Some Wounds Never Heal: Revisiting the Altalena, 1948

A war of words between Israeli politicians and pundits this week reopened a painful wound dating back to 1948 that has never fully healed. As inflammatory rhetoric flew back and forth and commentators weighed in, chilling revelations surfaced about some of Israel’s renowned secular leaders in the country’s early statehood.

The fracas began with comments by a left-wing journalist who criticized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, comparing him unfavorably to his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. The journalist praised Rabin for having led the country toward “peace” through the Oslo Accords.

Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, responded with a scathing critique.

“Rabin brought Arafat and tens of thousands of terrorists from Tunis and caused the deaths of 2,000 Israelis [through the Oslo Accords]. Rabin murdered Holocaust survivors on the Altalena,” Yair lashed out, referring to a tragic incident that took place during Israel’s War of Independence.

His comments sparked a furious outcry from the left, with Labor Leader Amir Peretz threatening to mount a libel lawsuit. Pushback came from attorney and prominent radio host Yoram Sheftel who defended Yair’s comments, backing his accusation that former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had in fact murdered Holocaust survivors.

“At Rabin’s instruction, 900 passengers on the Altalena were fired at, many of whom were Holocaust survivors,” asserted Sheftel. “They shot at them even as they jumped into the water. Rabin gave the order to shoot at Holocaust survivors. That is the story, and there is no denying it.”

 

Hillel Kook’s Rescue Ship

The Altalena was a rescue ship organized by Hillel Kook of the Irgun, the underground movement that fought to open the ports of pre-State Israel to Jewish refugees, and later fought to evict the British from the country.

In addition to carrying about 900 Holocaust survivors to Israel, the Altalena had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of arms and ammunition stored in the ship’s hold. This military equipment had been donated by the French government to assist the new state of Israel, then fighting for its life against the combined armies of Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Jewish forces were suffering from a scarcity of weapons and ammunition. Only 1,500 rifles were in Israeli hands, while Irgun units had no arms to speak of. The ship held 5,000 rifles and a great quantity of explosives and ammunition that were urgently needed by Israeli forces.

A major complication arose as the ship was leaving France. A United Nations-mandated cease-fire had just been declared, requiring both Arab and Israeli forces to desist from combat and arms acquisition. This triggered an intense debate over both the timing of the ship’s arrival and the destination of its arms cache.

David Ben-Gurion, leader of Israel’s provisional government, believed that the state owned all arms and he therefore had the authority to decide how the weapons would be distributed. The thought of any paramilitary group operating outside his authority was anathema to him. Ben Gurion was consumed with neutralizing all separatist factions that lay outside his jurisdiction.

Menachem Begin, in turn, wanted to arm certain units of Irgun members within the IDF to enable them to operate within Jerusalem, which the UN’s Partition Plan had designated as an international city. He believed an agreement had been reached with Ben Gurion that would accommodate this proposal. As will be seen below, eyewitness accounts and testimonies support this view.

Most of Altalena’s passengers disembarked safely at Kfar Vitkin and from there made their way to various destinations in the country. The ship sailed on to Tel Aviv and docked there, while about 30 Irgun members began unloading the arms.

 

The Ultimatum

At this point, Ben Gurion delivered a written ultimatum to Begin through a senior IDF commander to turn the Altalena and its cargo over and to the IDF in its entirely. The ultimatum read:

“To: M. Begin

By special order from the Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, I am empowered to confiscate the weapons and military materials which have arrived on the Israeli coast in the area of my jurisdiction in the name of the Israel Government.

I have been authorized to demand that you hand over the weapons to me for safekeeping.

You are required to carry out this order immediately. If you do not comply, I shall use all the means at my disposal in order to implement the order, and to requisition the weapons which have reached shore and transfer them into the possession of the government of Israel.

I wish to inform you that the entire area is surrounded by fully armed military units and armored cars, and all roads are blocked. I hold you fully responsible for any consequences in the event of your refusal to carry out this order. You have ten minutes to give me your answer.

