Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena by Jerold S. Auerbach (Quid Pro Books, 2011)
Reviewed by Rael Jean Isaac

At first sight, the subject of this book, the sinking of a ship bringing arms to Israel 63 years ago, seems like a historical curiosity, of interest only to Israeli history buffs. On the contrary. This powerful, pithy (only 150 pages) book is as contemporary and powerful as a punch in the solar plexus. Nothing could better serve to give the lie to the repeated puerile claim of Israel’s President Peres that “there is nothing to be learned from history.” Indeed Auerbach prefaces his book with a quote from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The “past that’s not even past” is the threat to Israel’s survival from sinat hinam or the baseless hatred of Jew for fellow Jew. It is a threat even greater than that posed by Arab enemies, U.S. and European government peace-processors and the purveyors of anti-Zionist hatred combined.
The Altalena was a ship bringing nine hundred young fighters (most of them survivors of Nazi camps) and a large arsenal of weapons (most of them supplied by France) to newly-established Israel, attacked by five Arab states and desperate for arms to defend itself. The entire project was the work of the Irgun, the underground organization whose attacks on British forces in Palestine had a major role in Britain’s decision to throw in the towel. Ben-Gurion’s then provisional government gave orders to destroy the ship and its armaments. Sixteen Irgun members were killed as the ship went down, its munitions ablaze, with Irgun leader Menachem Begin himself narrowly escaping the fire aimed at fleeing survivors. (Most of the passengers had disembarked earlier in the two-day showdown.)
Begin was the hero in this squalid story. As Auerbach writes: “Begin commanded his loyal fighters not to return fire. His insistence upon restraint demonstrated his unyielding determination to prevent civil war from once again dividing the Jewish people and shattering Jewish sovereignty, as it had done nineteen centuries earlier.”
Then Jews had battled each other even as Roman legions laid siege to Jerusalem. Josephus’s The Wars of the Jews is the only historical source for this, and as Auerbach points out, for all that it is a tainted one (Josephus was a Jewish military commander who went over to the enemy), is likely to remain so. Later on, the rabbis in the Talmud made sinat hinam the explanation for the downfall of Jewish sovereignty. Jews had been vanquished by “the gratuitous hatred of Jews for other Jews.”
It was not only Begin who was imbued with the ghosts of two thousand years past. Born in Palestine, Yitzhak Ben Ami was one of the so-called “Bergson Boys” who had come to the United States on the eve of World War II to raise funds for the rescue of European Jews and shatter the silence about the Nazi program of annihilation. Auerbach writes that while the Altalena was still offshore, Ben Ami, who had managed to disembark, was on the beach with other Irgun men when Israeli soldiers suddenly raked the area with bullets and mortar shells. As he and a friend took refuge in a sandy foxhole, Ben Ami asked him if he had read Josephus. “Do you remember the description of the final days in the defense of Jerusalem…[when] the Judeans continued to massacre each other…Doesn’t this look like the Third destruction of the Temple?” (Little could he have imagined that one day his own son, Jeremy Ben Ami, would head J Street, an organization promoting sinat hinam, its annual conferences festivals for hate-Israel activists).
If the hatred that destroyed the Altalena lacked a cause (in the sense of a justifiable ground for the action against the ship), it was not without background, and this Auerbach recounts. The first deep fissure in the Yishuv (as the Jewish community of Palestine was known) grew out of the 1933 murder of Labor leader Chaim Arlosoroff, as he strolled with his wife on a Tel Aviv beach. Arlosoroff had been harshly attacked by the rival Revisionists for making a “transfer agreement” with the Nazi government that brought money and Jews to Palestine, but at the cost of undermining a global anti-Nazi boycott. The Labor movement was convinced at the time (wrongly as subsequent investigations have concluded) that the Revisionists were responsible for his murder.
