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Korah, Revolutions and Altalena Moments

On June 20, 1948 a ship, the Altalena, carrying arms and fighters bound for the fledgling army of the newly founded State of Israel, reached the shore off the coast of Tel Aviv.  There was only one problem.  The arms shipment was arranged by the more radical Irgun led by Menachem Begin and not by David ben Gurion and the Israel Defense Forces.  Begin and ben Gurion had only recently made an agreement to bring the Irgun under the leadership of the IDF.  In addition a truce had recently been brokered between Israel and the Arab armies.

Ben Gurion was adamant that the Altalena and its cargo of weapons and fighters surrender to the IDF.  There could be only one leader and one army during this trying moment in Israel’s history.  Begin refused to compromise.  He insisted that at the very least the arms be guaranteed to the Irgun fighters in their new IDF units.  Ben Gurion believed that such compromises would only create an army within an army.

The IDF concentrated forces on the beach and fired on the Altalena.  One shell hit the ship and caught fire.  Fearing that the ship would explode many jumped into the Mediterranean Sea.  IDF machine gunners continued their fire.  Sixteen Irgun fighters were killed.  Three IDF soldiers were also killed in the confrontation.  The details of this incident continue to be debated; the decisions remain controversial.  Its memories  as well continue to haunt many who struggled to establish the state during its early years.  Yitzhak Rabin was the commander of the IDF forces assembled at the beach. 

I remember meeting an Irgun fighter a year after Rabin’s assassination.  He said in response to my pain about the assassination and what I termed a great tragedy for the State of Israel and the Jewish people, “I will not shed a tear for the man who was responsible for killing my brothers.”

This week we read about Korah’s rebellion against Moses’ leadership.  On the surface Korah’s criticisms appear legitimate.  In essence, he argues that Moses concentrates all the power in his own hands.  God’s judgment is harsh, and even ruthless.  Korah and all his followers, as well as their households, are killed.  “Scarcely had Moses finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions.” (Numbers 16:32-33)

Every revolution has such moments of clarity, and yes even of ruthless violence, against one’s own people.  A nation can only be built, a people created if there is a clarity of vision.  Sometimes, history teaches us, such ideals can only be upheld by defending them with arms. Leaders always believe that their decisions are decisive, that they can bend the arc of history, that they, and they alone, are leading their people through such a revolutionary moment and that all who oppose them are rebels.  Who is labeled a rebel and who called a great leader is left to the judgment of history.  It is only looking back through the lens of history that we gain these insights.  In the throes of these moments there is only pain.

Three Israel teenagers were kidnapped a week ago: Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach.  Despite extensive searches throughout the West Bank and in particular Hebron they have yet to be found.  The Jewish people are united in prayer.  May they soon be returned home to their families in peace and in full health!  And yet I wonder if the Palestinians and their leadership have reached a moment of decisiveness.  The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, directed his ire at the kidnappers and said, “These three boys are human beings like us, and they should be returned to their families.”

And while I recognize and am deeply pained by the celebrations of the kidnapping in the Palestinian street and as well by the unity government formed between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, I offer this tentative hope that this moment can become one of decisive leadership when those who wish only for the destruction of Israel rather than the creation of a Palestinian State are excised from the Palestinian polity, when a clear vision of something beautiful and lasting is offered to the Palestinians and to this conflict filled region.  That would be such an occasion to offer sweets to one another.

Revolutions require such decisive moments. 

I continue to hope and pray that one day I will look back on these days, through the blessing of history, and see today’s moment as the time when the vision of two states for two peoples was clarified and reborn.

For more details on the Altalena Affair visit the Jewish Virtual Library.