The Ship Altalena
Tel Aviv Beach, 1948
By: Eliyho Matz
The story of the ship the Altalena is one of the most complex dramas in the creation of the Israeli nation. My intent with this piece is not to solve the puzzle of the Altalena story, but rather to bring to light some interesting details relating to the story.
In the early 1940’s, a small group of people, members of the Etzel (Jewish-Palestinian underground), better known as the Irgun, arrived in New York City from Europe and Palestine. The commander of the group was Hillel Kook, who later took the name Peter Bergson, and his group became known as the Bergson Group, or the Bergson Boys. The work of the Bergson Group in the USA can be summarized in three parts: the first was their attempts to create a Jewish army that would fight alongside the Allies in WWII; later on they shifted focus to become a political pressure group targeted in their attempts to save European Jewry; and finally following the end of WWII they reincarnated themselves as the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, a political lobby to support a Hebrew Republic in Palestine.
The Bergson Group’s narrative in the United States during the Holocaust and in its aftermath is not part of the historical curriculum that is currently taught in Israel. During his eight years of work between 1940 to 1948, whether in New York City or in Washington, DC, Peter Bergson gained the respect of American Congressmen and Senators. However, during that same period, most Jewish organizations in the United States rejected, criticized and protested against his activities. But the record is clear: it is beyond a doubt that the Bergson Group’s activities in the United States influenced the American people and its President Harry Truman to recognize the emerging Israeli nation in 1948.
One of Bergson’s chief lieutenants was Samuel Merlin, who was closely involved with the New Zionist Organization and its leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Merlin, who lived in Paris and Warsaw prior to WWII, had developed a deep and complicated relationship with the French Intelligence authorities. He arrived in New York City as a refugee with their help and connections.
In 1946, Ben Hecht, the prominent screenwriter and playwright, collaborated with the Bergson Group and produced a play that appeared that year on Broadway. The play, “A Flag is Born,” with the young Marlon Brando in its starring role, envisioned the emergence of an Israeli state. The play became a commercial success and made the Bergson Group quite a bit of money. Thus it was with these proceeds supplemented by some other financial resources that they were able to purchase the ship the Altalena. Next the ammunition was provided free-of-charge by the French, thanks to the special connection between Merlin and the French government authorities; it was loaded on to the Altalena in France before the ship embarked for Tel Aviv.
The superficial details of what happened to the Altalena on the beach of Tel Aviv are well known to most Israelis: there was a confrontation between the Etzel and the emerging Israeli government led by David Ben Gurion. What is not so well known is the story behind the story.
Two small details that might elaborate that story are necessary here. One revolves around Aryeh Ben-Eliezar’s return to Palestine, at Bergson’s instructions, to establish Menachem Begin as the new leader of the Irgun (this, according to Bergson himself, was probably the worst decision he ever made). This was an exercise that started in New York City. As a result of the Bergson Group’s activities in the US Congress to support a resolution to save the Jews of Europe, Bergson had built up various connections that eventually helped enabled Ben-Eliezar’s departure to Palestine in 1943. Ben-Eliezar helped in Palestine to reestablish anew the Irgun, with the agreement of Bergson in NYC.
The second detail involved David Ben Gurion. As the political leader of the Jewish Palestinian Workers Party, and a central figure in Zionism, Ben Gurion was very well aware of the Irgun’s activities. The Zionist Movement leadership in the United States, along with various other American Jewish leaders, supplied the FBI with plenty of information about the Bergson Group and funneled the same information to Ben Gurion in Palestine.
The efforts carried out by Zionist and other Jewish leaders to deport Bergson from the United States, failed. Ben Gurion was well informed of the political power and influence Bergson had built up in the US; along with his Zionist cronies, Ben Gurion did whatever he could to stop the Bergson Group’s activities. It is possible that Ben Gurion’s reaction to the arrival of the Altalena was an attempt to crush Bergson. Only history will judge.
HILLEL KOOK (PETER BERGSON): A CONVERSATION ABOUT THE SHIP THE ALTALENA, NEW YORK CITY, 1983, AS RECORDED BY ELIYHO MATZ
The following is a transcribed and translated transcript
of a taped conversation I had with Hillel Kook in which at a rare moment he spoke in detail about the Altalena incident and its surrounding circumstances.
Hillel Kook: “…If on the 15th of May, 1947, one year before the creation of the Israeli nation, a messenger of “Ribbon HaOlamim,” better known as “God,” would ask one-thousand people, the most important and respected people in the Land of Israel [Palestine], the question, “Do you believe that in one year from now there will be an Israeli [Hebrew] nation, a new nation on planet earth?” – from the thousand not a single one would have said, “Yes!”
