The Altalena Affair and Today’s Crisis – We Must Embrace a Vision of a Shared Future

The Altalena Affair and Today’s Crisis – We Must Embrace a Vision of a Shared Future

75 years have passed since a storm passed over the young state of Israel: off the coast of Tel Aviv, Jews shot Jews, and a real danger of civil war hovered above. In these days of crisis and great anger, it is impossible not to remember the lost ship that became a bloody Israeli trauma to this day and perpetuates the dangers inherent in hatred and division


In view of this terrible abyss that has opened at our feet, it behooves all of us, small and great, to sit and fumble, each one in his own actions, each and everyone has a part in the sin of hatred that is heaped upon us, and each and everyone has a hand to correct, and to increase love in Israel. And let no one remove himself from his duty and stand up and say My hands did not shed this blood.


The Altalena, a ship whose fate nearly incited a civil war in the newly-established State of Israel. Immediately after Israel attained statehood, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion established a national army into which several independent Jewish defense forces, small armies with their own political philosophies, were supposed to unite. However, in this case, unity was late to come.


On June 20, 1948, the Altalena arrived off Israel carrying 930 World War II refugees and a stockpile of ammunition amassed by the Irgun (one of the independent defense forces) in direct violation of Ben Gurion’s new military chain of command. In the midst of the ship’s landing and a cease-fire in the War of Independence, Ben Gurion gave the order to shell the ship, forcing Jews to fire on Jews and almost sparking a civil war. 

The controversy surrounding the Altalena affair continues to reverberate in current Israeli politics s until today and the remains of the ship have not yet been found.

Prior to Israel’s establishment and Ben Gurion’s call for the unification of Jewish forces, the Irgun representatives in the US purchased a ship, the Altalena. Although the ship’s arrival to the Israeli coast was scheduled for the night of the independence declaration, it was delayed in France, which proved to be a politically decisive factor as it arrived during a time of military truce on the fronts of the War of Independence and under an arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council. Nonetheless, fighting continued in Jerusalem between the Jewish Underground, known as the “retirees,” and independent Arab gangs. The Irgun was short of weapons and relied on the ship’s delivery to continue fighting. The negotiations between Menachem Begin, the head of the organization, and the Israeli government were centered around the transfer of weapons to the underground. While the state considered the weapons desirable, it saw their distribution to non-IDF armed units as a threat to its sovereignty.

Upon the ship’s arrival in Israel, negotiations between the Irgun leadership and the state’s leadership failed, and the IDF captured the ship when the Irgun attempted to unload the weapons on board. An exchange of fire broke out between the parties, and the Altalena fled south towards Tel Aviv. Irgun fighters were besieged in Kfar Vitkin. On June 22, the day the agreement was signed, the exchange of fire resumed in Kfar Vitkin. On the same day, an IDF shell hit the Altalena ship off the coast of Tel Aviv, resulting in the death of sixteen Irgun fighters and three IDF soldiers.

The settlement was established between the commander of the Israel Defense Forces in the Kfar Vitkin area, Major General Dan Epstein (later Colonel Dan Eben, commander of the Alexandroni Brigade), and the commander of the Irgun’s forces in the Kfar Vitkin area, Yaakov Vinirsky (later Yaakov Meridor, commander of the Irgun and minister in the Begin governments), on June 22, 1948. The agreement called for the cessation of hostile activity between the two entities, the delivery of the Irgun’s weapons to the IDF, the release of the Irgun’s prisoners held by the IDF, and more. A copy of the document appears in the National Library under the title “Irgun -IDF Settlement in the Altalana Affair.”


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