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History of the Jewish State of Israel: The Altalena Affair

By zevinzion Jun 17, 2012 4450 Words
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 well as his having served as the first commander of the organization.[6] The Irgun represented one of the three armed Jewish organizations in Palestine that were involved in the struggle for Jewish independence as well as Jewish self defense.[7] The other two organizations were the Haganah, which ultimately became the Israel Defense Forces, which at the time was headed by David Ben Gurion who was the head of the Jewish Agency and the governing Jewish body in Palestine and later to become the first prime minister of Israel, and the Lehi (Lochmei Herut Yisrael or Israel’s Freedom Fighters) which was also known as the Stern Gang, named after its founder Avraham Stern. Each of the three organizations has its own political ideology and this would play a significant role in the Altalena affair. The Altalena, purchased by Irgun members abroad, was originally intended to reach Israel on May 15, 1948, loaded with fighters and military equipment. Weapons purchase and organizational matters took longer than expected, however, and the sailing was postponed for several weeks. Meanwhile, on June 1st, an agreement had been signed for the absorption of the Irgun into the IDF and one of the clauses stated that the Irgun had to cease all independent arms acquisition activities. Consequently, representatives of the Israel Government were informed about the ship and its sailing schedule.[8] It should be recalled that the first truce had begun on June 11th. When the Irgun leaders in Israel learned through the broadcast of the embarkation of the vessel, they feared that this breach of the truce conditions (i.e. the ban on bringing military equipment and fighters into the country) would be revealed. Menachem Begin decided therefore to postpone the arrival of the ship, and the Irgun staff secretary, Zippora Levi-Kessel, sent a wireless message to the Altalena to stay put and await orders. A similar cable was sent to Shmuel Katz (member of the General Headquarters), who was then in Paris, but contact with the ship was poor and the message was not understood.[9] According to the agreement worked out between Begin and Ben Gurion, twenty percent of the weapons on board the Altalena were to the Irgun forces who were fighting in Jerusalem – which at the time had an undefined political status, and as such, even based on the agreement worked out stating that the Irgun needed to be absorbed into the ranks of the IDF, they were able to operate independently in Jerusalem. The balance of the weapons was to be distributed amongst the Irgun battalions that had been absorbed as complete units into the IDF to replace their defective equipment. [10] On June 15th, Begin and his comrades held a meeting with government representatives, at which Begin announced that the ship had sailed without his knowledge and that he wanted to hold consultations on how to proceed. In his diary for June 16th, Ben-Gurion wrote the following about the meeting: “Yisrael [Galili] and Skolnik [Levi Eshkol] met yesterday with Begin. Tomorrow or the next day their ship is due to arrive: 4,500 tons, bringing 800-900 men, 5,000 rifles, 250 Bren guns, 5 million bullets, 50 Bazoukas, 10 Bren carriers. Zipstein (director of Tel Aviv port) assumes that at night it will be possible to unload it all. I believe we should not endanger Tel Aviv port. They should not be sent back. They should be disembarked at an unknown shore”.[11]

The Altalena reached Kfar Vitkin in the late afternoon of Sunday, June 20th. Among the Irgun members waiting on the shore was Menahem Begin, who greeted the arrivals with great emotion. After the passengers had disembarked, members of the fishing village of Michmoret helped unload the cargo of military equipment. Concomitantly with the events at Kfar Vitkin, the government had convened in Tel Aviv for its weekly meeting. Ben-Gurion reported on the meetings which had preceded the arrival of the Altalena, and was adamant in his demand that Begin surrender and hand over of all the weapons. The debate ended in a resolution to empower the army to use force if necessary to overcome the Irgun and to confiscate the ship and its cargo. Implementation of this decision was assigned to the Alexandroni Brigade, commanded by Dan Even (Epstein), which the following day surrounded the Kfar Vitkin area. Dan Even issued the following ultimatum: “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 and to inform you that you should establish contact with the supreme command. You are required to carry out this order immediately. If you do not agree to carry out this order, 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 from private possession into the possession of the Israel government. 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. The immigrants - unarmed - will be permitted to travel to the camps in accordance with your arrangements. You have ten minutes to give me your answer. D.E.,Brigade Commander” [12]