 

D.E., Brigade Commander Yehudim Anachnu!

Begin refused to comply, attempting to work out a compromise along the lines of his earlier understanding, whereby the Irgun was to retain twenty per cent of the arms for its own units in Jerusalem where the Israeli government’s military forces could not officially operate.

As negotiations between Begin and government emissaries continued, Ben-Gurion telegraphed his commanders to say that the time for compromise was over. The Irgun would obey within “ten minutes” or the IDF would open fire.

As the message was making its way, the fledgling Israeli air force was instructed by Ben Gurion to prepare to bomb the Altalena. The pilots refused. Ben-Gurion then issued an order to the IDF through General Yigal Allon to open fire. Allon had to give the order three times. The first soldier said he hadn’t come to Eretz Yisroel to kill Jews. The second likewise refused. The third was Yitzḥak Rabin, in charge of the elite Harel Brigade. He accepted the order and relayed it to his men.

A mortar hit the ship and it caught fire. Other strikes followed, setting the ship ablaze. Many who jumped overboard to save themselves were cut down, initially with small arms fire which progressed to machine gun and mortar fire. Sixteen Irgunists and three IDF soldiers were killed, with scores of others wounded.

A mere five weeks after declaring statehood, Jew was fighting Jew. Palmach pitted against Irgun. Ben Gurion pitted against Begin. As the fighting threatened to escalate, with some Irgun commanders on the ground requesting permission to seize the government offices in Tel Aviv, Begin ordered his men to drop their arms.

Milchemes achim, leolam lo! Yehudim anachnu.” A war between brothers—never! We are Jews.

The Altalena was burning, Irgun men lay wounded and dying but according to eyewitness accounts, Begin evacuated the ship only after the last of the wounded had been evacuated. Onshore, he retreated to the Irgun radio station where he vented his fury over the airwaves, but again insisted his men should not respond and start a civil war among Jews.

 

Shame and Regret

Archival material from Machal (overseas volunteers in the War of Independence) cited by author Atar Hadari in Mosaic, contains the testimony of Hillel Daleski, a Haganah recruit who had been in pre-State Israel for only two months. He was under the command of Rabin, who ordered him on that fateful June 22 to fire the artillery cannon that destroyed the Altalena.

When he refused to fire, Daleski was threatened with court-martial. He fired. Years later, in an interview, he commented, “If only the Altalena episode could be expunged from my memory for all time!”

Decades later, writes author Hadari, Yitzḥak Rabin, by then the prime minister of Israel, “gave an interview in which he shamefacedly acknowledged that his orders had not been just to fire on the ship but to kill Begin if the opportunity arose.”

The circumstances surrounding the destruction of the Altalena are hotly disputed to this day. Ben Gurion’s defenders insist that Begin wanted the Irgun to remain an armed paramilitary force, independent of the government. Some go so far as to level the charge that he wanted the Altalena’s arms to overthrow the government by force, leaving Ben Gurion no choice but to act as he did.

Yet the record shows that Begin himself had publicly stated his support for the disbanding of the Irgun, pledging allegiance to the new government and following up on his pledge.

On May 15, 1948, he made an emotional speech in which he pledged loyalty to the new government, saying, “The Irgun is leaving the underground inside the boundaries of the Hebrew State. We arose and went underground under a rule of oppression…Now, we have a Hebrew government in part of our homeland and there is no need for a Hebrew underground. In the State of Israel we shall be soldiers and builders. And we shall respect its government, for it is our government.”

True to his declaration of loyalty, Begin eventually disbanded and dispersed all Irgun units into the larger IDF.

 

Yitzchak Shamir Speaks Out

Blasting the Altalena by Joanna Saidel, published in the Times of Israel, contains excerpts from interviews the author conducted in 1993 with Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir, and Prime Minister Begin’s advisor, Shmuel Katz, who offer their own version of the Altalena affair.

