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The Iron Wall

Lenni Brenner

The Iron Wall

12. The Revolt: Part 2

The end of the war in Europe changed the topography of both Zionist and world politics, and the Irgun was able to escape from its total isolation. Although the WZO did not revolt during the war, its leaders understood that they now had to make their move to get their state. The Labour Zionists were jubilant when their socialist colleagues of the British Labour Party swept into power in that country’s first post-war election. In 1944, the British Labour Party had not only called for the creation of a Jewish state, but had proposed that “the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in.” [1] However, the Labour Zionists were speedily reminded of the reality of the British Labour Party: it rested on the working class, they were minimalist and passive, concerned with obtaining reforms for themselves; they scarcely cared what their leaders did in the colonies. Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and company were totally committed to maintaining as much of the Empire as Britain, in its much weakened post-war circumstances, could afford to hold. They had no conflict with the colonial bureaucracy’s pre-war decision that further patronage of Zionism could only cause problems for Britain throughout the Middle East, and the vote-catching resolutions became dead letters.


The Resistance Movement

Ben-Gurion and the Haganah became convinced that they would have to drive the British out if they were ever going to get their state. That required unity within the ranks of Zionism and they proposed a joint military campaign to the Irgun and Stern Gang who, until the autumn of 1945, they had solemnly proclaimed to be terrorists, fascists and madmen. And Begin, who, during the Saison, had put up wall posters comparing them to “Quisling and Laval”, eagerly accepted. [2]

Although the Haganah had wanted the Irgunists to directly enter its ranks, Begin would not hear of it. He was as fanatically committed to an Israel on both sides of the Jordan as ever, and he knew it was inevitable that, at some point, the mainline Zionist leadership would “betray” Zionism, and accept far less than his maximalist Revisionist vision. But, given the vast disproportion in the size of the three components of the alliance – the Haganah had 40,000 members, the Irgun 1,500, the Stern Gang a mere 300 – he did accept a dominant position for the Haganah in the new Tnuat HaMeri or Resistance Movement. Both the Irgun and the Sternists agreed to permit the Haganah to determine which targets the dissidents would be allowed to attack. The military entente was finalized in November 1945 and soon the Irgun had sunk three patrol boats used to stop illegal immigration, the Haganah cut the railways at no less than 186 places, and the Stern Gang attacked the refinery at Haifa. The list of targets mounted impressively: police stations, radio transmitters, military airports, railway installations were hit, and the British were forced to bring in additional troops. These eventually numbered an incredible 105,000 to control a Zionist population of approximately 600,000. The reinforcements changed nothing; increasingly the administration went on the defensive, retreating into total isolation from the society around them, hiding in barbed-wire and sandbag ghettos known as “Bevingrads”. Unless drastic measures were immediately taken, all would be lost.

The King David Hotel Incident and the End of the Entente

On Saturday 29 June 1946, all Jewish population centres were placed under curfew, and the British army struck everywhere. Thousands of suspects were interned and many of the leaders of the Jewish Agency, including Moshe Shertok (Sharett), its Political Secretary, were imprisoned. However, Weizmann was not detained, and the Haganah’s commander, Moshe Sneh, escaped the dragnet, going to Paris, where he joined up with Ben-Gurion who was there on diplomatic business. The Irgun had already proposed that the King David Hotel, British headquarters, be hit, and now the Haganah gave its approval, seeing it as fitting retaliation for the ransacking of the Jewish Agency’s headquarters. The story of the attack is well-known: the Irgun placed a mine in the basement, duly phoned in three warnings that it would go off in half an hour, for some reason the warning was ignored, and the massive bomb killed over a hundred people, including many civilian employees, Arab, British and Jewish. The Jewish Agency rushed to denounce the attack, claiming that the Irgun had violated its specifications as to when the bomb should be set, and the military united front came to an end.

