History of the Jewish State of Israel: The Altalena Affair

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  • Topic: Israel, Zionism, Irgun
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  • Published : June 17, 2012
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There have been few incidents in the history of the Jewish State of Israel that have had the ability to tear apart the nation as did the Altalena affair. On Tuesday, June 22nd, 1948, just a month after the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel, the Altalena, loaded with badly needed weapons and soldiers to help defend the Jewish State against her Arab aggressors was up in flames off the coast of Tel Aviv, fired upon by the newly established Israel Defense Forces. “The surrealistic scene, the last moments of the arms ship Altalena, would haunt Israeli collective consciousness for many years to come”.[1]

There have been many theories suggested as to why David Ben Gurion, Prime Minister of the newly established Jewish State of Israel gave orders to open fire on the Altalena, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 16 Jews. Among them are that, with the establishment of the State of Israel, Israel could not afford to have numerous militias fighting for their own causes throughout the country. “The Irgun warned the government that if it did not fight for the full liberation of Israeli land, and if it did not insist that Jerusalem become the capital of Israel, they would fight on their own to expand the borders of the new state”.[2] Everyone had to recognize that there could be only one armed force in Israel, and that was to be the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Another theory is that Ben Gurion believed that Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun, was planning a coup against the government. “Ben Gurion was told of Irgun fund-raising among wealthy Israelis for a potential future confrontation with the government. He knew that the extremist militia was no match for the Israeli army, but with Altalena’s weapons, Begin’s five thousand soldiers could be a source of great trouble”.[3] Begin, himself, rejected both of these theories. In 1944, at a meeting with Moshe Sneh and Eliyahu Golumb, both Haganah leaders, it was demanded that the Irgun disband and follow the orders of the Jewish Agency and the Haganah. Begin responded, “We have no intention of seizing power in the Yishuv. We have said this on many occasions. We have no such ambitions... we think that Ben-Gurion is the man who can lead our youth into battle today. But in order to do so, Ben-Gurion must leave his residence in Rehavia. For as long as he is there - he cannot conduct that war. We have no party or administrative interests. We pray for the day when we can proclaim the end of the Irgun's task and disperse it. And the moment that you go out to war - we will all rally under a united leadership, in which you will constitute the decisive majority. But as long as you have not done this, we will conduct our battle”[4]. The theory, which seems most plausible, based on the history of conflict between Ben Gurion and the Irgun, was that with the establishment of the State of Israel, Ben Gurion wanted the state to be founded and run under the left-wing ideology of Labor Zionism. The Irgun, with the right-wing ideology of Revisionist Zionism posed a threat to Ben Gurion which he ultimately had removed and did so under whatever pretenses could be established to justify such actions. Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun, summed up the affair rather aptly when he stated, “It is no longer a secret that this famous arms-ship served as the instrument of a sinister plot”.[5] What will be established is that the Altalena affair was not a one time event, rather a culmination of attempts by the Jewish Agency, and its leader, David Ben Gurion, to do away with his political opposition – the Altalena affair (and the events immediately following it) merely serving as the culmination.

The Altalena was a ship purchased by the Etzel (an acronym for Irgun Tzvai Leumi or National Military Organization). The ship’s name was taken from the pseudonym of Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founding father of Revisionist Zionism which was the parent political organization of the Irgun, as...
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