"Altalena Affair" A Blood Libel - June 22, 1948

by Gad Nahshon

History repeats itself. Suddenly, a new notion surfaced in the media: "Palestinian Altalena." It is a new myth, an analogy, an idea to follow. "Altalena"? It was a ship, ex-navy "L.S.T.-138" which was shelled and burned by the new Israeli army (Hagana, Palmach Unit) on June 22, 1948. 16 people were killed. Many were wounded. There were battles in Tel-Aviv"s Hayarkon Street. It was a shock.

It took place during the 1948 War of Independence, when Israel was attacked by Palestinians and many Arab countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Israel was on the verge of a civil war, Israel could have been dismantled. It turned out to be a day of infamy, a national tragedy. Indeed, Israel always has tried to leave this "Altalena Affair" in peace.

What was the background to this national tragedy? The historical fight of the Labor Movement (social democrats, Marxists, the "left camp") against the Revisionist Movement, Zeev Jabotinsky (1860-1940) Beitar and the Irgun. In 1948 the left argued that the Irgun, under the leadership of Begin, planned an army revolution in order to take over the new regime. Ben Gurion and the left viewed it as a Fascist revolt against the new coalition government which was only until January 2, 1949, a temporary government. Mapai was the ruling party. Of course, it was one more blood libel against the Irgun which originated a ruthless attack on Altalena.

It is not the intention of this article to detail the history of the Altalena Affair but I should point out that the story took place, first in New York City when the Bergson Group, the Irgun Delegation in this country under the command of Peter Bergson or Hillel Kook who died recently in Israel, decided to buy a ship for aliyah.

The story is to be found in the memoir of Yitzhak Ben-Ami, a great leader, of this group (see his memoir: Years of Wrath, Years of Glory). Ben-Ami, together with Avrasha Stawsky, Gershon Hakim and Victor Ben-Nachum, bought Altalena. Altalena? The original idea was to call the ship "Zeev Jabotinsky" but they prepared Altalena. Jabotinsky"s Russian literary name in English is "the swing."

Altalena was bought in June 1947. Only in early 1948, it sailed to France. There started a new phase in its story. This transition is a complicated one because the Group"s leaders such as Shmuel Merlin, negotiated with the Irgun Palestinian leaders who came to France: Eliahu Lankin, Dr. Eli Tavin. They represented Menachem Begin. There was one more aspect: the support of the French government to the Irgun. Of course, everyone has his own ideas. But at the end, Altalena sailed from France, past DeBuch to Palestine with around 900 people and 4000 tons of arms. The arms and weapons could change the Independence war, but as we know, all of it was destroyed, exploded by the shelling of the so-called "Holy Cannon."

Ben-Gurion refused to negotiate, refused to look for a peaceful solution. By the way, many people on Altalena were not Irgunist. And who did finance the buying of Altalena? The Mafia! Most of the $75,000, the costs, were donated by the Mafia which then tried to help the Zionist cause. The rumors are that the man behind it was Miki Cohen, or a mysterious man, a Jewish-British guy "Uncle Joe." (The story of the Mafia- 1940"s and the Zionist campaign in the U.S.A. has to be written, yet.)

How should we understand the reasons for the Altalena Affair, Israel"s most shameful and horrifying chapter of its birth as a new country? The theory is that Altalena was a victim of what we define today as a set of communication blocks. The idea is that Ben-Gurion himself was mislead by other leaders at that time. It should be noted that Begin himself prevented a civil war. It was his finest hour. After years of conflict Ben-Gurion and Begin made peace years before Begin came to power (May, 1977).

In the Israeli collective memory, the Altalena Affair was a traumatic experience. A sensitive issue. The Israelis tried to forget it, to cover up the event. In the educational system teachers used to play it down not to touch this national wound. As a child I myself happened to be on the Tel Aviv beach on June 22, 1948. I remember the smoke which came from Altalena. Then a soldier ordered my mother to leave the area. One can hear the shooting in nearby Hayarkon Street. One of my friends, then 16 years old, participated in this battle in Hayarkon Street. His friend was killed there by the I.D.F. Units which were commanded by Yitzhak Rabin, later Israel"s Prime Minister, and a victim of the peace process.

It was a terrible experience for the new nation, the new state. There were soldiers who were jailed because they refused to shoot the Irgunists. Robert Sharman, the first commander of the Israeli Navy, Ben-Gurion"s advisor refused to attack Altalena from sea. He was an American volunteer. The reader who would like to learn more about this affair should read the research of the Israeli writer, Shlomo Nakidmon, a journalist, advisor to Menachem Begin and a prolific writer on many issues such as "Tamuz" (the destruction of Iraqi nuclear station Osirak, near Baghdad, 1981. Others, such as Eliahu Lankin, Altalena"s French Irgun commander. And as I noted Yitzhak Ben-Ami"s memoir is a must.

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