The Displaced Persons and US Support for Zionism

The King David incident can only be called a precipitating cause for the split, which would have come about in any case. The “black sabbath” had shaken the WZO leaders’ confidence in their ability to take on Britain head-on, nor did they now see the need to do so. They had always been pro-imperialist, always trying to demonstrate that a policy of relying on the “loyal Jewish Ulster” was in Britain’s interest. Now they were definitely trying to jump over into the American orbit, but the US had no interest in supporting revolts, and certainly not in the British Empire, which Washington saw as an essential ally in the cold war. Ben-Gurion had come to see the “Displaced Persons” in Germany as the decisive factor in winning American support for a Zionist state, and he called off the Haganah’s campaign to directly overthrow the regime in Palestine and focused all of its efforts into building a massive illegal immigration campaign.

In October 1945 Ben-Gurion had travelled to Germany, visited several DP camps, and met Eisenhower, asking that Jews from Eastern Europe be admitted into the American zone. He explained his strategy to his colleagues in Palestine, in a 21 November memo:

If we can succeed in concentrating a quarter million Jews in the American Zone, it will increase the American pressure. Not because of the financial aspects of the problem – that does not matter to them – but because they see no future for these people outside Eretz-Yisrael. [3]

It was not the German-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust that were to be decisive. Few of these had survived their deportation to the East, the vast majority of those who had gone into exile in the West had no desire to return – nor to go to Palestine – and those who did return were completely safe in a Germany militarily dominated by the Allies. It was the Polish situation that developed into Zionism’s salvation. Approximately 80,000 Jews had survived in the country itself and another 175,000 returned from the Soviet Union in 1946. But the new Communist regime was politically isolated from the masses and was too weak to adequately defend the Jews from their reactionary opponents, who identified them with the Communists. Thus, 351 Jews were murdered between November 1944 and October 1945, and the pogroms continued into 1946, culminating in a savage massacre in Kielce on 4 July 1946, with the slaughter of 42 Jews. Kielce terrified the remaining Jews and 100,000 of them fled Poland, and several other Eastern European countries, in the next three months. The Zionist scholar, Yehuda Bauer, concedes that, if given an equal chance to choose between the US or Palestine, 50% would have opted for the US. However, the Zionist leadership knew that US politicians had no desire to open its gates to Jewish refugees. In fact, according to the pro-Zionist scholar Samuel Halperin, one of the more important considerations that pushed the American Jewish bourgeoisie, until then opposed to Zionism, into the pro-Zionist camp was their fear that, if the DPs came to the US in any significant numbers, it would mean “importing more anti-Semitism”. Behind the scenes, the Joint Distribution Committee, their overseas philanthropic arm, cynically discussed the advantages of a determined push for emigration to Palestine which, it was explained, would make for “good Jewish-Christian relations in America”. [4]

Certainly the Zionist leadership had no desire to see America let in potential emigrants to their would-be state and Bauer tells us candidly that:

the Zionist leadership feared that the masses concentrated in the displaced persons’ camps in Germany and Austria would seek a way of reaching countries overseas rather than waiting until the gates of Palestine were opened to them. [5]

Begin denounced the disbandment of the revolt, terming it a “political and spiritual surrender” which brought “dishonour” to the Haganah. [6] He was far from oblivious to the importance of the DPs in terms of pressurizing American opinion, but he saw that there were many other explosive situations competing for the world’s attention. While direct attacks on the British hit the front pages throughout the world, would an illegal immigration campaign, alone, do likewise when even fierce battles of the Greek civil war were barely covered?

Impact of the Irgun Revolt

From 23 August 1946 until the UN partition in November 1947, the dissidents were alone in their direct struggle against the regime. In his memoir, The Revolt, Begin, naturally enough, makes a powerful case to prove that it was their continuation of the revolt that ultimately led to the British withdrawal, even if not the conquest of the entire country (which, in his mind, also includes Jordan), and even if not to their coming to power. And, in truth, there can be no doubt that their campaigns did play a crucial role in forcing the British out. Some years later, the last commandant of the Palestine Police said that three incidents compelled his government to rethink its determination to stay on, and all were part of the continued Irgun campaign: the flogging of British soldiers; followed by the hanging of more soldiers, both in retaliation for British floggings and hangings, and the storming of the fortress at Acre.