Hostility was fanned by divergent approaches between Labor and Revisionist factions on how to deal with the violence and terror accompanying the Arab revolt of 1936 and how to react to British betrayal of the Mandate, even as the need for a Jewish refuge from the Nazis became stark. The Haganah (the defense organization of the Labor majority, although oddly enough, founded by Jabotinsky of the rival Revisionist movement) adopted a policy of havlagah,” i.e. restraint toward both Arabs and British. The Irgun (which split from the Haganah, and was associated with the Revisionists) adopted a policy of terror for terror when it came to the Arabs and, in response to British cutting off immigration of Jews, bombed British targets. While the Irgun shifted tactics during the war to cooperate with Great Britain, by 1944, when it was clear the Allies would win, the Irgun, now commanded by Menachem Begin, returned to its policy of resisting British rule.
Auerbach points out that from the standpoint of Ben-Gurion and the Haganah, the Irgun (and its more militant offshoot Lehi) was creating huge damage to Zionist diplomacy, which wanted “controlled” cooperation with the British (on whose goodwill Ben-Gurion was counting in the post-war period.)
In November 1944 Ben-Gurion launched the notorious “Saison,” or hunting season, in which Irgun leaders were abducted and incarcerated in caves or kibbutzim, interrogated, in some cases tortured, and turned over to British authorities. The Jewish Agency intelligence service and Haganah became informants for the British Palestinian police, turning over the names of hundreds of Irgun members. While instructing his men not to retaliate against fellow Jews, no matter what the provocation, Begin issued a bitter indictment: “You incite, inform, betray, abduct, and hand men over, Cain.”
At the end of 1945 the Season was replaced briefly by a “United Resistance Movement” (when it became clear that British policy would not change after the war) but this ended with the Irgun bombing of the King David Hotel, seat of the British Mandatory government, and its unforeseen heavy civilian casualties. (Although the Haganah had participated in the planning, it distanced itself from any responsibility.)
The upshot was that when Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence in May 1948, a huge reservoir of bitterness and distrust existed between the institutions of the dominant Labor movement and the Irgun, providing the groundwork for the tragedy of the Altalena. Yes, there was unlucky timing, crossed wires, over-optimism (on the part of Irgun leaders) and miscommunication–all of this is painstakingly described by Auerbach in his chronicle of what happened between the ship’s sailing and its destruction. But the catastrophe would never have occurred except for the senseless hatred by Ben-Gurion and the Labor left for ideological “dissenters.”
Ben-Gurion would insist (as Auerbach notes, without a scintilla of evidence) that the Irgun planned to use the weapons for a military putsch. On the contrary, writes Auerbach, Begin was confident that “the arrival of desperately needed weapons and munitions would be recognized as an exemplary demonstration of patriotism. Here, after all, was a significant Irgun military contribution to the struggle for statehood–anything but an attempt to overthrow the government.”
In fact the only genuine disagreement concerned the distribution of arms. Ben-Gurion insisted all the arms should be turned over to him unconditionally. Begin wanted 20% of the arms to go to Irgun forces in Jerusalem. While “what ifs” can never be certainties, it is likely the Altalena’s arms would have made it possible to unite the city under Jewish sovereignty in 1948, greatly strengthening Israel’s negotiating position in the years ahead.
But Ben-Gurion was determined to consolidate his power and crush his opposition. In this he was wildly successful, for by making much of the public believe that a putsch had been narrowly averted, Ben-Gurion was able to keep the Herut Party (the political party formed by the Irgun leadership) on the margins for twenty years, excluded from government coalitions, its legitimacy in question. Indeed, for years, in Parliamentary debates, Ben-Gurion refused so much as to use Begin’s name, referring to him as “the person sitting on the right hand of Professor Bader” or by similar circumlocutions. Until the 1967 war, when Prime Minister Eshkol asked Begin to join a unity government, his party was forced to conduct its affairs in an iron ring of isolation.
