The ship that almost sank the state of Israel

by Leah Rosenberg

Israel, a State only a few weeks old, sinks a ship that puts the State into jeopardy. The ship, known as “The Altalena,” brought Israel to the brink of civil war. This happened only weeks after Israel was declared a State.

The Altalena Affair

This was a ship that was carrying not only future immigrants and soldiers for Israel but also weapons – alot of them. The weapons would be used in the fight that already began that would be known as the War of Independence in 1948. The ship originated from France and arrived in Israel in June 1948, while the Irgun was being merged into the newly formed Israel Defense Forces.

The first truce, a ceasefire for the War of Independence began on June 11th, 1948. Irgun leaders in Israel feared that embarking this ship into an Israeli harbor would be a breach of truce conditions and ordered the ship to not sail out of Europe yet. However, in Europe, the Irgun leadership ordered the ship to set sail. The Irgun leader in Israel, Menachem Begin, announced that the ship had set sail without his knowledge.

The ship was given orders by the Hagana Leadership to go to the Kfar Vitikin beach. But, Irgun leader, Begin ordered the ship to be sent to Tel Aviv instead, where he boarded it.

At the Tel-Aviv beach, shooting began between Haganah and the Irgun. It is unclear who shot first. However, with many weapons on the boat, and in order to avert a civil war, Begin ordered his men not to shoot back. Haganah fire hit the boat and it began to burn. Members of the crew began to jump ship, into the sea, in the hope to make it to shore. There were some casualities, and the ship itself sunk.


The Irgun was based on teachings by Ze’ev Jabontinsky. Their policy was that every Jew had the right to enter pre-state Israel; only active retaliation would deter the Arabs; only Jewish armed force would ensure the establishment and survival of the Jewish state.

The Irgun is best known for the bombing of the British military headquarters in Jerusalem at the King David Hotel, Jerusalem in 1946. Even though it was a joint Haganah and Irgun operation.

The last of the Irgun’s commanders was Menachem Begin before they merged with the Israeli Defense Force. The Irgun was founded in 1931 and lasted until 1948.


The Haganah was founded in 1921. After many Arab riots in 1920, the Jews living in British Mandate Palestine decided they could not rely on the British to be protected. They took matters into their own hands and started protecting their own farms and villages.

The Haganah had a policy of restraint. Many of the people disagreed with this policy and broke off from the Haganah in order to form the Irgun. Fighters had been told to defend communities and not fight back.

The Haganah worked with the British, although the British did not officially recognize the Haganah. The British Security Forces co-operated with it by forming the Jewish Settlement Police and Special Night Squads. These were trained by Orde Wingate, a British officer. This training came in handy during the War of Independence.

The White Paper

By 1939, the British had issued the ‘White Paper.’ It severely restricted Jewish immigration into the Land of Israel. David Ben Gurion said, “We shall fight the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as if there were no war.”

In reaction to the White Paper, the Haganah set up the Palmach, an elite strike force, who organized illegal Jewish immigration into the Land of Israel. Approximately 100,000 Jews were brought in illegal, this became known as Aliyah Bet.

David Ben Gurion

Born in Poland in 1886, then part of the Russian Empire, he was a passionate Zionist. In 1906 Ben Gurion emigrated to then Ottoman-controlled Land of Israel. It was David Ben Gurion who was head of the Jewish agency in 1935. Ben Gurion stood up in a hall in Tel Aviv and declared the independence of the State of Israel. He was Israel’s first Prime Minister and also Minister of Defense.

David Ben Gurion eventually retired from politics in 1970. He moved back to Sde Boker, south of Israel. He believed the desert south had much potential. He passed away in his home in 1973.

Menachem Begin

Menachem Begin was born in 1913, in what today is called Belarus. Begin arrived in the Land of Israel in 1942. Begin joined the Irgun and assumed its leadership in 1944. He started the political party, what we know as today as the Likud.

Menachem Begin had many political roles, such as Minister of Defense and Prime Minister of Israel, 1977-1983. He died in Tel Aviv in 1992.

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