Late in 1946, two 17-year-old Irgunists were sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, scarcely a sentence that would intimidate anyone, since few could envision Britain still being in Palestine for 15 years. But they were also to be given 18 lashes each. The Irgun’s response was immediate: they announced that if the sentence were carried out, they would retaliate by whipping British soldiers. Sure enough, on 27 December 1946, the Labour imperialists duly whipped one of the unruly colonials and, on 29 December, a major and three NCOs were promptly given the same 18 lashes. To make sure the British got the point, the Irgun announced that if the second youth were caned they would kill in retaliation. The times had changed, Jews were not ordinary wogs, and Britain was forced to make a humiliating retreat and call off the second flogging.

Whipping being a universally despised weapon of tyranny, Begin suddenly found himself a world hero. But the propaganda victory was only another act in the unfolding tragedy. Four Irgun youths, searching for soldiers to serve as retaliatory victims, had been caught with whips. One was beaten so badly that he died, and the other three were sentenced to death, joining another Irgunist already so sentenced. At Acre, before dawn on 16 April 1947, the four went to their deaths, bravely singing the Zionist anthem. Before vengeance could be wreaked, other prisoners were liberated on 4 May 1947, in a stunning attack on the fortress at Acre. Breaching walls that had withstood Napoleon, in an all-Arab city, the escape ranks, despite unforeseeable casualties and its further tragic denouement, as an incredibly heroic achievement. But two Irgunists were captured, savagely beaten and sentenced to death. As Begin says, the Irgun had neither whips nor gallows in its arsenal, such as were in Labour imperialism’s armoury; their use by the Irgun must be laid to British madness, but two sergeants were hung, on 30 July, the day after the Irgunists went to their deaths. The dramatic retaliation, against so majestic an enemy as the British Empire, could not but have a profound impact, both on British and world opinion. Colonel Archer-Cust, assistant to the Chief-Secretary of the Mandatory, openly declared in 1949 that “the hanging of the two British sergeants did more than anything to get us out”. [7]


If Britain’s compulsive imperialist cruelty and the Irgun’s exploits projected Begin into the centre of the world stage, nevertheless the Irgun’s activities must still be seen within the larger context. The Haganah ran several immigrant ships, the Exodus Europe 1947, being only the most famous, to Palestine and again pictures of Jews behind barbed wire, this time in Cyprus, filled the papers. Much of the world became sympathetic to Zionism, a Jewish state began to be seen as the “silver lining”, certainly inadequate compensation for the slaughter of six million Jews, but only justice. American Jewish pressure on President Truman became massive. While the State Department desperately tried to impress him with the need for cold war solidarity, and warned of potential consequences for American interests in the Arab world, the domestic politicians made it equally clear that he stood no chance of getting contributions from rich Jews towards the forthcoming electoral campaign if he opposed the creation of an Israeli state. This was a crucial consideration for the Democrats, who have always been dependent for many of their largest donations on Jewish capitalists, who traditionally identified with the Democrats as the immigrants’ party. US public opinion would not tolerate, in Palestine, against Jews, the brutal methods the British Empire never hesitated to use against the lesser breeds. Britain’s diplomatic position became impossible.

A tripartite conference, of representatives of the Arab Higher Committee, the Jewish Agency, and the British, met in London on 10 January 1947, and inevitably failed, with Bevin announcing at a press conference on 14 February that Britain would bring the Palestine question to the UN, in September. Begin understood that the British were proposing a September date as part of a stall and, on 1 March, the Irgun successfully carried out ten simultaneous attacks on British military installations, and the British imposed martial law. When the Commons met on 3 March, Churchill and others pressed for more immediate UN action, and the UN agreed to hold a special session on 28 April.

The Soviet and US Positions

It was during the special session that Andre Gromyko made his notorious speech reversing the Soviet Union’s traditional opposition to a Zionist state. Stalin had concluded that the Arab states were too reactionary to wage a serious struggle against the imperialists, and he decided that the only way to start the process of propelling the British out of the region was to have the Zionists start by pushing them out of Palestine.