Shamir was close friends with Eliyahu Lankin, Altalena’s military commander, from 1944 when both men were deported and imprisoned by the British in Eritrea. Both eventually escaped and made their way to Paris, where they worked on Irgun projects before returning to Israel in 1948. Although Shamir was not aboard the Altalena, he no doubt received a full account from Lankin.

Saidel: What is your perspective on the Altalena affair?

Shamir: The Altalena was an operation organized in France by Hillel Kook and a man by the name of Shmuel Ariel who worked with Kook. Ariel had excellent relations with the French government, especially with the foreign minister, Georges Bidault. On behalf of the Irgun, Bidault concluded a treaty with the French government to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. And the first operation in this direction was the organization of the ship, Altalena. It was a rescue ship. The French army decided to give it a pretty large quantity of arms.

France at the time, explained Shamir in the interview, “was sympathetic to the Jewish national liberation movement and particularly the work of the Irgun,” Shamir attributed this sympathy to political reasons, explaining that the French government was outraged that Britain had usurped French colonialism in Syria and Lebanon, and took the side of the Arabs against France. Supporting Israel in its fight against British rule and its war of independence was France’s payback to Britain.

Shamir went on to explain that Begin had informed the Israeli government that the Irgun was bringing the Altalena to Tel Aviv in June 1948, and they negotiated an agreement about giving a part of the arms to Etzel (Irgun) in Jerusalem.

“Irgun proposed to the Israeli government to give the greater part of the arms to Zahal (IDF) and twenty percent or so for Jerusalem. Before the ship arrived here,” Shamir recalled, “Ben-Gurion changed his mind and demanded the Irgun give up the ship with all the arms.”

Saidel: What did you think of what happened next?

Shamir: It was a tragedy. It could have been avoided. But the relations between the parties were so bitter, they could not reach an understanding. Ben-Gurion believed that all views and groups had to be unified under his command. He was a very tough…intransigent person.

 

He Wanted to Kill Us

Saidel also discussed the Altalena incident with Shmuel Katz at his home in Tel Aviv as described in the Times of Israel article. Katz was an author, historian, member of the First Knesset of Israel, as well as a founding member of the Herut (forerunner of Likud) party and, later, adviser to Begin. Saidel began the conversation by raising the subject of Ben-Gurion’s mistrust of the Irgun.

Saidel: Ben-Gurion didn’t like the Irgun too much, did he?

Katz: That’s a very, very great understatement. No. He tried to kill us.

Saidel: There’s a question as to whether he knew about the deal between the Haganah and the Irgun when he blew up the Altalena. Do you think he knew?

Katz: Oh, no question. He knew all about it. I wrote about this in my book, Days of Fire; I don’t know whether it came through in the English edition. I wrote that the Altalena was deliberately blown up because Mr. Ben Gurion wanted to kill Begin who was on the ship. I expected to be sued or tried for libel for writing that.

Saidel: Were you?

Katz: There were some secret meetings in which I was attacked, but nobody came forth to say “This is libel, this is slander!” I explained in the book why I made this claim. [Israel’s navy] didn’t have anything like the Altalena. Not that it was such a great ship but it was best thing we had. And it was offered to the government. This was part of the original agreement with Ben Gurion. A lot of people knew that.

Saidel: Eighty percent of the arms were supposed to go to the Haganah, right?

Katz: Yes. The agreement was, once the cargo was unloaded, the ship would be presented to the government. That was the deal.

Saidel: What do you say to the theory that Ben-Gurion blew up the Altalena to consolidate his authority?

Katz: Nonsense. He was the prime minister and nobody was attacking his authority. His authority in the State was not “consolidated” by blowing up the Altalena.

From the Captain of the Altalena

Captain Monroe Fein who commanded the Altalena wrote about the events of that fateful June 22, 1948.

