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The Lifting of the Altalena

An effort to revive the symbolic Israeli ship

Adam Chandler
November 28, 2012
Smoke from the Altalena Off of the Tel Aviv Shore (IPO)
Smoke from the Altalena Off of the Tel Aviv Shore (IPO)

Even from the depths of Mediterranean Sea, the Israeli ship the Altalena still sails on the waters of political metaphor. The ship is famous for being fired on and downed in 1948 by the Israel Defense Forces (led by Yitzhak Rabin) shortly after the founding of the State of Israel. The Altalena Affair, as its semi-widely known, came to pass because the ship had weapons in its hold bound for the Irgun, a paramilitary group led by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin and a vestige of the Jewish forces operating in pre-state Israel. The Irgun had refused orders to give up the ship and so Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion instructed the IDF to sink it, killing several Israelis and wasting the cargo. (For a stellar recounting, check out this Tablet piece by Shimon Peres and David Landau.)

The takeaway message is that a government must maintain its absolute authority over extreme groups that seek to undermine it, sometimes by show of force. For years, many waited for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to have his Altalena moment with terrorist groups that launched attacks against Israel. He never did. Some Israelis rightly suggest that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due for an Altalena moment with the settlers who engage in price tags attacks as well as the settler movement itself.

But the Altalena itself is back in the news for a different reason. The Begin Center is looking to raise the sunken ship and use it for a memorial in an effort to recast Irgun leader Menachem Begin as the hero of the story. From the BBC:

Director of the Begin Center in Jerusalem, Herzl Makov, believes it was Menachem Begin who pulled Israel back from the brink of civil war.

“Begin decided not to fight back,” Mr Makov says. “Begin realised it was a strategic issue: ‘if we, the Jewish people were going to have among ourselves now a war, there was no chance to get independence.’ So, he ordered, ‘don’t shoot back,’” he says.

Mr Makov wants to highlight this lesson of history by raising the Altalena, or at least part of it, from the bottom of the sea and building a new monument. He is currently looking for funding for the project.

Here’s a question: Given the meaning of the story, does Israel really need a second Altalena memorial?

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.