The Soviet shift, coming on top of the previous factors, put the Democrats on the spot. The American CP had decided to back Henry Wallace against Truman in the 1948 elections. Not to come out for a Zionist state would now leave them exposed to their “left” flank, while the Republicans were certain to demagogically attack them as well. The administration decided on a sly manoeuvre: they would pretend to be for a UN partition, expecting that the Zionists would be unable to obtain the necessary two-thirds vote, and then Washington and the British would be able to work out a suitable compromise. Loy Henderson, the State Department’s Director of Near Eastern Affairs, explained the Department’s thinking in a secret memo, dated 22 October 1947:

If we carry the flag we shall inescapably be saddled with the major if not sole responsibility for administration and enforcement which, we gather, neither the Congress nor the American people are willing to undertake ... On the assumption that we are going to follow our present policy of supporting partition without waving the flag, we agree that partition will probably fail of a two-thirds vote ... if partition fails, we do not see that the US or any other country which has supported it would be inhibited from retreating to some compromise plan. [8]

The UN Vote

With the US and the USSR now both lined up, each for its own unprincipled reasons, behind the Zionists, a UN special commission inevitably came out for partition and, by 29 November, the Zionists were, through intense lobbying, able to obtain the needed votes. Although the State Department later tried to call off partition on the grounds that instead of stopping violence it provoked it, the pressure of the domestic politicians concerned for the Jewish vote proved decisive, and, in the end, Truman gave the go ahead for the creation of the Zionist state.

To the rest of the world, partition looked like a Zionist victory; to Begin it was only a step towards victory. It galvanized Zionism, but an Israel without a Jerusalem is no Zionist state. The WZO leadership had given away most of the biblical patrimony, it was up to the Irgun to make sure that they did not retreat further and to win more of the homeland.

Arab Reaction

The Palestinians had been remarkably quiet throughout the 1940s in the wake of their defeat in the 1936 revolt. The Mufti had been deeply involved in the Iraqi revolt and had fled to the German Embassy in Teheran. After Nazi agents spirited him out in the aftermath of the British-Soviet occupation of Iran, he embarked on a career of intense collaboration, recruiting Arabs, and later Yugoslav and Soviet Muslims, for the Germans. At the war’s end he tried to take asylum in Switzerland, but was deported to France. Tito listed him as a war criminal but never demanded extradition; the French, anti-British because of Britain~ s support for the Syrians, and aware of his popularity in the Arab world, kept him under house arrest. When an American journalist focused attention on his story in June 1946, he had no difficulty fleeing to Cairo, where the Arab Higher Committee, in conjunction with the Arab League, gave him the leadership of the Palestinian movement, as if nothing had occurred in the intervening years. The Jews in Palestine all knew he had co-operated with Hitler and his return to the Middle East only acted to solidify most of them behind the Zionists. The hopeless reactionary did nothing to mobilize the Palestinian masses, who remained passive and fearful in the face of the enormous energy displayed by the Zionists. All potential of mass mobilization vanished when Stalin embraced Zionism; this split the local Communists on ethnic lines and utterly demoralized the Arab faction. Only in mid-September did the Arab League begin to talk of war, and only after the UN vote did the Arab Higher Committee call for a three-day Palestinian general strike.

Militarily, the Arabs were never any match for the Zionists, who had greatly profited from their wartime experience in the British army, while far fewer Palestinians had joined up, and fewer still of the educated. With the exception of the Jordanian Legion, which had stayed loyal to Britain out of professionalism, all the other Arab units in the British sphere had rebelled and been humiliated by the British, and had not advanced beyond their pre-war “palace guard” level. But Abdullah of Jordan was a secret traitor, parleying almost to the end with the WZO to partition the country and freeze out the Mufti. Led by a discredited fanatic, in tandem with several divided, militarily impotent and politically reactionary regimes; confronted with an ascending Zionist movement backed, however reluctantly, by both Moscow and Washington, the fate of the Palestinians was sealed.