“As the crew of the Altalena continued unloading the ship, small arms fire erupted from the beach in late afternoon, taking the crew by surprise. Thinking they were under attack by Arabs, we decided to try to get the ship out to sea. There were now only about thirty people on board. Suddenly, and without any warning, both corvettes (Israeli gunboats) opened fire on the Altalena with heavy machine-guns. We were completely unprepared for such an attack and could not return fire.”

The Altalena was signaled by the corvettes to proceed to Tel Aviv, which it began to do. The crew succeeded in reaching Tel Aviv, hoping the danger of attack was over. However, as they began to move southward toward Frishman Street, they were fired on again.

“After the second burst of machine-gun fire from the corvette, we were forced to give answering fire with the Bren-guns mounted on our deck. We fired one burst and then both ships ceased firing,” recalled Monroe Fein.

Eventually negotiations began but stalemated. Two boatloads of men from the Altalena went ashore to continue unloading cargo but gunfire erupted once again. A crowd began to gather on the beach, watching in fear as the confrontation escalated.

 

Firing Continued Despite the White Flag

“The fact that the crew of the boat was waving a white flag did not diminish the firing,” attested Fein. “The ship continued to receive heavy fire from the shore for about one-and-a-half hours. Some of the heavy machine-guns ashore were using armor-piercing ammunition which passed right through steel bulkheads of the ship and began to cause us numerous casualties.”

“Suddenly the ship took a direct hit that started a large fire in the cargo-hold. I had no choice but to order all men aboard to prepare to abandon ship.” Fein raced to the bridge and began waving a white flag… At the same time another man hoisted a large piece of white canvas on the halyard. To Fein’s incredulity, the firing continued.

“As more and more explosions erupted within the ship it became too dangerous to remain aboard any longer. All men were ordered over the side and some attempted to swim ashore under fire. The ship was left burning and exploding violently.”

This testimony of Captain Monroe Fein is corroborated by another crew member, Jerry Salaman, who confirmed Fein’s account about how the fighting broke out, how the white flags were displayed but ignored by the Haganah troops, and how the captain ordered all hands to abandon ship. Salaman was wounded but managed to make it ashore.

“Menachem Begin pleaded to the Haganah not to fight us,” recalled Salaman. ‘He also wanted to make a compromise on the arms. All guns on ship were ordered not to open fire and all ammunition taken out of guns. Men were told not to fire for any cause.”

 

They Had Their Orders

Captain Fein’s account is further corroborated by crew member Michael Brecker who, in his memoirs, writes that in hindsight he understood why the white flag was no avail. It was because Mechanem Begin was the target.

“Way out at sea, I noticed two small Israeli corvette gunboats, the Wedgwood and the Haganah,” wrote Brecker. “The Wedgwood was commanded by Captain Paul Shulman, a Jewish ex-US Navy officer who later became commander of the Israel Navy. To my horror, heavy machine-gun fire started to break out on shore, flying over us.

“With hindsight,” wrote Brecker, “I suspected that the Wedgwood had opened fire to stop us unloading, but had overshot us and hit the Haganah troops who were now surrounding us and shooting. We were being fired on from both sides! I believe [this onslaught] was because they were aware that Begin was on board and they had their orders.”

In the aftermath of the Altalena incident, the ship’s wreckage was towed out to sea and sunk. Some fifty five years later, its remains were finally retrieved from the ocean. Today, by the beach in Tel Aviv, a stone memorial to the sixteen Irgun members killed in the gun battle stands near the ship’s recovered hull. Close by is a museum built by the first Likud government thirty years after the Altalena sank.

Inside the museum, inscribed on one of its walls is a poem composed by young Raphael Kirsch, a Holocaust survivor on the Altalena who dreamed of bringing life-giving aid to his brothers in Eretz Yisroel. The poem describes his hurt and disillusionment when he was attacked by fellow Jews as the ship approached.

We set out on the journey / to battle and suffer for you

Bringing a spirit of liberty / A ship full of arms to free you

But how you received us / By G-d I can never forget

Instead of welcome by brothers-in-arms / The cannon’s shell we met