its name before the rise of the modern state of Israel), the Arabs and British had fought many battles against the Jews. These were due to the British, who as rulers and protectors of Palestine, did not avail the Jews with any protection against the attacking Arab marauder bands and later organized Arab armies. The Jews, in order to defend themselves, set up their own clandestine defense groups. One was the Haganah, also known as the Palmach, and another was the I.Z.L. (the Irgun Zvai Leumi - meaning the national army group) or known simply as the Irgun. (It should be noted that other groups also existed, but in the framework of this article, we shall just focus on these two groups.)

The Haganah was under the command of David Ben Gurion; where as the Irgun was lead by Menachem Begin. The Haganah was the larger of the two and it was connected politically with the Jewish Agency. The Jewish Agency had tremendous popular support and used its political acumen to raise large funds. However, the Jewish Agency also was suspected of "cashing in" on Jewish tragedies; meaning that when Arabs killed Jewish settlers the contributions increased. The Irgun, which was a more aggressive group, was set up to meet the needs of the local population that were not adequately protected by the Haganah. These two groups at time fought side by side, but unfortunately, much energy was wasted in rivalry.

After the British withdrew from Palestine in May of 1948, and Ben Gurion, together with all the Jewish leaders, declared Palestine to become the independent state of Israel, war broke out. Israel was attacked by the Armies of the neighboring Arab states, and bitter fighting ensued. Ammunition and supplies were scarce. The Irgun leader, Menachem Begin pleaded with the Government leaders to give his brave soldiers supplies, but the leaders of the Jewish Agency, who had tremendous animosity towards the Irgun, were not forthcoming in sharing supplies.

In May of 1948, the Irgun, seeing the need for supplies, outfitted a boat, the Altalena, with a large amount of supplies, including rifles, machine guns, bombs, and bullets. In addition, nine hundred immigrant-soldiers were on board. It left France late, not in May, but in June of 1948. During this time a cease-fire was set up.

The Israeli forces were at this time tired from the heavy fighting and were desperate for munitions and supplies. Due to the animosity between the fighting forces, the Haganah, whose leaders feared that Begin's heroic though small army would pose a serious problem to the new government, refused to share munitions with them. When the Atalena approached the Israeli shores, the new Jewish government demanded that all supplies be given over to them to distribute as they saw fit. Begin refused to give it all over, but he pleaded with them that they give his fighters a percentage of the supplies.

As the Alalena approached the Israeli coast, the troops of the Palmach came down to the shore to prevent any unauthorized unloading of the boat. Begin, not willing to give over all the supplies that his group had bought and brought in at their own expense, tried negotiating with the Palmach commander. The commander was immovable. Begin then decided to go to the government heads to receive their personal assurances that they would get some of the supplies.

The Palmach commander began sending small skirmish boats to shoot at the Altalena and any one trying to either leave or board the boat. Begin protested to the commander, but to no avail. Light artillery was aimed at the boat and casualties were reported, but the soldiers on the Altalena, would not fire upon their Jewish brethren who were shooting at them, hoping that they would come to their senses. Later the Jewish commander began shelling in the direction of the Altalena, each shell coming closer and closer. The captain of the boat hoisted the white flag, but his flag was ignored. The shell came closer and closer. Finally, the boat was hit.

The entire boat was destroyed; Jewish soldiers were killed and wounded. All the supplies and armament were lost. This created a very deep riff between the followers of Menachem Begin and David Ben Gurion. Even after the war ended and peace was won, the two sides carried deep hatred towards each other. Ben Gurion went on to be the first Prime Minister of Israel, and his group, the Jewish Agency, developed into what is today the Labor party in Israel. Menachem Begin, became the head of the opposition in the Israeli Parliament (Keneset) and his group became what is today's Liked party.

Menachem Begin never publicly revealed the name of the commander that ruthlessly killed innocent Jewish soldiers and sunk the Altalena. However, unsubstaniated rumor has always named Yitzhak Rabin, the former Prime Minister of Israel, who himself was assassinated by another Jew as being the commander.

Whether it is true or not, the fact remains that much hatred and innocent Jewish lives were lost both directly (the soldiers on the Altalena) and indirectly (those who lose battles due to lack of supplies) by Jewish hatred with in our own ranks. Bitter as history can be, isn't it time that we take note of the lessons provided by history and begin to treat that other Jew, who thinks differently than us, with more respect?


from the April 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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