Complex lessons from the Altalena

July 25, 2011 by

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A few weeks ago we marked the 63rd anniversary of the sinking of the Altalena . A complicated event, which culminated in the newly formed IDF receiving a direct order from Ben-Gurion to open fire on a ship of armaments arriving from Europe and into the hands of the supposedly disbanded Etzel (the revisionist Irgun fighters)

In Israel at her most incestuous, Moshe Dayan opened fire on the ship carrying Menahem Begin at Kfar Vitkin… Dayan would, thirty years later, be the loyal Foreign Minister to Begin in the role of Prime Minister.

The Altalena provides for endless analysis and soul-searching, and this year provided even more rich pickings as the announcement came that there would be an effort to locate and maybe even surface the sunken wreck. A great piece of analysis came from Dr. David Dery in Haaretz: He asked the question if we were to raise the Altalena how would we ritualize its wreckage and what morals would we learn from its remembrance?

He gave the poetic example of the Quebec bridge, which collapsed at the cost of many lives, twice, once in 1907 and again 1916. Instead of shying away from a moment (or even two) of great failure, the organization of Professional Engineers ritualized this disaster by building around it a secret initiation ceremony and bestowing on each new Professional Engineer a ring made from the steel of the ill-fated bridge, so that they should never forget the responsibility of their profession.

Impressive stuff. This led me to thinking of answers to Dery’s question, what are the lessons we need to be carrying from the Altalena?

An answer began to crystallize while reading another, and equally impressive, analysis of the Altalena affair, by Shlomo Nakdimon – who has authored a book on the subject. Nakdimon revealed the role of Yisrael Galili, chief of staff of the Hagana and the official government representative in dealings with the Etzel, who twisted facts and exaggerated circumstances to make the Etzel seem worse and more of threat than they actually were.

It is possible that the Altalena affair might not have reached its tragic conclusion had Galili not sent it in that direction. The Etzel had long been hated by the Hagana and the Israeli establishment, and there was already a precedent of exaggerating the Etzel’s fanatical elements in order to disenfranchise them from power. But Galili wanted to paint them black as black.

There have been several incidents of similar exaggerations of intent in Israel in the last month. Politically minded entities who play to a certain agenda by tarring organizations and groups in society as threats or fanatics; and it’s happened on both sides of the spectrum.

Only a few days prior to the Boycott Law, there was a storm brewing over a complicated story surrounding a fanatical text known as Torat HaMelech (The Torah of the King) and Rabbis who have been summoned by the police to discuss their endorsement of it. So far, two prominent Rabbis – Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba’a (settler figurehead) and Yaakov Yitzchak (the most powerful Sefardi Rabbi: Rav Ovadia Yosef’s son) – have been summoned, refused to appear and arrested.

The Rabbis claim that in order to endorse a new religious book and add a letter of support, they do not read the book, merely accept what others have said. This line of defence for the Rabbis who have added a letter of support in Torat HaMelech is consensual with everyone up to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, agreeing that this is the accepted wisdom.

Since Torat HaMelech rationalizes Jewish civilians committing acts of violence against Arabs, the Rabbis may be best advised to rethink their peer review system. However the fact that there is a plague in the Israeli rabbinate of turning a blind eye to statements that incite violence and hatred, does not mean that they are all actively doing it. We can agree that something needs to be done about a population which is drifting, rather speeding, apart from the mainstream of Israeli society.

Torat HaMelech was hijacked in order to expose top Rabbis as the fanatical threats they are to the State of Israel, and when the Rabbis did not appear to the Police station (as we knew they wouldn’t) the Police (and media) seized the opportunity to arrest them and create a publicity circus. This lead to demonstrations by their followers, public outcry and debate about who is above the law.

This is a highly nuanced fault-line in Israeli society. There is no doubt that there are powerful tensions between these Rabbis and their communities’ support of the State and their lack of respect for the primacy of the state’s institutions. But there is someone, somewhere who is looking to aggravate this festering sore, to demonize the orthodox and gain political mileage. Someone is pulling a Galili.

The more we demonize threats to our society, the more we delegitimize the valid criticism they have to bring.

As Gidon Levi pointed out in a typically isolating piece, not everyone on the flotilla is a terrorist. There are serious people with impressive credentials onboard. However, we can’t deal with this analysis and will explain it away by delegitimizing Gidon Levi as a self-hating apologist.

Similarly, Gidon Levi and his colleagues will continue to paint the Orthodox Settler movement as a Jewish Jihad.

We need to acknowledge the complexity of our challenges and challengers.

At the very least we owe it to those who died on the Altalena.

Anton Goodman is the Israel Engager Shaliach to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

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