The Altalena seen off the coast of Tel Aviv. Yigal Allon said he asked the General Staff to order shells to be fired near the ship. Beno Rothenberg / Israel State Archives

The Man Who Jumped Off the Altalena, the Ship That Nearly Caused an Israeli Civil War

Holocaust survivor Shmuel Feldman railed against the left-wing establishment that he said shelled the arms ship for political reasons



Shmuel Feldman was 25 at that bloody historic moment 70 years ago next week. On June 22, 1948, five weeks after the establishment of the State of Israel, he jumped off the Irgun arms ship the Altalena into the water off Tel Aviv. The ship that had been dispatched by that right-wing militia – which should have no longer existed under the new state – had been shelled by an Israel Defense Forces gunner.

“The incident remained in his heart like an open wound,” says his son, Dr. Zeev Feldman. “The intensity of the hurt caused by the Altalena events didn’t recede over time.”

In the run-up to the anniversary, the younger Feldman pulled a letter out of the family archive, which his father had sent to Haaretz’s editorial board in 1970 in the hope that it would be published. In the letter, which was not published, Shmuel Feldman accused the young state of shelling the ship for political reasons, not to prevent an uprising by a right-wing underground militia.

“My personal conclusions from the Altalena tragedy were that the problem wasn’t the planning of a rebellion by the Irgun but rather the desire to destroy a political body that was a rival of the leadership,” Feldman wrote.

Tzahi Yifhar / Israel State Archives

He said the goal was “to label the Irgun as rebels against the State of Israel, which had just been established, and in that way eliminate it politically. It should be noted that this stratagem was partly successful.”

The newspaper returned the letter with no explanation. Feldman, who worked as an administrator at a Tel Aviv school, died at only 48.

His son kept the letter all these years and has now sent it to Haaretz again, in a second attempt to have it published. The letter shows that it was written in reply to a piece published in Haaretz by Yigal Allon, who commanded the operation to take over the ship.

In his article, Allon described the artillery fire at the ship, which he said he ordered as an unavoidable measure. “The Altalena affair was a rebellion against the agreed-on institutions of the sovereign state in its earliest days, at a very grave juncture in the War of Independence,” he wrote. “In every departure from national discipline lie the seeds of the calamity of schism, fraternal discord and a grave threat to the very essence of democracy.”

He continued: “Had this phenomenon of self-exclusion not been restrained, the entire struggle of the Yishuv” – the pre-state Jewish community in Ottoman and later British Palestine – “could have ended very badly. This is the kind of thing that an individual, a nation and a leadership do with a heavy heart but a clean conscience.”

Beno Rothenberg / Israel State Archives

The differences between the two men – Allon and Feldman – are also evident in their biographies. Allon was native-born, a commander of the Palmach strike force, a general in the IDF and a cabinet member from the Labor Party.

Tom Segev's view

Feldman was born in 1925 in Poland, and at the outbreak of World War II fled to the Russian steppes, where he survived as an adolescent. After the war he returned to Poland and discovered that his entire family had perished. He joined the Beitar youth movement and the Irgun, moving around Europe and helping Jews immigrate to Israel – until he boarded the Altalena.

On June 11, 1948, the ship sailed from France carrying hundreds of immigrants and large quantities of weapons and ammunition. The government, headed by David Ben-Gurion, ordered the IDF to prevent the offloading of the arms, for fear they would reach the Irgun during the first temporary truce in the War of Independence.

The ship first dropped anchor off the shore of Kfar Vitkin between Tel Aviv and Haifa, where most of the passengers and weapons were taken off as the ship and the IDF exchanged fire. The Altalena then headed for Tel Aviv, where it was shelled by the IDF.

Beno Rothenberg / Israel State Archives

Israeli historian Tom Segev discusses the incident in his book due out in English next year; the 2017 Hebrew version translates as “David Ben-Gurion: A State at All Costs.” Segev quotes the first prime minister at a cabinet meeting convened after the exchanges of fire.

