MONROE FEIN (The Altalena)
(from Shmuel Katz’s memoirs)
*With the declaration of a truce, however, the danger was that our ship might be attacked in the open sea by the Egyptians or, what was more in an onrush of loyalty to U.N. decisions, plead justification.
How great was this risk, and how good were the ship’s chances of breaking through if attacked?
These questions we discussed long and earnestly with Monroe Fein.
Fein had handled precisely the same type of vessel against the Japanese.
He was confident of his ability to evade attack: and in the repelling attacks he would be well-equipped on board with weapons that could be used against aircraft.
We paced the deck that moonless Tuesday night for an hour or more turning over the whole project.
Hanging over the rail when Fein had left me to attend to some chores, I pondered over this young American and Americanized Jew, quiet-spoken and clear-headed, responding to a call he had only just begun to recognize.
Now, coolly and pragmatically, without heroics or sentimentality, he was about to drive into whatever danger offered or threatened.
In those spring days of1948 there were many of his kind who came from the counties of rooted comfort to give expression to the sudden sense of solidarity with their ancient people.
There were many; yet they were few.
Too many more, albeit moved by the spectacle of their embattled brothers and cheering them on, yet remained at a distance in New York and Los Angeles, and London and Buenos Aires and Johannesburg.
How to stave off civil war I
By YEHUDA AVNER
IT WAS June 1948. The fledgling Jewish state, hardly a month old, was embattled on every side. The infant IDF was still a hotchpotch of disbanded Hagana, Palmah, Irgun, and Lehi units. Everything was improvised, makeshift, provisional.
Amid the muddle, the Altalena, an Irgun arms ship, arrived off the shore of Tel Aviv, overdue. It was loaded with hundreds of volunteers and packed with desperately-needed arms.
So, yet again, the Devil looked down at the fractious sight, grinned, and dispensed a mortal brew of such malice, mistrust, and misunderstanding that Ben-Gurion suspected Begin was fomenting a putsch. So he ordered his loyalists to shell the Altalena, which caught fire. In the blaze, several volunteers were killed and wounded, and the weaponry lost.
Eyewitness accounts describe Begin as standing on the Altalena's burning deck like some figure in a parable, black from the acrid smoke, flinging up his arms and yelling frantically to his men, "No – don't shoot back! Don't open fire. No civil war!"
That night, eyes dark-circled by anxiety and fatigue, Begin broadcast over the Irgun underground transmitter, speaking in tears about the Altalena, its arms, and its dead.
The young adults of the Israel Bonds delegation, listening to him 34 years later, stared intently, as if the pitiful spectacle was taking place before their eyes.
"Some antagonists jeered me because of those tears I shed in public that night," he told them broodingly. "Yet to this day, I feel no shame. On the contrary. There are fateful times when a choice has to be made between blood and tears.
"During our revolt against the British, blood had to take the place of tears. But at the time of the Altalena – Jew against Jew – tears had to take the place of blood. Better that one Jew shed tears from his heart than that he should cause many to weep over graves."
Pulling back his shoulders and lifting his jaw, he said in conclusion: "It was extremely hard to order my men to restrain their natural instinct for revenge. But I had to do it.
"Twice in my lifetime I had to do it – to cry out, Yehudim anahnu! We are Jews! Never raise a hand against a fellow Jew.
"It was the most important decision of my life."
The writer served on the staff of four prime ministers, including Menachem Begin. (firstname.lastname@example.org)