It can be assumed that those seeking to recover the remains of (Irgun-controlled ship ) the Altalena, which was sunk off Israel's coast in June 1948, would be followers - at least in this instance - of the heritage of Revisionist Zionism, which holds that speaking about something is an act in and of itself. Whether advocates of the operation are successful or not, this represents a golden opportunity to refine the dispute over the dangers currently lurking for Israeli democracy. This includes the growth in power of those who view democracy as a burden, and an Education Ministry that is openly hostile to dealing with democracy.
It is essential today that we show support for then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's decision to sink the ship in the most central location possible, off the coast of Tel Aviv, so that it served as an example. Whom and from what was Ben-Gurion seeking deterrence? Bloody civil warfare has been the fate of many nation states that have been established over the past 150 years. It did not happen, however, in Israel. Why? Was there no such danger from the military forces beyond the new Israeli army, notably the Irgun?
Truth be told, Ben-Gurion was not afraid of the Irgun, whose power was limited and where, at the time, interest in integrating into the new state had taken preeminence over refusal to recognize Israel's sovereignty. In any event, the outbreak of a civil war was not dependent on a decision by the Irgun. That's a baseless story that Irgun leader and later prime minister Menachem Begin and his followers have cultivated. The Irgun's refusal to turn its arms over to the new Israel Defense Forces, i.e. to the state, was a rebellion that was suppressed by force within a matter of hours, even though the Irgun fought back.
It is not hard to predict what would have happened if the Irgun members had expanded their revolt after the ship was sunk. Begin understood this well. He even managed to turn his weakness into a positive force to attract followers and as a means to subdue those within the Irgun who opposed integration. This incident is to his credit.
Ben-Gurion had a different reason to shell the Altalena. Precedents were being set in the newly-born State of Israel that would last for generations. The superior authority of the civilian government over those in arms and in uniform was not at all clear. The prime minister was actually concerned about trends that were widespread at the time among activist leftists, particularly the two factions of the Mapam party, Ahdut Haavoda and Hashomer Hatzair. In addition to its hostility to Ben-Gurion's Mapai party and to Ben-Gurion himself, Mapam had extraordinary influence over the Palmach (the central fighting force of the IDF at the time ). In addition, many senior IDF commanders came from these circles or had sympathy for them.
There was a high level of awareness within Mapam about the political significance of the apparent high-quality military power at the party's disposal. They never used it and their discipline was exemplary, but Ben-Gurion couldn't have known this in June 1948. During that period, he had to solidify his standing and the standing of his government opposite the IDF General Staff. The controversy over which party the commanders of each front would come from disturbed him and his government a great deal more than what the Irgun would do.
The mortar shell fired on the Altalena was therefore of the highest fundamental importance. It decided the question, once and for all, of who commanded the army in Israel, who had the authority to bring arms into the country, who gave orders to open fire, and when and where. The Palmach command was dismantled a matter of months after the Altalena incident, and the two developments were not unconnected.
There is no doubt that the deaths from the ranks of the IDF and of the Irgun in the Altalena incident were senseless. It is difficult for their families and friends to come to grips with their losses, particularly under such circumstances.
It is some consolation, however, for us to understand that the mortar shell fired on orders from Israel's sovereign, civilian government headed off other future civil wars, the cost of which we can only imagine.
The writer is professor in the Department of Land of Israel Studies at the University of Haifa.
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