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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Brody

What is the Altalena Affair?

In 1948, the Irgun (a Jewish underground group led by rogue Haganah commanders) purchased a ship loaded with fighters and weapons meant to defend Israel. However, the shipment was delayed for several weeks, and during that time, the Irgun was absorbed into the IDF. This merger forbade the Irgun, also known as Etzel, from purchasing weapons independently. The Israeli Government was notified of the shipment, but in the interest of security, chose to keep it as secret as possible. They also sent a message to the ship ordering it to delay its arrival to shore; however, due to poor connection, the message was not received.

The Irgun leadership and the Israeli government disagreed on the allocation of the arms and manpower onboard, as Irgun leader Menachem Begin hoped to use 80% of the shipment to equip Irgun battalions within the IDF. However, David Ben-Gurion rejected this and chose to empower the IDF to overcome the Irgun and gain control of the incoming weaponry.

After mediation failed, violence ensued as both Irgun and IDF soldiers fought for control of the shipment. Begin boarded the ship secretly, hoping to retain possession of the arms. Ben-Gurion, after realizing that the peaceful transfer of arms to the Israeli government would not be possible, ordered his forces to overtake the Altalena, eventually issuing the order to shell it. Gunshots, fire, and violence ensued. In the confrontation, 16 Irgun soldiers died as well as 3 IDF soldiers.

But why does this matter?

This battle left a mark on Israel's history. It is an image of Israelis fighting Israelis, Jews fighting Jews, and kin fighting kin. It is also the picture of the battle for the state of Israel; not only was there resistance from the surrounding Arab nations as the state was founded, but there was also resistance within Israeli society as to how the nation should be run. Remembering the Altalena Affair is crucial to understanding that not everything in Israel history is black and white or good versus evil. Ideological conflicts and varying perspectives are threaded through every experience and conversation between Israelis and other Israelis as well as between Israelis and Palestinians or other peoples. Studying in depth each of these moments in history and seeing the wide span of ideologies is the only path toward true understanding and, one day, a world where the violence of the Altalena Affair and other historical moments of violence will be but a distant memory.


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