Searching for the Altalena, the Ship That Almost Sank Young Israel

Ben-Gurion ordered Israeli forces to sink the ship that belonged to a right-wing-militia because it challenged the new state's authority. Now, two experts insist they can find it - but how many political demons will they dredge up?

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The bombarding of the Altalena off the Tel Aviv coast, June 22, 1948.
The bombarding of the Altalena off the Tel Aviv coast, June 22, 1948. Credit: GPO
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Even the people who are searching for the Altalena admit it’s an illogical mission that requires a great deal of knowledge, research, time and money. And still, 70 years after it was sunk off Tel Aviv, they’re convinced they’ll be able to find the remains of the ship that almost dragged the young state into a civil war.

For Ronnie Sade, an expert at mapping the seabed and one of the few Israelis with the knowledge and experience that could find the Altalena, this is the Holy Grail.

In the coming months he aims to find the ship, document its remains and perhaps even remove parts of it, which would serve as a memorial site.

“We’ve postponed it long enough,” he says. The challenge attracts him, “but I know that it will reawaken 70-year-old demons. The story of the Altalena is the closest point in Israel’s history to a civil war, and I’m not sure I want to warm it up for those who want to revive the conflict.”

“It’s important to clarify as precisely as possible in professional terms what happened there,” adds his partner in the search, Iftach Kozik, a veteran seaman, diver and researcher. “How did the navy sink it? Where? What’s its condition today? The research and the searches, mainly by using the archival photographs I found, now let us know more about the Altalena than anyone else.”

From Pennsylvania to Tel Aviv

The Altalena was built in 1943 by the American Bridge Company in Pennsylvania as a tank-landing ship for the U.S. Navy. Before making history in Israel, the ship landed forces on Utah Beach on D-Day.

After the war it was offered for sale, and in the summer of 1947 it was bought by the Hebrew Committee for National Liberation, a political arm of the right-wing pre-state militia the Etzel, also known as the Irgun. The name comes from one of the pseudonyms of the Revisionist (right-wing) Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky; it means seesaw or swing in Italian.

The ship was renovated, sailed to Marseilles and from there to Port-de-Bouc, where it took on new immigrants. On May 26, 1948, 12 days after the establishment of the state, 916 people boarded the ship, most of them Holocaust survivors identified with the Revisionist movement.

Shortly afterward it was decided to bring weapons and ammunition for the Etzel on board. The weapons were purchased at bargain prices from anti-fascist Spanish organizations in France. The arms included 5,000 rifles, 450 machine guns, five half-tracks, a number of aerial bombs and about 4 million bullets.

The Altalena being towed to sea, October 1949. Credit: GPO

The sailing was commanded by Etzel officer Eliyahu Lankin, the uncle of the current tourism minister, Yariv Levin. The captain was Monroe (Emanuel) Fein, who once served in the U.S. Navy.

Begin vs. Ben-Gurion

The Altalena sailed to Israel on June 11, 1948, in an operation that was not concealed from the Israeli government. Irgun leader Menachem Begin asked Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to let the ship land on the Tel Aviv coast so that the immigrants could disembark and the weapons could be unloaded for the Etzel.

Ben-Gurion refused and the ship was sent to Kfar Vitkin to the north between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Begin wanted the weapons to reach the Etzel brigades that had become integrated in the Israel Defense Forces, but Ben-Gurion and Yisrael Galili, the chief of staff of the Haganah, the forerunner of the IDF, insisted that the underground militias no longer existed; the IDF was Israel’s only army. They demanded that the weapons be sent to the army’s warehouses.

The ship anchored opposite Kfar Vitkin late in the evening, the immigrants disembarked, Begin went on deck and the unloading of the weapons began. After a few arguments broke out, shots were fired. Begin ordered Lankin to sail to Tel Aviv, where Begin hoped for greater exposure and a more sympathetic crowd.

At the orders of the IDF the Altalena was described as an “enemy.” The air force and navy were ordered to bomb it, but the pilots – most of them volunteers from abroad – refused to take off. Three navy ships and a small boat were sent to the area, but their crews dallied. The Altalena landed at Tel Aviv opposite the Dan Hotel. Captain Fein deliberately landed it over the remains of the illegal immigrant ship Tiger Hill that sank in 1939.