At this point, Begin boarded the Altalena, and it set course for Tel Aviv. “In this way, we could extricate ourselves from these siege conditions and I would be able to communicate directly with the government and put an end to what I still hoped was a perilous misunderstanding somewhere”. [13] But this was not the case. Ben-Gurion ordered Yigael Yadin (acting Chief of Staff) to concentrate large forces on the Tel Aviv beach and to take the ship by force. Heavy guns were transferred to the area and at four in the afternoon, Ben-Gurion ordered the shelling of the Altalena . One of the shells hit the ship, which began to burn. There was danger that the fire would spread to the holds which contained explosives, and the captain ordered all aboard to abandon ship. People jumped into the water, whilst their comrades on shore set out to meet them on rafts. Although the captain flew the white flag of surrender, automatic fire continued to be directed at the unarmed survivors. Begin, who was on deck, agreed to leave the ship only after the last of the wounded had been evacuated. Sixteen Irgun fighters were killed in the confrontation with the army; six were killed in the Kfar Vitkin area and ten on Tel Aviv beach. Three IDF soldiers were killed: two at Kfar Vitkin and one in Tel Aviv.[14] In order to understand how the Altalena affair ended as tragically as it did, it must be put into proper context. On November 29th, 1947, the United Nations adopted resolution 181 which called for the partition of British mandate ruled Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. This came about through the British recognizing that they would not be able to carry out their obligation for the establishment of a “Jewish national home in Palestine” as was set forth in the Balfour Declaration of November 2nd, 1917, and adopted by the League of Nations. The Jewish Agency, the representative body of the Jews of Palestine, under the leadership of Ben Gurion, accepted the resolution, while the Arabs of Palestine were not prepared to accept any resolution that would bring about the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. [15]