“Smite Them Hip and Thigh”: Dir Yassin

If, in confronting the British, Begin was like unto his mentor’s knightly Samson, in confronting the Palestinians he was a veritable Joshua, eager to put these latter-day Canaanites to the sword, warning them in December: “the hand of murderers we shall cut off without mercy.” [9] He told a foreign guest that “in modern war it was not numbers that decided the issue but brains and morale. As for brains, it was hardly necessary for me to elaborate.” Should they attack, “we would smite them hip and thigh.” [10] With the prophet Menachem, words are followed by deeds and, as of old, bombs were placed in Arab cafes, in the marketplace in Haifa, and before the Damascus Gate in the Holy City. [11]

The certainty of war drew the Haganah and the Irgun together, and on 8 March 1948 they came to an agreement on operations. Again the Haganah would approve the Irgun’s plans, which would be carried out by the dissidents. The Irgun and Sternists received permission to seize the village of Dir Yassin, on the western outskirts of Jerusalem; this they did on 9 April 1948. Begin was not there; not having been properly militarily trained, he was never allowed to play a combat role. But, as the Irgun’s commandant, he has always assumed full responsibility for their behaviour that night:

At that village, whose name was publicized throughout the world, both sides suffered heavy casualties. We had four killed and nearly forty wounded. The number of casualties was nearly forty per cent of the total number of the attackers. The Arab troops suffered casualties three times as heavy. [12]

The Irgun’s communique after the battle gave its casualties as four dead and 32 wounded, three seriously; 254 villagers were butchered there that night. Irgun apologists claim that they had brought along a truck with a loudspeaker, to tell the civilians there to flee, but that, alas, it fell into an Arab defence ditch. Begin, in his Revolt, sadly relates that:

a few did not leave their stone houses – perhaps because of the confusion ... Our men were compelled to fight for every house; to overcome the enemy they used large numbers of hand-grenades. And the civilians who had disregarded our warnings, suffered inevitable casualties. [13]

Despite the well-known history of the Irgun’s prior market bombs, Begin insists that:

The education which we gave our soldiers throughout the years of revolt was based on the observance of the traditional laws of war. We never broke them unless the enemy first did so and thus forced us, in accordance with the accepted custom of war, to apply reprisals. [14]

The realities of Dir Yassin are well understood. There was a Haganah witness, Col. Meir Pa’el who, upon retirement from the Israeli army in 1972, finally chose to come forth with a public account of the event:

In the exchange that followed four men were killed and a dozen were wounded ... by noon time the battle was over and the shooting had ceased. Although there was a calm, the village had not yet surrendered. The Irgun and Lehi men came out of hiding and began to “clean” the houses. They shot whoever they saw, women and children included, the commanders did not try to stop the massacre ... I pleaded with the commander to order his men to cease fire, but to no avail. In the meantime, 25 Arabs had been loaded on a truck and driven through Mahne-Yehuda and Zichron Yosef (like prisoners in a Roman “March of Triumph”). At the end of the drive, they were taken to the quarry between Deir-Yassin and Givat-Shaul, and murdered in cold blood ... The commanders also declined when asked to take their men and bury the 254 Arab bodies. This unpleasant task was performed by two Gadna units brought to the village from Jerusalem. [15]

Far from being apologetic about Dir Yassin, Irgun veterans now return to the scene of their infamous crime to commemorate their activities there. However, in 1982, Professor Zvi Ankori, who had commanded the Haganah force that later occupied the village, asked to say a few words at the gathering:

“I went into 6-7 houses,” said Ankori. “I saw cut off genitalia and women’s crushed stomachs. According to the shooting signs on the bodies, it was direct murder.” ... “What,” asked one of them, “you had time to lift the dresses and seek for genitalia?” “I won’t argue,” said Ankori, “I just thought that the young generation of today should hear what I had to say.” [16]

There can be no doubt that Dir Yassin was a monstrous atrocity. Jacques de Reynier, the Red Cross representative in Palestine, visited the village immediately after the incident and met the Irgun commandant, who told him: “If I found any bodies, I could take them, but there were certainly no wounded. This account made my blood run cold.” [17] The two Zionist Chief Rabbis of Palestine, I. H. Herzog and R. Z. Uziel, issued a joint statement condemning the murders, calling upon the perpetrators to realize the depths of “the shame which they have inflicted upon the Yishuv to whom their acts are utter abomination”. [18] The Jewish Agency expressed its “horror and disgust at the barbarous manner” in which the taking of the village was carried out. [19]

