Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Altalena Affair - 66 years later

66 years ago, on June 22, 1948, one of the most controversial and divisive incidents in Israel's history took place – the Altalena affair. Even today, more than half a century later, the name Altalena still causes controversy and debate.

The Altalena was the name given to a former LST (Landing Ship, Tank) 138 – an American cargo ship used during WWII for landing tanks and other military supplies – purchased by members of the National Military organization (known in Hebrew as the "IZL," an acronym for Irgun Zvai Leumi) in the United States. The ship had a dual purpose – to bring to new immigrants and weapon supplies to newly-born Israel. The ship was named after the pseudonym of Ze'ev Jabotinsky (the founder of the Revisionist Zionist party - the IZL's political mother party).

The IZL planned to send the ship to Israel on May 15, Israel's first day of independence, but was delayed due to the long time it took to purchase the weapons and equipment in France and to load 900 young immigrants (who were trained by IZL instructors). The ship set out to sea at June 11. The ship's IZL commander was Eliahu Lankin and the Captain was Monroe Fein.

While the ship was en route to Israel, war raged there. On May 15, the armies of Syria, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon invaded Israel, a day after it declared independence. As the battles raged, the provisional government of Israel approved an order establishing the Israel Defense Forces, which included the three Jewish underground movements:  The Hagana, the IZL and LEHI (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, known also by its British nickname "the Stern Gang"). On May 31, David Ben Gurion, Israel's prime minister, published an Order of the Day, declaring the formal establishment of the IDF, and on June 1, Yisrael Galili, Ben Gurion's assistant, and Menachem Begin, the IZL commander, signed an agreement amalgamating the latter with the IDF. The agreement specifically forbade the IZL from purchasing weapons independently. The IZL informed the government about the Altalena. However, the agreement was not implemented in Jerusalem, since it was not part of the state of Israel (according to the UN partition plan), and the IZL continued to carry on its own independent operations there.

Here are original photographs taken aboard the Altalena while she was inbound to Israel. The photos show life aboard the ship including drills and weapons training. The photos are part of Zahi Yifhar's photo collection in Israel State Archives.

Avraham Stavsky (in white shirt), Eliahu Lankin (left) aboard the Altalena. Stavsky, who was indicted for the assassination of Hain Arlossoroff in 1933 (and was acquitted) was killed aboard the Altalena

The Altalena left port for Israel on June 11th, the first day of the first cease fire in the war, and Menachem Begin sent a telegram ordering the ship to postpone its departure (in order not to violate the terms of the much needed truce), but the telegram arrived after the Altalena  was already at sea. A radio message sent to her was not received. Begin informed the Ministry of Defense of the expected arrival of the ship and negotiated distribution of the weapons. Begin wanted to deliver 20% of the ship's cargo to IZL's battalion in Jerusalem and to keep the rest in storage or distribute them among IZL's units inside the IDF.   The government objected to the idea, because it believed it could form an "army within an army" and the Israeli government was attempting to unite all of the factions inside Israel in order to create one united army under one command and government. (5 months after the Altalena affair, the government disbanded the PALMACH headquarters for this same reason). Much of the disagreement between the two sides was based on a great deal of bad blood and complete disbelief in the other side. The IZL and its political origin, the Revisionist party were regarded as "dissenters" and a threat to the Jewish community in Israel, The IZL held very painful memories of the "[Hunting] Season" in which its members   were arrested by Hagana operatives, jailed (even tortured) and given over to the British.

The Altalena arrived at the shore of Kfar Vitkin (just north of Netanya) on June 20th and started to unload weapons and the new immigrants. Although the arrival of the ship was approved by the government, Yisrael Galili (who was responsible for the negotiations with the IZL on the ship) reported that the negotiations failed and that he feared that IZL is about to start a mutiny against the government.

The government ordered the IDF to subdue the IZL, and sanctioned the use of force. On June 21st, The Alexandroni brigade encircled the Kfar Vitkin area and its commander passed an ultimatum to Begin to surrender the weapons to the IDF in 10 minutes. The IZL refused the ultimatum and continued to unload the weapons from the ship. Soon a firefight broke out, in which 2 IDF soldiers and 6 IZL men were killed. Begin escaped to the Altalena, and the ship moved south, to the shore of Tel Aviv, with Begin aboard.

The Altalena reaced to the shore of Tel Aviv on the morning of June 22nd (after being pursued by an Israeli Navy ship during the night).On that day, an emergency meeting of the provisional government was convened. Ben Gurion claimed that the Altalena was "an attempt to murder the state…the moment the Army and state surrender to another armed force, we have nothing more to do" (my translation from the protocol of the Provisional government meeting 22.6.48). Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, the minister of religions called for restraint and warned that bloodshed will create an underground but cause an open rebellion [ibid.].