This acceptance of the partition by Ben Gurion served as a major source of disagreement between himself as the head of the Jewish Agency, representing in official capacity the Jews of Palestine and the Irgun. “To the Irgun, a United Nations decision for a Jewish State was not a charter of independence but a recognition of our (Jewish) rights. If there was to be war, we would not surrender half of our already truncated country. The territory proposed for us had little room for a substantial increase in population”.[16] The position of the Jewish Agency was one of compromise, willing to make painful concessions in order to bring about the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, without putting great emphasis on what the borders of the state would consist of. As was stated by the spokesman of the Jewish Agency, Moshe Shertok, to the United Nations, “We have proposed that the town of Be’er Sheva and a certain area together comprising 300,000 dunams should be taken out of the Jewish State and added to the Arab State. We have agreed too that two million dunams in the southern Negev, adjoining the Egyptian border, should be joined to the Arab State and thus create a common frontier between the Arab State and Egypt. This is a considerable concession on our part in order to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish State. We ask you to remember that already in 1922 the first partition of Palestine was effected. We Jews have a right to settle in the whole of Palestine, but we believe that by our concession we are contributing to the solution of the Palestine problem”.[17] The original territory of the British Mandate that was to be set aside for the creation of the Jewish homeland in Palestine was both banks of the Jordan River. In 1922, the British created the Arab state of Trans-Jordan on the east bank of Palestine, which represented roughly ¾ of the territory from the original mandate. Now, the Jews of Palestine were being asked to make even further concessions. This did not sit well wit the members of the Irgun. Their Zionist ideology being that of Revisionism, they recognized the Jewish right to establish a Jewish State on both banks of the Jordan. “They believed that Israel should keep more of the biblical Land of Israel”.[18] The Irgun called for “a national policy based on the possibility of gaining the whole country for a Jewish State and asked for the establishment of fighting unity among all the Jewish forces”.[19] The response of the Jewish Agency to the Irgun’s propaganda against partition was precursor of things to come. The Haganah, the main Jewish armed force in Palestine, under the auspices of the Jewish Agency “launched attacks against the youngsters who pasted up our (Irgun) propaganda. At a number of centers throughout the country they were set upon and beaten. For the first time, too, the Haganah used firearms and two boys at Rishon Letzion were wounded”.[20] This was not the first time the organizations had come into conflict. As early as 1936, when the Irgun was founded, the source of conflict existed. During the Arab riots of 1936 - 39, where many Jews were killed in Arab terror attacks, the Jewish Agency adopted a policy of havlaga or self restraint. The Haganah was only to take up actions of self defense, but were not allowed to take any offensive measures. The reasoning of the Jewish Agency was that it was in their best interests to work with the British mandate authorities and to not take actions into their own hands. “Consequently, the Jewish Agency agreed to the policy of havlaga, believing that as long as Zionist action did not go beyond the defense of what existed, the British would have no desire to destroy the shaky status quo”.[21] With the plight of the Jews in Europe becoming more and more desperate, in 1940 the Irgun suspended attacks against the British[22], with all efforts going towards evacuating the Jews of Europe and bringing awareness to their plight. In 1944, under the new leadership of Menachem Begin, the Irgun called for a “Revolt” against the British forces in Palestine. “Four years have passed since the war began, and all the hopes that beat in your hearts then have evaporated without a trace. We have not been accorded international status, no Jewish Army has been set up, and the gates of the country have not been opened. The British regime has sealed its shameful betrayal of the Jewish people and there is no moral basis whatsoever for its presence in Eretz Yisrael… There is no longer any armistice between the Jewish people and the British Administration in Eretz Israel... Our people is at war with this regime – war to the end”.[23] “The first target of the Irgun fighters were the immigration offices of the British Mandatory authorities. These offices, more than anything else, symbolized the restriction of immigration and the frustration of efforts to rescue the Jews of Europe. The Immigration Office was careful to grant certificates only according to the quota fixed by the Macdonald White Paper of 1939, i.e. the number of immigrants was not permitted to exceed 1,500 per month. From this tiny number were deducted those Jews who immigrated illegally and were caught by the authorities. According to the White Paper, immigration was to cease completely on March 31, 1944”.[24] On November 6th, 1944, two members of Lehi carried out the assassination of Lord Moyne, the British Minister of State for the Middle East, who was responsible for the implementation of the British White Paper. It was this act that began what would become known as “The season”. “Ben Gurion issued a passionate appeal to ‘cast out all members of this underground gang and deny them shelter and assistance…’ Thereupon the Haganah launched a full-scale attack against Etzel and L’echi members alike, denouncing them to the British police”.[25] The response of Begin to “The Season” was similar to the one he would give during the Altalena affair, “It is with gloomy face that the loyal Jew asks himself and his neighbor: Are we to suffer this as well? Will a civil war break out in Eretz Israel? Will our home be destroyed before it has been built? Will our enemies see their base aspiration fulfilled? These are grave questions, and we feel it our duty - on our own behalf and on behalf of the Irgun Zvai Le'umi in Eretz Israel - to provide an answer. And this is our answer: you may stay calm, loyal Jews; there will be no fraternal strife in this country...”[26] After the Altalena affair had reached its conclusion, Begin addressed the nation, overcome by emotion, “There are times when the choice is between blood and tears. Sometimes… it is essential that blood should take the place of tears. Sometimes, as the ‘Altalena’ taught us, it is essential that tears should take the place of blood”.[27] Begin once again made it clear that to him, the unity of the Jewish people transcended political considerations. He would not be the cause of a civil war breaking out amongst the Jewish people. He may not have agreed with Ben Gurion and his politics, but at the end of the day, they were both Jews and were fighting the same fight and against a common enemy. Ben Gurion did not share this view. During the early morning hours of June 22nd, Ben Gurion personally directed his Chief of Staff, Yigal Yadin, “to force the ‘enemy’ on the ship docked near Tel Aviv to unconditional surrender, by all means and methods available to you”. Yadin proceeded to command Michael Ben Gal, commander of the Kiryati battalion to ”arrest any civilian, or open fire without warning on anyone who attempts or shows willingness to assist the ‘adversary’ in any way”.[28] Terms like “enemy” and “adversary” were the ones used when referring to Begin and the Irgun, presumably the same terms used to describe the attitude towards the British during the last years of the Yishuv, and terms used to refer to the Arab armies that were presently invading the fledgling Jewish State. “The Altalena affair enabled Ben Gurion to maintain in Israel a political culture under the banner ‘Without Herut and without Maki’(communist party). Menachem Begin was the leader of the Herut party. Throughout most of the period during which Ben Gurion served as Prime Minister, Herut was the principal opposition party. The meaning of such a political culture is not only the obvious – opposition to a national unity government and a coalition between Mapai and Herut. It is also implied a threat to the Israeli citizen not to dare allow Begin and his friends to create a government or be part of one. Their participation in the Government was considered dangerous to Israel’s democratic character and perhaps to its very existence. This political culture made it possible for Mapai and Ma’arach to govern the country for twenty-nine consecutive years up to the political upheaval of 1977, which brought the Likud to power and Begin to the position of Prime Minister”.[29] After the sinking of the Altalena, the Irgun dissolution agreement that was reached with the government collapsed. The Irgun units that had been absorbed into the IDF no longer felt able to serve in an army that was responsible for sinking their ship and murdering their friends. As such, Ben Gurion launched “Operation Purification”, which called for the army to arrest all Irgun dissenters and to close down their bases of operation. Weapons and equipment were seized and many Irgun commanders and soldiers were arrested. “The campaign against the Irgun reached its peak with the administrative arrest of five members of the organization’s supreme command… No specific charges were brought against the five detainees. Israel’s emergency regulations, a legacy of the British Mandate, authorized government ministers to arrest and imprison, without trial, suspects deemed top security risks... Only massive international pressure brought the release of the five after two months in prison”[30]. “The tragic end of the Altalena, the ruthless chase of Irgun soldiers after the ship’s sinking, the unnecessary attack on the Irgun civilian center in Tel Aviv, and the arrest of top Irgun leaders were all too much for the non-labor ministers in the government… The continued repression of the Irgun after the sinking of the ship was for them an undemocratic and illegal operation. No longer willing to bear responsibility for what they considered Ben Gurion’s excessive militancy, they considered leaving the cabinet… Eager to avoid the image of a sectarian Labor politician and to present himself as the impartial leader of the entire nation, Ben Gurion agreed at the end of June to moderate his anti-Irgun crusade… and backing down from his original intention to eradicate the organization and its members”. [31] Ben Gurion’s decision to release the Irgun prisoners and to allow for the reintegration of Irgun units into the IDF did not represent a new found acceptance for the Irgun. At that point in time, Ben Gurion realized that the Irgun no longer posed a political threat to him, and as such he decided to leave them be. The Irgun disbanded shortly thereafter, and Ben Gurion and his Labor party would lead Israel for the next 29 years. Ben Gurion, even years after the Altalena affair, referred to the weapon that fired the shot that sank the Altalena as “Holy Cannon”, and never expressed any sense of remorse for his actions on that day, rather he stated, “Blessed is the gun which exploded this ship… when we build the Temple, that gun should be placed near the main gate”.[32] The echo of the shot fired by the “holy cannon” can still be heard today… and the Temple has yet to be rebuilt.


