Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Altalena Affair - 66 years later

66 years ago, on June 22, 1948, one of the most controversial and divisive incidents in Israel's history took place – the Altalena affair. Even today, more than half a century later, the name Altalena still causes controversy and debate.

The Altalena was the name given to a former LST (Landing Ship, Tank) 138 – an American cargo ship used during WWII for landing tanks and other military supplies – purchased by members of the National Military organization (known in Hebrew as the "IZL," an acronym for Irgun Zvai Leumi) in the United States. The ship had a dual purpose – to bring to new immigrants and weapon supplies to newly-born Israel. The ship was named after the pseudonym of Ze'ev Jabotinsky (the founder of the Revisionist Zionist party - the IZL's political mother party).

The IZL planned to send the ship to Israel on May 15, Israel's first day of independence, but was delayed due to the long time it took to purchase the weapons and equipment in France and to load 900 young immigrants (who were trained by IZL instructors). The ship set out to sea at June 11. The ship's IZL commander was Eliahu Lankin and the Captain was Monroe Fein.

While the ship was en route to Israel, war raged there. On May 15, the armies of Syria, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon invaded Israel, a day after it declared independence. As the battles raged, the provisional government of Israel approved an order establishing the Israel Defense Forces, which included the three Jewish underground movements:  The Hagana, the IZL and LEHI (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, known also by its British nickname "the Stern Gang"). On May 31, David Ben Gurion, Israel's prime minister, published an Order of the Day, declaring the formal establishment of the IDF, and on June 1, Yisrael Galili, Ben Gurion's assistant, and Menachem Begin, the IZL commander, signed an agreement amalgamating the latter with the IDF. The agreement specifically forbade the IZL from purchasing weapons independently. The IZL informed the government about the Altalena. However, the agreement was not implemented in Jerusalem, since it was not part of the state of Israel (according to the UN partition plan), and the IZL continued to carry on its own independent operations there.

Here are original photographs taken aboard the Altalena while she was inbound to Israel. The photos show life aboard the ship including drills and weapons training. The photos are part of Zahi Yifhar's photo collection in Israel State Archives.










Avraham Stavsky (in white shirt), Eliahu Lankin (left) aboard the Altalena. Stavsky, who was indicted for the assassination of Hain Arlossoroff in 1933 (and was acquitted) was killed aboard the Altalena

The Altalena left port for Israel on June 11th, the first day of the first cease fire in the war, and Menachem Begin sent a telegram ordering the ship to postpone its departure (in order not to violate the terms of the much needed truce), but the telegram arrived after the Altalena  was already at sea. A radio message sent to her was not received. Begin informed the Ministry of Defense of the expected arrival of the ship and negotiated distribution of the weapons. Begin wanted to deliver 20% of the ship's cargo to IZL's battalion in Jerusalem and to keep the rest in storage or distribute them among IZL's units inside the IDF.   The government objected to the idea, because it believed it could form an "army within an army" and the Israeli government was attempting to unite all of the factions inside Israel in order to create one united army under one command and government. (5 months after the Altalena affair, the government disbanded the PALMACH headquarters for this same reason). Much of the disagreement between the two sides was based on a great deal of bad blood and complete disbelief in the other side. The IZL and its political origin, the Revisionist party were regarded as "dissenters" and a threat to the Jewish community in Israel, The IZL held very painful memories of the "[Hunting] Season" in which its members   were arrested by Hagana operatives, jailed (even tortured) and given over to the British.

The Altalena arrived at the shore of Kfar Vitkin (just north of Netanya) on June 20th and started to unload weapons and the new immigrants. Although the arrival of the ship was approved by the government, Yisrael Galili (who was responsible for the negotiations with the IZL on the ship) reported that the negotiations failed and that he feared that IZL is about to start a mutiny against the government.

The government ordered the IDF to subdue the IZL, and sanctioned the use of force. On June 21st, The Alexandroni brigade encircled the Kfar Vitkin area and its commander passed an ultimatum to Begin to surrender the weapons to the IDF in 10 minutes. The IZL refused the ultimatum and continued to unload the weapons from the ship. Soon a firefight broke out, in which 2 IDF soldiers and 6 IZL men were killed. Begin escaped to the Altalena, and the ship moved south, to the shore of Tel Aviv, with Begin aboard.

The Altalena reaced to the shore of Tel Aviv on the morning of June 22nd (after being pursued by an Israeli Navy ship during the night).On that day, an emergency meeting of the provisional government was convened. Ben Gurion claimed that the Altalena was "an attempt to murder the state…the moment the Army and state surrender to another armed force, we have nothing more to do" (my translation from the protocol of the Provisional government meeting 22.6.48). Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, the minister of religions called for restraint and warned that bloodshed will create an underground but cause an open rebellion [ibid.].

 However, events soon escalated and a battle erupted in which the Altalena was hit by artillery shells and started burning. Captain Fein lifted a white flag in order to stop the shooting and allow the crew and the passengers to abandon ship peacefully, but army forces kept on shooting, nevertheless. The ship sank with all its cargo. 200 members of the IZL were arrested but were freed on August 27th (except 5 leaders of the IZL) after public pressure for their release. The IZL ceased being independent and its members joined the IDF and served during the war of Independence.
The Altalena on the Frishman beach in Tel Aviv (Benno Rothenberg collection, Israel State archives)

The Altalena on fire (Benno Rothenberg collection, Israel State archives)

The Altalena on Tel Aviv beach (Benno Rothenberg collection, Israel State archives)


Begin, who abandoned ship after all the wounded were taken ashore. He managed to escape the army patrols searching for him and broadcasted in the IZL underground radio (my translation)"We knew. The ship is lost. Maybe all the rest is lost. Explosion after Explosion, we were in sea and the shells keep falling around us. All we have achieved is on fire….We will keep on loving the people of Israel and we will continue to fight for the people of Israel…but I will admit: it's the first time that I'm not sure I can convince my men, I will do everything for our people which  is in an existential threat…help me convince my men….to convince them that a brother must not raise a hand on a brother…Long live the People of Israel! Long live the Hebrew homeland! Long live the heroes of Israel – soldiers of Israel. Forever" (from Menachem Begin, the Sixth prime minister – selected documents, 1993-1992. Israel state archives)

The Altalena affair was a bone of contention between left and right for many years and a source of personal animosity between Begin and Ben Gurion until the Six day war, when Begin called for bringing Ben Gurion back from retirement to lead a national unity government.

 A recent initiative by the Begin Heritage center (and approved by the government) centers on salvaging the hulk of the Altalena (which was towed to sea and sunk after the war of Independence) and placing it as a monument on the Tel Aviv beach. This monument will help heal the wounds of the Altalena affair.