 However, events soon escalated and a battle erupted in which the Altalena was hit by artillery shells and started burning. Captain Fein lifted a white flag in order to stop the shooting and allow the crew and the passengers to abandon ship peacefully, but army forces kept on shooting, nevertheless. The ship sank with all its cargo. 200 members of the IZL were arrested but were freed on August 27th (except 5 leaders of the IZL) after public pressure for their release. The IZL ceased being independent and its members joined the IDF and served during the war of Independence.
The Altalena on the Frishman beach in Tel Aviv (Benno Rothenberg collection, Israel State archives)

The Altalena on fire (Benno Rothenberg collection, Israel State archives)

The Altalena on Tel Aviv beach (Benno Rothenberg collection, Israel State archives)

Begin, who abandoned ship after all the wounded were taken ashore. He managed to escape the army patrols searching for him and broadcasted in the IZL underground radio (my translation)"We knew. The ship is lost. Maybe all the rest is lost. Explosion after Explosion, we were in sea and the shells keep falling around us. All we have achieved is on fire….We will keep on loving the people of Israel and we will continue to fight for the people of Israel…but I will admit: it's the first time that I'm not sure I can convince my men, I will do everything for our people which  is in an existential threat…help me convince my men….to convince them that a brother must not raise a hand on a brother…Long live the People of Israel! Long live the Hebrew homeland! Long live the heroes of Israel – soldiers of Israel. Forever" (from Menachem Begin, the Sixth prime minister – selected documents, 1993-1992. Israel state archives)

The Altalena affair was a bone of contention between left and right for many years and a source of personal animosity between Begin and Ben Gurion until the Six day war, when Begin called for bringing Ben Gurion back from retirement to lead a national unity government.

 A recent initiative by the Begin Heritage center (and approved by the government) centers on salvaging the hulk of the Altalena (which was towed to sea and sunk after the war of Independence) and placing it as a monument on the Tel Aviv beach. This monument will help heal the wounds of the Altalena affair.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Israel's Relations with South Africa - A New Online Publication of the Israel State Archives

As Archivista noted here two weeks ago, we recently published a collection of documents on the relations between Israel and South Africa. They reveal how Israel's opposition to apartheid dominated the bilateral relations, which became increasingly tense and problematic.

Most of the documents published are in Hebrew, quite naturally. It's interesting to note that in the early years of Israel's diplomatic service, Israeli diplomats corresponded in English, out of habit (correspondence with British officials in British mandated Palestine) or due to their origin (as English speaking officials--the most renown of them was of course Abba Eban, but there were quite a few other high ranking officials such as Michael Comay, who came from South Africa, the British Abe Harman and others).
Here's a translation of one of the documents we published regarding South Africa. It was sent to the Legation in Pretoria by the Director General of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Dr. Chaim Yahil.

31 December 1963
To: Chargé d'Affaires in Pretoria
Consul-General in Johannesburg
From: Director General
Diplomatic asylum
A [Foreign]Ministry "standing order" dealing with giving diplomatic asylum in Israeli diplomatic missions is about to be circulated, in which it is stated that no diplomatic asylum should be given inside delegation grounds, without prior authorization of the Ministry [of Foreign Affairs].
The ministry's directorate has given thought to the special situation that may evolve in South Africa, due to the fact that certain Jews are anti-apartheid activists, and may be hunted down by the [South African] government, and would want to seek asylum with you.
Without fundamentally changing the said standing order, we came to a conclusion that in an extraordinary lifesaving situation [the expression used is "Pikuach Nefesh"] and without any  practical possibility to contact the Ministry beforehand, you are allowed to act as you see fit, in accordance with all the serious implications that may derive from your decision. Nevertheless, all possible efforts should be made in contacting the Ministry.
This order is for the Pretoria legation only, not the General Consulate in Johannesburg.

Yours truly,

Dr. Chaim Yahil [Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs]
Chaim Yahil (Wikipedia)

This letter is very important, since it shows the extent that Israel was willing to go in its opposition to South Africa: Granting diplomatic asylum for a political fugitive is a sure way to start a clash with the host government.

The Israel State Archives employs former diplomats from Israel's Foreign Ministry. When we showed them this document, we were told that it's quite extraordinary, since this kind authorization allowing a fugitive in an Israeli diplomatic mission is unheard of and they'd never heard of this kind of directive and authorization in their entire careers.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Israel cannot keep silent in the face of apartheid": Israel and South Africa, 1961-1967

"This country [Israel] cannot keep silent in the face of the policy [of apartheid]. Not only absolute justice but also the essential interests of our policy demand that we take a stand." The words of Chaim Yahil, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, in a letter to Israel's minister in Pretoria, Simcha Pratt, in August 1961, reflect the main theme of a new collection of documents on our website – the influence of Israel's opposition to apartheid on relations with South Africa in the 1960s. It includes 67 scanned documents, four in English, a translation of the introduction and the list of documents with summaries, and photographs. The rest of the documents are on our Hebrew website.