Begin, of course, had his answer to the universal condemnation of Dir Yassin. The world – as per usual – was lying about the Irgun:

Arab headquarters at Ramallah broadcast a crude atrocity story, alleging a massacre by Irgun troops of women and children in the village. Certain Jewish officials, fearing the Irgun men as political rivals, seized upon this Arab greuel propaganda to smear the Irgun. An eminent Rabbi was induced to reprimand the Irgun before he had time to sift the truth. Out of evil, however, good came. This Arab propaganda spread a legend of tenor amongst Arabs and Arab troops, who were seized with panic at the mention of Irgun soldiers. The legend was worth half a dozen battalions to the forces of Israel. [20]

Indeed, out of evil, “good” did come: in the Hebrew version of the Revolt we are further told that:

Arabs throughout the country, induced to believe wild tales of “Irgun butchery”, were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened, uncontrollable stampede. Of the about 800,000 Arabs who lived on the present territory of the State of Israel, only some 165,000 are still there. The political and economic significance of this development can hardly be overestimated. [21]

The Irgun Attack on Jaffa

For all the denunciations, the Haganah could hardly think of punishing the Irgun, whom it still needed in the war against the Arabs. Fresh from Dir Yassin, the Irgun looked for new prey, and Begin turned to Jaffa, which, according to the utopian UN partition, was to become part of the Arab state, but as an enclave entirely within the borders of Israel. Pressed on many sides by Arab military forces, the Haganah set a low priority to taking the hopelessly surrounded city of 70,000, but Begin had decided on a “strategy of conquest” and on the night of 25 April 1948 the Irgun struck – with two three-inch mortars pouring down hundreds of shells on the beleaguered town. It was to be their largest operation as an independent force and Begin, well aware that the Haganah would never allow it, simply neglected to tell them of the plan. By all pro-Irgun accounts, the Arabs defended themselves with great determination but had nothing to match the mortars, and slowly they began to crack. The Irgun could not take the entire city – British armour would not let them through – but, with Dir Yassin fresh in everyone’s mind, the Palestinians abandoned their homes and fled in tens of thousands. Said Begin:

There appear to have been two causes for this epidemic flight. One was the name of their attackers and the repute which propaganda had bestowed on them ... The second factor was the weight of our bombardment ... Yigal Yadin, Operations Officer of the Haganah, told me afterwards that we had not been sufficiently economical with our precious shells. [22]

Begin omitted to tell his readers of the shameful aftermath of the assault. In his Seven Fallen Pillars, Jon Kimche, a well-known pro-Zionist historian, was quite blunt:

For the first time ... a Jewish force commenced to loot in wholesale fashion ... Everything that was moveable was carried from Jaffa ... What could not be taken away was smashed ... looting Arab homes and shops was soon explained away and later justified as ministering to the needs of Jewish evacuees who lost their homes and their all as a result of the four months of attacks from Jaffa.

Kimche cannot be accused of factional malice; he made the same accusation against the Haganah:

Before long the rest of the Jewish soldiers of the Haganah and the Palmach should join in the orgy of looting and wanton destruction which hangs like a black pall over almost all of the Jewish military successes. [23]

Proclamation of the State of Israel

On 15 May 1948 the Israeli state was duly proclaimed and Begin came out of the underground to make his first radio speech:

The Hebrew revolt of 1944-48 has been blessed with success ... the foundation has been laid – but only the foundation ... for the return of the whole People of Israel to its homeland, for the restoration of the whole Land of Israel to its God-covenanted owners ... Our God-given country is a unity. The attempt to dissect it is not only a crime but blasphemy and an abortion. Whoever does not recognize our natural right to our entire homeland, does not recognize our right to any part of it ... O God of Israel, keep Thy soldiers and bless their sword which gives a new birth to the covenant that Thou has sealed with Thy beloved people and Thy chosen land. Forward to the battleground! Forward to victory! [24]

