Israel's Lost Cause

The plan is to comb the floor of the Mediterranean for the remains of the ship. The Israeli government will reportedly allocate $60,000 for the search. The next stage, much more costly, will be to salvage the Altalena and turn it into a memorial for the men of the right-wing Irgun underground, which sparked the momentary Israeli civil war in June 1948.

Judging by what the country's leading politicians have said in recent days, the salvaged ship will commemorate the "crime" committed by the Israeli government against the rebels of the Altalena -- and, bizarrely, the supposed saintliness of Irgun commander Menachem Begin for preventing fratricide. It's as if the U.S. government officially endorsed Confederate History Month as a celebration of the South's role in preserving the Union.

History is about the past, but the way it's told speaks terabytes about the present. The effort by the ruling Likud Party to drag the Altalena from the depths of the Mediterranean and of memory shows that resentment and entitlement remain the foundation of the party's message. It testifies that Likud leaders still think of themselves as heading a Jewish national liberation movement rather than an established democracy. It implies that they continue to distinguish between freedom fighters and terrorists based on who carried out the action, not the action itself. It helps explain why the Likud-led government seems intent on taking apart Israeli democracy, and why it has such an impossibly hard time enforcing democratic norms on today's radical right.

Here I must pause for a solid, if brief, recounting of the Altalena affair and its context. Before Israeli independence, the rightist Irgun Tzva'i Le'umi broke from the mainstream Zionist movement. The Irgun and an even more extreme group, the Lehi, glorified blood and "iron," codewords for armed struggle against Palestine's British rulers and against Palestinian Arabs. A book called Chronicle of the War of Liberation, published after independence by veterans of the right, proudly lists attacks on British soldiers and police -- and many attacks on civilians. There's the June 1939 bombing of the Haifa produce market that killed 78 Arabs, and the attempted bombing of a funeral attended by British officials at an Anglican cemetery in April 1942, and the March 1947 "execution" of a Jew accused of collaboration with the British, not to mention the countless armed "confiscations" of money from banks.

The Zionist mainstream accepted the 1947 U.N. plan to split Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The right saw such pragmatism as perfidy. In response, Begin hatched a plan for the Irgun's Paris office to recruit and arm a Jewish brigade in Europe and send it to Palestine aboard a war-surplus ship that the Irgun had renamed the Altalena. In Begin's fantasy, the Irgun's force would arrive hours after the British left and conquer the land assigned to the Arab state. From all of shattered Europe, though, the Paris activists managed to recruit only a hundred untrained would-be soldiers. Their arms-buying efforts also failed.

On May 14, 1948, the mainstream Zionist leadership declared Israel's independence. The mainstream Jewish militia, the Haganah, was transformed into the new state's army, the Israel Defense Forces. Menachem Begin signed an agreement for the Irgun's fighters to join the IDF in separate battalions, and to stop buying arms. Yet in mid-June 1948, he informed the government that the Altalena was on its way to Israel, loaded with arms belatedly acquired from the French government. At first, he agreed to turn over the 5,000 rifles, the 4 million bullets, the machine guns, bazookas, and mortar shells to the IDF. Then he insisted that the weapons go to the Irgun battalions -- effectively creating an army within the army, loyal to its old political leaders. David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of the provisional government, said no. A country could have just one army, he insisted, and it must take orders from the government, not political factions.

When the IDF blocked the first attempt to unload the Altalena at a rural beach, Begin boarded it and sailed to Tel Aviv. There, on the downtown beachfront, the Irgun fought a day-long battle against government forces commanded by 26-year-old Yitzhak Rabin. Finally, Ben-Gurion ordered the shelling of the ship. A pillar of smoke rose from the Altalena, and its defenders dove overboard. Sixteen Irgun members and three soldiers died in the fighting. With that, Ben-Gurion had achieved the basic condition of statehood, as Max Weber famously defined it: the government's "monopoly [on] the legitimate use of phyiscal force within a given territory." Indeed, by Weber's criterion, Israel really only became a state on the afternoon that the IDF defeated the Irgun.

Begin, it's true, ordered his fighters to stop shooting in order to avoid "terrible bloodshed between Jews." But the Irgun's public statement also labeled Ben-Gurion a "dictator" and called the government a "Judenrat" -- a council of Jewish collaborators with Nazis. Explicitly, Begin wanted to avoid more fighting between members of the ethnic group; implicitly, he knew he'd been beaten. But his declaration showed no grasp that the glory of revolution was past, that a government had replaced undergrounds. In 1949, Ben-Gurion had the navy take the shattered shell of the Altalena out to sea and sunk.

The epilogue of the right's Chronicle, published in 1951, describes the order to shell the ship as "murder" and the battle as "well-poisoning" -- recycling an infamous canard of anti-Semites against Jews. Reinventing himself as leader of the parliamentary right, Begin built support on a platform of resentment -- domestically, against the then-ruling left; internationally, against the world that let Jews die in the Holocaust.

Begin's Likud Party legitimately won power through elections in 1977. Several years later, a new edition of the right's Chronicle of pre-independence struggle was published -- without that final chapter, as I recently discovered. Thirty years ago some people on the Israeli right found it unseemly to speak of well-poisoning and murder.

Today, concern about unseemliness has evaporated. Earlier this month, the Defense Ministry published an invitation to the annual memorial ceremony for the Altalena dead. The text, apparently submitted by Irgun veterans, refers to the "murder" of the Irgun members. At the ceremony, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a surreal speech decrying the "rash order" to shell the ship and crediting the "brave leadership of Menachem Begin" for making civil war impossible in Israel. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin spoke of the "crime of the Altalena" -- meaning the crime committed by the government. A few days later, the local media reported that Netanyahu had embraced a proposal from the Menachem Begin Heritage Center to salvage the ship. Deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon described the salvage operation as "restoring Jewish history."

All this is in character. Probably no government since Begin's has been so intent on rehabilitating the undergrounds of the radical right. One of Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's early actions in office was adding a unit to the national curriculum on the members of the Irgun and Lehi who were either executed or who committed suicide in British prisons after being convicted of crimes including assassination, bombing a train station, and attacking a civilian bus. More recently, Sa'ar's ministry removed prominent law professor Yedidia Stern from a panel on the national civics curriculum -- in Stern's telling, because he opposed reallocating class hours from education for democracy to Zionist history.

As prime minister, Netanyahu has assiduously followed Begin's method of switching the subject from any criticism of Israel by bringing up the Holocaust. On a practical level, his tactic of insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is meant to avoid peace talks. Psychologically, though, it reflects Netanyahu's inability to accept that Israel has in fact existed as a Jewish state for 63 years, with international recognition, and that he need not beg for affirmation from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Given its Altalena complex, it makes sense that the government has a hard time defending democracy from the present-day radicals of the right. For nearly a year, for instance, the police allowed Rabbi Dov Lior, one of the most extreme clerics of the settlement movement, to ignore summons for questioning on suspicion of violating Israel's law against racist incitement. This week, at last, embarrassment defeated fear of the far right. Lior was stopped on his way to a meeting in an illegal settlement outpost, brought in for an hour of interrogation, and released. In protest, his young supporters blocked major roads. Another right-wing cleric, Rabbi Haim Druckman, described the arrest as a "kidnapping." The government, in that description, is merely a rival underground.

Pulling the Altalena from the depths might make sense if the goal were to make it a monument to Ben-Gurion's courage, and to the critical step that the June 1948 fighting played in creating a democracy. Alas, that's not the goal. The plan is part of the Likud's headlong flight into the past, into the pre-state glory of persecution and revolutionary martyrdom. Far better to let the ship lie where it is.

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