Israel's ties with a country which had officially adopted a policy of racial discrimination harmed its image and served Arab propaganda. However the documents here show that at this time relations with South Africa were tense and problematic, due to Israel's strong stand against apartheid. This stand reflected both desire for closer relations with the newly independent states of black Africa, and opposition in principle to racial separation, a policy especially led by Foreign Minister Golda Meir.

Golda Meir and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with the president of Upper Volta, Maurice Yameogo, in Jerusalem, July 1961. (Government Press Office)
However, Israel's anti-apartheid stand had to be moderated due to concern for the large Jewish community in South Africa. Israel thus walked a tightrope, on the one hand acting against South Africa in international forums and the UN, but on the other, maintaining diplomatic relations with it. Criticism by the South African Jews, who did not appreciate the difficulties of Israel's position, aroused considerable resentment. Simcha Pratt even called the Jews "present day Marranos" because of their fear of the South African government and the leaders of the ruling National Party with its pro-Nazi past. He criticized the lack of self-respect of the Jewish leaders who were willing to humiliate themselves completely "in order to please a government which supports racism and to criticize Israel."

Helen Suzman, a leading Jewish opponent of apartheid. (Wikimedia Commons)
Many opponents of apartheid in South Africa were Jewish, and an important episode in this story shown here was the "Rivonia Trial." In 1964, the leaders of the African National Congress, among them Nelson Mandela, were tried for their underground activities. Six of the 18 accused were Jewish. The ISA has already published some documents on this trial after Mandela's death last year in its publication on "Israel and Nelson Mandela – A Cry for Freedom," which we wrote about here and here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Just Published: A New Book on Menachem Begin from the Israel State Archives

A recent survey showed that Israelis regard Menachem Begin, Israel's sixth prime minister from 1977 until 1983, as one of their greatest leaders, second only to David Ben-Gurion.

We announce today the publication of a new book on Menachem Begin in the ISA series on Israel's late prime ministers and presidents – a collection of letters, papers and speeches edited by Professor Arye Naor (who was Cabinet Secretary at the time) and Dr. Arnon Lammfromm of the ISA. The historical introductions and the 191 documents in the book, most of them published for the first time, show Begin's career from his early years in the Betar movement in Poland, until his retirement from public life following the war in Lebanon and his wife's death. The book is in Hebrew, with a short introduction in English.

Menachem Begin was born in 1913 in Brisk (Brest-Litovsk), and came to Palestine during World War II. After leading the IZL (Irgun Zvai Leumi) underground movement against British rule before the establishment of the State of Israel, he became the leader of the Herut party. He came to power only after many years in opposition, although he served as a minister without portfolio in the government of Levi Eshkol during the Six day War.

Begin is also remembered for his concern for Jewish tradition, his attempts to help the disadvantaged sections of Israel's population, and of course his contribution to peace with Egypt. The ISA recently issued a digital online publication to mark the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in March 1979, which includes many documents, photographs and video clips of Menachem Begin together with Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat, the three leaders who changed the history of the Middle East. An English version is also available on our website.

Aliza and Menachem Begin on their way to the signing ceremony in Washington, March 1979
(Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office)
To mark the 100th birthday of Menachem Begin, we also published here a collection of links to other blogs in English on different aspects of Begin's career.

To order the commemorative volume, please contact Leeya Ben-Tsvi at (972)-2-5680633 or

Thursday, May 8, 2014

May 8, 1945 - VE Day: Lieutenant Chaim Herzog's Letter

On May 7, 1945, at 2am--after 5 years, 8 months and one week of bloodshed in the Second World War bloodshed--Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies in the city of Reims in France. The surrender became formal in Western Europe on May 8. That day, close to midnight, another surrender ceremony took place, in accordance with Soviet demands, in Berlin. This difference in dates is the reason that VE day is celebrated in the USA and Western Europe on May 8, while it is celebrated in former Soviet Union states (and in Israel, on the same dateline as Moscow) on May 9. Thus ended the Second World War in Europe. (The war in the Far East would end in mid-August that year.) This costliest, most deadly conflict in history took the lives of more than 60 million, including 6 million Jews, who were murdered in the Holocaust.