The Altalena Affair

The creation of the Israeli state did not quite end the Irgun’s military history. On that same night Begin had a meeting with the new Deputy Minister of Defence to tell him that the Irgun abroad had brought a 4,000-ton former tank transport, the Altalena, to France. He did not tell them that it was to pick up weapons secretly provided by the French government, piqued at Britain’s role in pushing France out of the Levant. He proposed that the IDF contribute $250,000 for weapons purchases. Two days later the government refused the proposition, coming as it did from the despised Irgun. On 31 May the Israeli Defence Forces were established and the next day the Irgun signed an agreement to merge into the IDF over a period of weeks. They could enter as units. Because Israel did not then claim Jerusalem as part of its territory, both the Haganah and the Irgun continued on there as separate organizations. On 2 June Israel and the Arabs signed a truce, scheduled to take effect on 11 June, prohibiting the introduction of additional troops or arms into the country. That day the Altalena left France with 900 Irgun recruits and thousands of weapons.

Begin claims that he did not know the ship had left but, not wanting to take responsibility for breaking the truce, he immediately tried to recall it to port. He insists that the IDF then agreed to allow the vessel to carry on. The Irgun had proposed that 80% of the weapons go to the former Irgun units going into the IDF, and 20% to the still independent unit in Jerusalem. Revisionist sources claim that they later conceded the 80% to the IDF to do with as it saw fit, but that the 20% were still to go “to Jerusalem”.

The ship had been told to go directly to Tel Aviv. However, with the truce now in effect, the IDF had the Irgun radio new orders for it to proceed to Kfar Vitkin, a Labour Zionist stronghold further up the coast and away from the eyes of any UN observers. There, the weapons would be unloaded and put in government custody. However, Ben-Gurion would not hear of any proposition to arm a rival ideological army, and Begin was notified that the government would assume no responsibility for the unloading of the arms.

The Altalena arrived on 20 June; 850 men were disembarked and the remaining 50 men, with a contingent of awaiting Irgunists, including Begin, started to unload the cargo. The next day the IDF presented a ten-minute ultimatum to Begin: he must immediately turn over the weapons or the government would use force. Ten minutes turned out to be several hours, during which the Irgun strategists decided to leave a small party to guard the already unloaded cargo on the shore, while the Altalena moved down to Tel Aviv where the Irgun had its supporters and, they reasoned, Ben-Gurion would be less likely to start what would amount to a civil war.

When the army finally opened fire, Begin was still ashore and his first reaction was that he, who had never been under fire during the fight against the British or the Arabs, could not leave his men under fire. His officers would not hear of this, and dragged him aboard the boat. [25] Six Irgunists and two IDF soldiers were killed in the ensuing battle on the beach while the ship steamed toward Tel Aviv. It arrived there during the night, ran aground 700 yards off the shore and was immediately greeted by small arms fire. The next morning the captain hoisted a white flag, but Begin soon started shouting through a bullhorn for the people to help them bring the weapons to the beach. This was too much for the IDF and it started shelling the boat in earnest. Several people on board were killed, amongst them Avraham Stavsky, the Brit HaBiryonim fanatic who had cheated the hangman in 1934 for his part in the assassination of Chaim Arlosoroff, and who was now the nominal owner of the Altalena. Eventually a shell hit the ship’s hold and the ammunition below decks began to explode. The captain gave the order to abandon ship, but Begin refused to surrender. The captain, naturally enough, was in no mood for heroics and Begin was pinned down on the deck, with a crewman’s knee resting on his back. [26] When everyone else had abandoned ship, the captain had two crewmen throw the future Prime Minister of Israel over the side. [27] Fourteen Irgunists had been killed in the one-sided battle.

Facing Arab armies poised on several fronts, the government, for all its having accused the Irgun of trying to arm itself for a coup, chose not to press the Irgun to the wall. That night Begin broadcast a distraught version of the episode, denying the charge, claiming that they were only trying to bring in needed arms, and finally bursting into tears. It was obviously imperative to wind down the organization with dignity and he went to Jerusalem to formally hand over its banner to the local commander. On 17 September the Stern Gang assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN Special Mediator, and Begin rushed to declare that there was no connection between the Jerusalem Irgun and the assassins. Nevertheless, three days later the government issued an ultimatum insisting on the dissolution of the Jerusalem unit; the next day, Shmuel Katz, the last Irgun commander, called a press conference to herald its demise.