The expression “Partza HaMedina,” “a nation has erupted,” is the biggest “truth” about Zionism. All the proceedings that led to the creation of “the State” were one thing, and all the people that took it over were another. Begin, apropos, the leader of the Irgun, did not believe in the coming of the new nation Israel. Begin, by the way, was a serious problem. At the first celebration of the Israeli Independence Day in 1949, Ben Gurion invited the public for a party in the Kiryah in Tel Aviv. Begin, the head of the Herut party, called for [his own] ceremonial meeting for independence at the Herut headquarters in Tel Aviv. He raised a glass of wine and proclaimed, “By the way, we in the Herut Party received an invitation for the party at the Kiryah by Ben Gurion, but all of us are not going to go.”
I had met Ben Gurion in 1942 in the home of Rabbi [Emanuel] Newman in New York. Dr. Newman was a very important Zionist leader, and he was aware of the Irgun’s work in the US. In his report to the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, Ben Gurion, who was a very cunning politician and a perpetual liar, purposely did not mention that he met me. I was in New York during the War years as the commander of the Irgun there. Then, I met Ben Gurion in the Knesset, and I did not say hello to him because of the ship Atalena incident and the “Holy Cannon.”
At [this 1949] meeting in the Herut Party headquarters, I said to Begin that this is not a personal invitation from Ben Gurion, but rather an invitation from the Israeli Prime Minister; I personally disagree with the fact that we should not go to that party. My reasoning was that if Ben Gurion would invite me to his home I would not go; but because we all received an official invitation to celebrate the first Independence Day, I will go. Eri Jabotinsky agreed with me. Others present did not. In any case, I went to the Kiryah. It was a very interesting and exciting event. Ben Gurion stood there with his wife, and I shook their hands.
On the issue of the ship the Altalena, about a dozen books have been written. None gets close to telling the truth. It is very difficult to understand the Altalena incident without understanding Begin, and to understand Begin is a very difficult task. Begin lied to the Irgun people, because he kept the Irgun after the creation of the Israeli state. At the end of 1947, Begin was already an askan [a low-level politician]. The British did not run after him. At the middle of 1947, the British brought the issue of the Palestinian Mandate before the United Nations. Begin was a totally confused and frustrating person. A week before the arrival of the ship the Altalena [June 18, 1948], I arrived in Israel. On the eve of the Altalena’s arrival, there was a meeting. Begin sat there, Ever Hadani, and others. I asked Begin, “A few hours ago you raised a glass of Carmel red wine for the State of Israel, and you blessed everybody in the name of Malchoot, the nation of Israel.” What will be with the Etzel [Irgun]? Begin answered that the Etzel will continue to fight till they will free Jerusalem. I then asked again, “You just recognized the Israeli government; how will you fight in Jerusalem?” Begin’s answer was that the Israeli government headed by Ben Gurion does not claim Jerusalem. I asked again, “Do you really think that Ben Gurion will really give up Jerusalem?” Begin was not a statesman. He was, as mentioned before, an askan, or a low-level politician, this I did not understand immediately.
With the ship the Altalena he did the same tricks. He spoke to them [Ben Gurion’s people] and he didn’t speak to them. My life was destroyed because of the Altalena. Begin was sitting in the other room speaking to Galili [the negotiator for Ben Gurion] on the phone. I heard him summarizing that 20% of the ammunition from the Altalena will go to a warehouse in Jerusalem and will be watched together by the Israeli military and the Etzel. Then it will be given to the Etzel. Galili did not agree. I became hysterical and I began yelling at Begin, “You are crazy! This is the first and the last ship; the ship was purchased by the US Etzel group. You [Begin] should worry that there shall not be any discrimination against the Etzel fighters in the army. We have to dissolve the Etzel. Call Galili and tell him that you will give him all the ammunition.” Begin asked Yaakov Meridor what to do, and Meridor said that I was right. Begin called back Galili and claimed to have made a mistake. Let the chief of the Israeli army decide where the ammunition should go. Begin asked only for one thing: he wanted the representative of the Etzel to make a speech and inform [the soldiers] that the ammunition was brought to Israel by the Etzel.
And then, something strange happened, which I cannot understand. Either that Galili cheated Ben Gurion or vice versa. Galili does not talk about it, and Begin doesn’t talk about it either. There must have been some sort of misunderstanding between Ben Gurion and Galili. Or it is possible that Ben Gurion decided to use the Altalena incident to create a crisis. I doubt that. The fact that Galili was a liar I am sure. Galili claimed that Begin wanted to give part of the ammunition to the Etzel group, and that was not true.
You have to understand the Begin mentality of duality. On one hand the Etzel is dissolved, and on the other hand it continues on.
By the way, do not forget that Begin was not arrested. They [Ben Gurion’s people] arrested me and wanted to kill me as the result of the Altalena incident. Luckily, as you can see, I am still here.
Great Barrington, MA
August 13, 2011