“This is an attempt to destroy the army,” Ben-Gurion said. “This is an attempt to murder the state” – there could be no compromise on the issue. “If, to our great misfortune, it’s necessary to fight for this, it’s necessary to fight. The moment the army and the state submit to any other armed force, we have nothing left to do.”

So Feldman was among those who swam ashore after the Altalena was shelled. In his letter he expressed anger that his name and the names of other Holocaust survivors who were on the ship were besmirched; they were depicted as traitors.

“I find it especially hurtful that by implication, the people of the Altalena have been labeled rebels against the government of Israel and the State of Israel at the beginning of its rebirth and during the War of Independence,” he wrote.

As he put it, “Ninety-nine percent of them were survivors of the Nazi death camps, partisans or soldiers and officers in the Allied armies who fought the Nazis and came to fight for the rebirth of the State of Israel and the liberation of the Land of Israel.”

Tzahi Yifhar / Israel State Archives

As for the large amount of materiel on the ship, he noted: “They brought with them not only guns and ammunition for themselves, but also for another 5,000 Hebrew soldiers.”

Yigal Allon’s version

Allon, whose article enraged Feldman, described an entirely different situation, one where the Irgun fighters had taken control of key points in and around Tel Aviv, stirred up the local people and captured positions along the shore. He also witnessed exchanges of fire between IDF soldiers and Irgun cells from the beach and from the ship.

“It quickly became clear to me that without reinforcements for the IDF in Tel Aviv, we would not be able to quell the rebellion,” Allon wrote, adding that he had two alternatives: fire on the ship “and cause heavy losses it its people,” or let them come ashore with their arms, “something that would have led to bitter street battles.”

Ultimately he chose a third alternative: “I asked the General Staff to order the artillery corps to fire a number of shells near the Altalena to instill fear before I gave the ultimatum to surrender.”

Tzahi Yifhar / Israel State Archives

Soon enough the sound of shells exploding was heard. “After a number of explosions, to my astonishment, the lookout informed me that thick smoke was rising from the ship’s deck,” Allon wrote.

His deputy in the operation, Yitzhak Rabin, described in his memoir the sounds of ammunition exploding as men jumped from the ship. The Irgun people on the shore became “hysterical,” as Rabin put it.

Shmuel Feldman refused to believe Allon’s version of the shelling. In his letter to Haaretz he attacked Allon’s statement that he had not intended to damage the ship when he ordered the shelling. Feldman then wondered sarcastically: “Permit me to ask whether you established a commission of inquiry at the time to investigate the non-precise implementation of your orders, and if so, because so many years have passed since then, maybe you could also publish the findings of that investigation?”

Nineteen people – 16 from the Irgun and three IDF soldiers – were killed in the Altalena affair, which has been tagged by the slogan “Jews firing on Jews.”

In his article, Allon mentioned one of them by name – Pesach Waldinger – as proof that shots were fired from the ship at the soldiers on the shore. Feldman cast doubt on this version of events.

Tzahi Yifhar / Israel State Archives

Moreover, he asked Allon to attend the Memorial Day ceremony for the men on the ship who were killed. “You’ll see how long it will take you to walk past all the graves,” he wrote. He asked that Allon pause especially by the grave of 20-year-old Shlomo Kutnovsky, the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. “And he of all people had to be hit and killed by a Jewish bullet.”

From the distance of 70 years, Segev believes that Ben-Gurion exaggerated his concerns and his response to the Altalena. He says the Irgun people didn’t endanger the sovereignty of the state, and there was no need to use force against them when the War of Independence was already underway.

Feldman, whom his son describes as “a Zionist loyal to the state heart and soul,” didn’t live to see the right wing come into power in 1977. Had he not died prematurely, he would have been very pleased by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last month at the memorial for the Altalena dead.

“Not only were they not traitors, they were patriots of the highest degree, loyal to the unbounded Zionist vision, lovers of the nation and the state,” he said, describing the Irgun fighters on the deck of the ship.

“Their dedication to the homeland stood the test of fire. But in this case, it was not a test by enemy fire, but hasty, unnecessary, deadly and divisive fraternal fire. The time has come to instill this truth in the consciousness of all generations.”

Tzahi Yifhar / Israel State Archives

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