The Freedom Party – Tnuat HaHerut

In October Begin announced a new party, the Tnuat HaHerut (Freedom Movement), to continue their struggle against both the Arabs and the Labour Zionists. Its platform was straight Revisionism, its central plank a declaration that the Hebrew homeland lay on both sides of the Jordan. The pro-Fascist tradition was maintained via the party paper, Herut, which had amongst its regular contributors Abba Achimeir, Uri Zvi Greenberg and Wolfgang von Weisl, all of them openly pro-Mussolini in the 1930s.

In November, Begin arrived in America for what he hoped would be a triumphal fund-raising tour but, in most respects, the trip turned out disastrously. He dutifully “reported” to Jabotinsky, in his grave in Long Island, that a Jewish state had been created, and he was welcomed by New York’s mayor, William O’Dwyer. At a banquet in his honour at the Waldorf Astoria, Begin had been scheduled to speak for 45 minutes, and had been urged to talk about the future. However, he went on for some two-and-a-half hours, until well past midnight, speaking of the glories of the Irgun’s struggle and focusing on the whipping of the British soldiers. In the words of Shmuel Merlin, the first Secretary-General of the new party, “it seemed like two and a half days”. [28]

On 4 December the New York Times published a letter signed by Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Sidney Hook and Seymour Melmen, among others. With Einstein’s name attached to it, the critique attracted enormous attention. Although it was written from a pro-Zionist perspective, their powerful statement became the classic summation of Revisionist politics until that point, and has been reprinted many times since:

Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our time is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the “Freedom Party” (Tnuat HaHerut), a political party closely akin to its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine ... Today they speak of freedom, democracy and anti-imperialism, whereas until recently they openly preached the doctrine of the Fascist state. It is in its actions that the terrorist party betrays its real character ... A shocking example was their behaviour in the Arab village of Deir Yassin ... The Deir Yassin incident exemplifies the character and actions of the Freedom Party ... they have preached an admixture of ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority ... in the light of the foregoing considerations, it is imperative that the truth about Mr Begin and his movement be made known in this country. It is all the more tragic that the top leadership of American Zionism has refused to campaign against Begin’s efforts. [29]


1. Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, p.225.

2. Haber, Menahem Begin (uncorrected proof), p.146.

3. Bauer, The Holocaust and the Struggle of the Yishuv as Factors in the Establishment of the State of Israel, Holocaust and Rebirth, p.120.

4. Samuel Halperin, The Political World of Amen can Zionism, pp.216-17,380.

5. Bauer, Holocaust and Rebirth, p.120.

6. Begin, The Revolt, p.149.

7. Ibid., p. 290.

8. Elmer Berger, Pentagon Papers – 1947, p.20.

9. Eckman and Hirschler, Menahem Begin, p.142.

10. Revolt, p.296.

11. Ibid., pp.143-4, and Haber, p.209.

12. Revolt, p.163.

13. Ibid., p.164.

14. Ibid.

15. Colonel Meir Pa’el, who served as a communications officer for the Haganah in Deir Yassin in an interview with Yediot-Ahronot (4/4/1972), Begin And Co. As They Really Are, (Israel Shahak, ed), p.41.

16. Nahum Barnes, Dir Yassin: We have returned to you, Davar, 9 April 1982.

17. Institute of Palestine Studies, By Jacques de Reynier, Who is Menachem Begin?, p.17.

18. Rabbis Denounce Dissident Action, Palestine Post, 13 April 1948.

19. Agency Berates Massacre, Palestine Post, 12 April 1948.

20. Revolt, p.164.

21. Who is Menachem Begin?, p.14.

22. Revolt, p.363.

23. Jon Kimche, Seven Fallen Pillars, p.234.

24. Revolt, pp.373, 376; Hirschler, p.155.

25. Hirschler, p.176.

26. Haber, p.223.

27. Hirschler, p.180.

28. Samuel Merlin, Menachem Begin: Orator, Commander, Statesman, National Jewish Monthly, July 1977, pp.7-8.

29. New Palestine Party, New York Times, 4 December 1948, p.12.

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