Israel and the Tragedy of the "Altalena"

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Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena, by Jerold Auerbach, (New Orleans, L.A: Quid Pro Books, 2011).

MILCHEMET ACHIM!--Brothers at war!--is a subject that has preoccupied Jews throughout their literature and history, from the narratives of Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, in Genesis, the mutiny of Korach against the authority of Moses in Numbers, and the post-Biblical civil war that undermined the Jewish state from within while Roman legions were besieging it from without in the year 67 C. E. That was when Jewish national sovereignty came to an end until 1948. In his War of the Jews, Flavius Josephus, the Jewish military commander (and deserter), recounted the Jewish conflict within the larger one between Jews and Romans. If Josephus' account is to be believed, the Roman general Vespasian told his warriors (who had already killed 40,000 Jewish men) to hold back from further battle became "The Jews are vexed to pieces every day by their civil wars and dissensions, and are under greater misfortunes than, if they were once taken, could be inflicted on them by us.... Permit those Jews to destroy one another."

It is against the background of these wars between brothers that Jerold Auerbach, professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College and the author of numerous distinguished books about Jewish and American history, has written a luminous and probing history of the calamity of the Altalena, the ill-fated Irgun ship that tried to bring desperately needed refugee fighters, arms, and ammunition to the soldiers of Israel in June 1948,just weeks after the declaration of statehood and the ensuing invasion by five Arab armies. Readers familiar with Auerbach's own political views may be surprised to discover that his impulse to write the book came from an Israeli friend who had fought with the Palmach in the War of Independence and who still equates the Altalena expedition with the Zealots of Jewish antiquity. Brothers at War is a disinterested study of its subject, impeccable in its scholarship (with the sole exception of an index insufficient to its task). Although Auerbach concludes that there is not a shred of evidence to support Ben-Gurion's accusation that the Altalena mission was Begin's attempt to overthrow his government, he reserves judgment on whether Ben-Gurion's course of action against it was justified.

The broad outline of the story is well-known. Revisionist leaders bought a mothballed American ship, named it Altalena (using Vladimir Jabotinsky's pen-name), and recruited a 25-year-old Navy veteran from Chicago named Monroe Fein, who had commanded a similar ship in the Pacific, to be its captain. His ship sailed on June 11 from Port-du-Bouc with 940 passengers, including 120 young women. For the Altalena's mission to succeed, its planners would have to secure the cooperation of France (whence it originated), to evade the British navy (which had already diverted the Exodus 1947 and Ben Hecht ships from their course), and to coordinate the plan with the Provisional Government of David Ben-Gurion, who loathed Menachem Begin. (Both men had the nasty habit of flinging the epithet "Nazi" at the other.)

On May 26, that government had established the Israel Defense Forces as the army of the State of Israel and prohibited the "continued existence of any other armed force" (such as Palmach to its left and Irgun and Lehi to its right). Ostensibly, Begin accepted this decision: "Within the boundaries of the Hebrew independent state there is no need for a Hebrew underground. In the State of Israel, we shall be soldiers and builders. We shall respect its Government, for it is our Government." But there was a hitch. Jerusalem was outside the boundaries of the new state. Shmuel Katz, member of Irgun's High Command, later explained: "We never forgot Jerusalem, where the Israeli government refused to claim sovereignty." (Perhaps I should here mention that I was a longtime friend of Katz, who died in 2008. …