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Weekly Thought - The Altalena. Deuteronomy 12

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2003-08-22

Oh for a Palestinian Ghandi. That great little man initiated a campaign of non- violent protest that eventually forced the British Empire out of India. I accept he failed in many areas too. But his achievement through non-violent means was a universal symbol of what human dignity can achieve in the face of oppression and power.

There is no doubt in my mind that had Arafat been man enough to adopt a Ghandi approach the suffering of the Palestinians would today be over. I recognize, of course, that passive resistance is as alien to the dominant Muslim mentality as it was to Judah Macabee over two thousand years ago.

I was in Israel in 1967 when everyone hoped that they would be able to trade Land for Peace, when Moshe Dayan said that he was willing to trade everything for a treaty. I also remember how the Palestinian West Bankers welcomed the Israelis. They hated the Jordanian occupation. Then the Arab Summit at Khartoum dashed hopes. They refused even to talk indirectly. I detest the realities of occupation. I agree with the late Professor Yeshaya Leibovitz that domination breeds inhumanity, not of everyone, I agree, but some.

I stand ideologically closer to Amira Hess, The Rabbis For Human Rights and the Peace Camp than I do to Gush Emunim, Kiryat Arba and those Jews who oppose any sort of compromise. But there is a fundamental evil in suicide bombing that totally alienates me from their supporters. I understand retaliation though I do not usually approve of it. And I accept that sadly in conflict innocents die. I do not approve of targeting, certainly not when children are killed at the same time. But collateral damage, unintentional death, is very different to getting on a bus filled with children and blowing them up. For that there are no words of human condemnation that even begin to be relevant.

Both sides have their extremists and are engaged in a war of ideologies, words, and ulterior motives. Both sides have their supporters, their funders and their spokesmen. Both sides have those who wish to sabotage any deal. Both sides have their lunatics. But unless both sides set out to control their fanatics we will all go down. The fact is that there is a historical precedent for eliminating internal threats.

In the final years of the British mandate in Palestine, there were several competing Jewish militias, just as there are different Palestinian groups today. The main army, the Haganah, was led by Ben-Gurion representing the official Jewish community, the 'Yishuv' as it was called, with its predominant left wing socialist secular ideologies. Their official policy towards the British had been one of negotiation not violence. The Irgun Zvai Leumi, Etzel, led by Menachem Begin, was of right wing in ideology, more sympathetic to the religious community and prepared to use violence to evict the British. An even more radical right wing breakaway group called the Stern Gang was responsible for killing British soldiers and a massacre of more than 200 Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin in April 1948.

After the British left Palestine and the state of Israel was declared, Arab armies attacked. On June 1, the Haganah and Irgun agreed to merge into the Israel Defence Forces, headed by Haganah commanders. The accord called on Irgun members to hand over arms and terminate separate activity, including arms purchases abroad. Ben-Gurion said at the time "The state can not exist until we have one army and control of that army."

While the negotiations were going on an old American Navy landing vessel bought by the Irgun's American supporters and renamed the Altalena was enroute for Israel. The ship, whose purchase had predated the June 1 agreement, was packed with 850 volunteers, 5,000 rifles, 3,000 bombs, 3 million cartridges and hundreds of tons of explosives.

Ben-Gurion wanted the arms to go to the Haganah. Begin said the arms should go to Irgun troops. Ben-Gurion insisted and sent Haganah men to intercept the boat as Irgun men headed to the beach to unload the arms. Begin refused to concede. The Altalena was shelled and sank, along with most of its arms and more than a dozen Irgun members. Others were arrested, and the Irgun's independent activities were finally put to an end.

In his 1953 memoir, "The Revolt," Begin says he had known hunger and sorrow in his life but had wept only twice - once, out of joy, when the state was declared, and the second time, in grief, the night the Altalena was destroyed.

This was a seminal point in Israeli and Jewish history. But it effectively laid the foundation for a single, unitary state. Unless the Palestinians can follow this example they are doomed.

In 1996, the Palestinian Authority showed itself capable of confrontation, making widespread arrests of extremists in the wake of several suicide bombings. Thousands of militants were arrested. But most were eventually let go. The Palestinians must do it again and in a definitive manner. The Altalena is a symbol of that task because it involved genuine confrontation.

The point for the Palestinians is that until their radical militias are put out of action, those groups will always be in the position of spoilers. But so too will many right wing extremists in Israel. Sharon will need to learn the lesson of the Altalena as well. But meanwhile death is winning the war.

This week's Sedra starts off with the choices we had then and we have now. 'I place before you a blessing and a curse.' Things haven't changed, for us or anyone else.