1. Sprinzak, Ehud. Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics From Altalena to the Rabin Assassination. New York: The Free Press, 1999. 2. Milstein, Uri. The Rabin File. Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 1999. 3. Katz, Samuel. Days of Fire: The Secret Making of the Making of Israel. London: Steimatzky’s Agency Limited, 1968. 4. Begin, Menachem. The Revolt. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1977. 5. Laquer, Walter. A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel. New York: MJF Books, 1972. 6. Sachar, Howard. A History of Zionism: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1996. 7. Ben Gurion, David. Min HaYoman: Milchemet Ha’Atzmaut. Tel Aviv: Misrad Habitachon, 1986. 8. Avnery, Uri. “The Altalena Affair: The Sacred Cannon” Online. Internet. June, 2003. Available:
9. Lapidot, Yehuda. “The Irgun Site”
Online. Internet. Available:

[1] Ehud Sprinzak, Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israel from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination (New York: The Free Press, 1999) 17.

[2] Sprinzak 19.

[3] Sprinzak 22.

[4] Lapidot, Yehuda “The Hunting Season” []

[5] Menachem Begin, The Revolt (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1977) 214.

[6] Sprinzak 18.

[7] Avnery, Uri. “The Altalena Affair: The Sacred Cannon” []. June 2003.

[8] Lapidot, Yehuda “The Altalena Affair” []

[9] Lapidot, Yehuda “The Altalena Affair” []

[10] Uri Milstein, The Rabin File (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House 1999) 358.

[11] David Ben Gurion, Min HaYoman: Milhemet Ha’Atzmaut (Israel: Misrad Habitachon 1986) [12] Lapidot, Yehuda “The Altalena Affair” []

[13] Katz 243.

[14] Lapidot, Yehuda “The Altalena Affair” []

[15] Samuel Katz, Days of Fire: The Secret Story of the Making of Israel (Israel: Steimatzky’s Agency Limited, 1980) 183.

[16] Katz 180.

[17] Katz 183.

[18] Sprinzak 19.

[19] Katz 182.

[20] Katz 182.

[21] Katz 11.

[22] Walter Laquer, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to Establishment of the State of Israel (New York: MJF Books, 1972) 377.

[23] Begin 80-81.

[24] Lapidot, Yehuda “The Revolt is Proclaimed” []

[25] Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996) 248.

[26] Lapidot, Yehuda “The Hunting Season” []

[27] Begin 176.

[28] Milstein 362.

[29] Milstein 359.

[30] Sprinzak 31.

[31] Sprinzak 31 – 32.

[32] Sprinzak 32.

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