Nonetheless, ugly episode though it was, what was most important was that the Altalena did not serve as prelude to more fratricidal strife. The hostilities of the pre-war period faded and Auerbach notes that the 1967 War and the rescue of hostages at Entebbe forged a spirit of national unity. But alas, that spirit was relatively brief for in the wake of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, there began a new growth of sinat hinam, this time a groundless hatred by secular Israelis directed against religious Jews, especially the religious nationalists who settled outside the ceasefire lines of 1949. Auerbach’s subject is the Altalena so he does not go into the same detail on the growth of this new manifestation of sinat hinam. In the wake of the 1973 war, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) emerged and embarked on a broad-ranging settlement effort, especially in Samaria, which had been devoid of Jewish settlements. In 1975, then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking to young people at seminary Efal, declared: “There is no more dangerous organization in this country than Gush Emunim.” (There were multiple ironies here. Efal was a project of the Hameuchad movement which had been dedicated to settlement throughout the land of Israel. And it was Rabin, as a young officer in the Palmach, who had been in charge of the destruction of the Altalena.) Less than a year later the famous writer A.B. Yehoshua sent a letter to Haaretz: “One should encourage them [the people of Gush Emunim] to settle more and more beyond the Green Line. Thus, when the hoped-for peace comes, and we shall be freed of the territories, we shall also be freed from them.”
For secularists, particularly those on the left, the settlers were responsible for the failure to achieve peace. While Auerbach, perhaps wisely, does not engage in psychological speculation, there are probably a variety of reasons why Israelis blamed other Israelis for the persistence of Arab hostility when the Arabs themselves made (and make) no secret of their refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in any borders. There are probably a variety of reasons. One may well be that many Israelis are simply unwilling to give up their dream of Israel becoming another Switzerland. Also, if fellow Jews are responsible, Israelis can feel they have control of events. If Arab attitudes are responsible and these cannot be changed, Israelis forfeit their sense that their decisions will shape their future. All they are left with is deterrence, the old slogan of “Ein Breira” (there is no choice) that fortified the state in its first two decades. Many secularists also resented and scorned the religious Judaism that motivated most of the settlers.
The stage is thus set for the possibility of a new and more dangerous war of brothers. Auerbach writes: “If tens of thousands of religious settlers should refuse to leave their homes under an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, would the government of Israel respond with guns and bullets as it did in 1948?” Auerbach talks of a “peace accord” but given the PA’s unity deal with Hamas (and the increased anti-Israel fever unleashed by the so-called “Arab spring”) it is more likely that any future Israeli territorial withdrawals would be at best in the shape of “an interim agreement” or more likely, a simple unilateral withdrawal on the model of Gaza (where the Israeli government expelled Jewish communities without even the pretense of undertakings by the other side).
Despite some heated rhetoric, the expulsions from Gaza were achieved without serious challenge. But would the same restraint be shown if expulsions were repeated on a far greater scale? None of the rosy promises of the political leadership were fulfilled as a result of the retreat from Gaza–instead southern Israel was exposed to constant rocket fire. Moreover, there was now no single figure of the stature of Menachem Begin, whose word was obeyed unquestioningly by his followers in the aftermath of the Altalena.
Auerbach concludes his epilogue to Brothers at War with a warning:
“Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak haCohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, pondered the tragedy of 1st century Jerusalem. He taught that the Temple, destroyed by sinat hinam, could only be rebuilt with ahavat hinam, ‘groundless love.’ But neither his teaching, nor his preferred fusion of religious Orthodoxy and Zionist nationalism, took hold in the young Zionist state. Instead, Israel was born amid the groundless hatred that was tragically on display during the two-day war of brother (milchemet achim) in June 1948. It still confronts the ominous possibility of a recurrence, this time between secular and religious Zionists.
“The Altalena episode, and the killing of Jews by Jews that accompanied it, remains a lingering self-inflicted wound from Israel’s heroic struggle for independence. If wisely used as historical memory, the Altalena might serve Israelis as a reminder of the ominous possibility that civil war could destroy Jewish national sovereignty. If not, Altalena memories may finally–and disastrously–be erased by an even more devastating tragedy.”
Brothers at War is available from QuidPro Books.com and from Amazon, via Kindle, as well as in soft or hardcover.

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