At the same time Chaim (Vivian) Herzog, son of the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Isaac (Yitzhak) Herzog, and future President of the State of Israel, served as an intelligence officer in the British 32nd Guards brigade of the British Second Army, which took part in conquering Northwestern Germany. In autumn 1944, Herzog met his relatives who survived the Nazi occupation in Paris, not including his cousin Annette Goldberg who was deported to Auschwitz. Herzog hoped (in vain) that she might have survived. In May 1945, Herzog visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a short time after it was liberated by the British Army. On May 5, Herzog was present at the surrender of the German forces between the rivers of the Weser and the Elbe to the British 30th Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks.

Chaim Herzog in British Army uniform, 1944
Photographer: David Eldan, Government Press Office
On the morning of May 8, Herzog wrote to his parents and his brother Yaakov (later a senior diplomat in Israel's Foreign Service and the director-general of Israel's Prime Minister's Office) expressing his happiness and telling them about his latest experiences, including his participation in the surrender of the German army.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Israel's 66th Independence - Gush Etzion's Last Stand

On the occasion of Israel's 66th Independence Day and in commemoration of the fall of Gush Etzion on May 13, 1948, a day before Israel's declaration of independence, we invite you to re-visit our post from last year on that subject.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Zalman Enav: Drawing the Lines in Sinai

Many of the people involved in the peace talks with Egypt in 1977-1979 were well-known figures in Israeli public life. But our latest project on the peace treaty introduced us to someone less renowned: Zalman Enav, a civilian volunteer who drew up the lines for the Israeli withdrawal in Sinai. His story shows how paradoxically, the Egyptian and Israeli generals, who had been fighting each other a short time before, understood one another better than the politicians quibbling over every legal point. It seems that the soldiers had a healthy respect for the other's military capacity, and wanted to do everything possible to prevent another round of fighting.

Mr. Enav is a Tel Aviv architect who planned many important building projects in Israel and abroad, especially in Africa and in Egypt (after the treaty). He joined the Palmach in 1946, and later advised the IDF on planning of army and air force bases. Zalman Enav built the homes of Arik Sharon at the Shikmim Farm and of Ezer Weizman in Caesariya and is still active today. We came across his name while looking for maps to illustrate the negotiations on withdrawal in Sinai, and later we read an account of his involvement in the peace process. In a telephone interview, Mr. Enav confirmed that account and added other fascinating details.

Zalman Enav's work on peace with Egypt began in the last stages of the Yom Kippur war, when he was serving at the advance command post of Arik Sharon. General Avraham Tamir, who was about to become the head of the IDF Planning Branch, took him from the front to Tel Aviv to start preparing for peace talks. At the talks with the Egyptians at the KM. 101 marker on the Cairo-Suez road Enav met General Taha Magdoub, the assistant of General Gamasy, the Egyptian chief of staff. He told Magdoub: "Bring me to Cairo and we'll soon finish the business" of preparing the maps. Magdoub replied: "It's too soon". They met again in Geneva to work on the Interim Agreement signed in September 1975. The Egyptians thought that Enav worked for the security services, as they could not understand what a volunteer was doing in such a post.

In January 1978, after Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, Enav did arrive in Cairo as a member of the Israeli delegation to the military talks with Egypt and met Magdoub again. The joint work of the military delegations continued over many months of ups and downs, crises and solutions and led to agreement on Israeli withdrawal in two stages and the division of Sinai into areas including demilitarized zones and limitation of forces.
The Israeli military delegation headed by Ezer Weizman, Chief of Staff Mordecai Gur
and Tamir meets the Egyptian delegation headed by General Gamasy in Cairo, January 1978
(Photograph: Yaa'cov Sa'ar, Government Press Office)
Enav was not at Camp David, but in October 1978 he was called to Washington "for a few days" to help prepare the final lines of the peace treaty on maps presented by the Americans. The talks dragged on for months due to disagreements caused by political pressure on the Egyptian and Israeli governments. Nevertheless, after a dramatic visit to the Middle East by US president Jimmy Carter, the treaty was signed 35 years ago last week.

Enav, who by now enjoyed the confidence of all parties, drew up the lines for all of them, watched by an Egyptian and an American officer. The maps were signed by Tamir and Magdoub in the State Department one day before the signing of the treaty on 26 March 1979. At the last minute, after Prime Minister Begin had agreed to advance the date of Israel's handing over the Alma oilfield as a gesture to Sadat, one of the maps had to be re-drawn and Enav had to work all night …In the ISA's digital publication on "Making Peace" in Hebrew you can see copies of the maps, including the most important one – Annex II, the international boundary between Egypt and Israel, which was fixed for the first time. In signing this map Egypt formally recognized the border and the state of Israel.

Zalman Enav at the White House, March 26, 1979
(Photograph: Zalman Enav)