At 4 P.M. on June 22, Ben-Gurion ordered the shelling of the ship. One gunner refused but a second fired. One of the shells hit the Altalena, which burst into flames. Ben-Gurion later said that the gunner who fired should be blessed, and that the cannon “should be positioned next to the Holy Temple.”

Begin decided to prevent a civil war and surrendered. The Irgun members were taken onshore, while Irgun fighters and three IDF soldiers had been killed in the clashes at Kfar Vitkin and Tel Aviv.

Journalist and author Shlomo Nakdimon, who wrote a book on the Altalena in 1978, and also served as Begin’s media adviser when Begin was prime minster, tells how he found the cannon that fired at the Altalena at the IDF base in Shivta in the south. The base of the cannon is inscribed with a quote by Begin: “There will never be a civil war.”

In articles for Haaretz, Nakdimon described the unfolding of events that led to the firing at the ship. For almost a year the burned-out ship stood on the Tel Aviv coast, until Ben-Gurion ordered it sunk. Navy ships dragged it a few dozen kilometers to the west.

Members of the Herut movement gather at the Tel Aviv beach to watch the heruth memorial gathering on the 1st anniversary of the Atalena ship incident, June 1949.Credit: Teddy Brunner / GPO

On the promenade of Bograshov Beach there is a small stone monument in memory of the Altalena victims. Due to a lack of sensitivity, or to ignorance or particularly idiotic humor, in 2015 the Tel Aviv municipality put up an ugly statue of the first prime minister doing a headstand around 20 meters from the monument.

Crowdsourcing for the Altalena?

Sade explains the process for finding a ship on the seabed. The first stage is an investigation based on archives, photos and testimony. The work at sea with the help of sonar includes a thorough screening of the seabed in the probable area, after which “targets” are found acoustically that might accord with the outline and features of the ship.

The final stage is identification, which is done by a diver, up to a depth of about 100 meters, or by a robot that operates deeper. The sunken ship can be identified with the help of the photography.

Sade points to several targets that may turn out to be remains of the ship. Like his predecessors, he doesn’t reveal their precise location but explains that he knows where to begin the search – if he has a suitable budget. He says the cost is about 1.5 million shekels ($430,000) – for leasing a ship with the equipment for finding the metal skeleton around 400 meters deep.

For the sake of comparison, the Israeli submarine the Dakar was found at a depth of 3,000 meters; the Titanic at 3,700 meters. Where will the money come from? “Maybe we’ll do crowdsourcing,” says Sade, “or someone will show up who’ll make it possible.”

In the photos found by Kozik in the possession of the navy men who sank the ship, one can see the final moments when the Altalena was still afloat. He assumes that eventually the investigation’s findings and the photos by the underwater robot will be cross-referenced and will find the ship’s location.

Sade and Kozik aren’t the first to try hard to find the Altalena – Tourism Minister Levin also did so about six years ago when he headed the Knesset House Committee. The search was then brought before the committee as part of the heritage project directed by Reuven Pinsky of the Prime Minister’s Office, and 290,000 shekels was allotted to the Menachem Begin Heritage Fund to do research.

“Finding the Altalena is of great importance and I consider it a leading national project,” Levin wrote to Haaretz his week.

The director of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Herzl Makov, says a major barrier is that great efforts were made to play down the affair. He believes that this stemmed from the direct instructions of Ben-Gurion, who feared that efforts would be made to find the ship’s remains. Makov also laments a lack of coordination that he says is deliberate.

“We hired a special team that conducted an investigation and began searching,” he says. “The estimate is that there is a 90 percent chance that it is located on the site pointed out by the researchers. To verify the location there is a need for expensive equipment. But the resources for that haven’t been found and nothing has happened.”

Makov also mentions the cost issue for making remains of the Altalena a monument to mark a formative event in Israel’s history. “If it’s a matter of millions we’ll give up the idea for the sake of more important educational efforts,” he says. “If the cost is several hundreds of thousands – it’s worthwhile.”