THEN AND NOW
"The Labor-Meretz government must demonstrate the will to impose its policies on [Israeli] extremists...Despite all the pain involved, another Altalena is needed--an Israeli one...The 'blessed cannon' must be taken out of the arsenal of history."
So wrote Baruch Kimmerling on the op-ed page of Israel's leading leftwing daily, Ha'aretz, on May 3 of this year. He was referring to the S.S.Altalena, the ship full of weapons that Menachem Begin's Irgun Zvai Leumi tried to land near Tel Aviv in June 1948, to help Israel defend itself against the Arabs.
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, sensing an opportunity to deal a blow to his political rivals, at first agreed to let the ship land, then, when it approached the shore, ordered his soldiers --under the command of Yitzhak Rabin-- to attack. They sank the Altalena and gunned down the survivors as they tried to swim to shore, killing at least 15. Ben-Gurion later declared: "Blessed be the cannon that sank the Altalena."
For most Israelis, the Altalena episode represents a dark, shameful chapter in Zionist history, in which the left used violence against fellow-Jews for the sake of gaining political advantage. But for many Israelis on the left, such as Baruch Kimmerling, the Altalena is a symbol of how to deal with the Jewish right.
It is important to note that Kimmerling is not some kook on the fringe of Israeli society. He is a prominent professor of sociology at Hebrew University, and the co-author of a major leftwing "revisionist" view of Arab-Israel history, entitled Palestinians: The Making of a People (published by one of America's major book publishers, The Free Press). His co-author, Joel Migdal of the University of Washington, has been involved in leftwing Jewish political activity in the U.S. for many years.
Kimmerling's longing for that "blessed cannon" is in the mainstream tradition of Jewish leftist attitudes toward the use of violence against fellow-Jews. In an essay entitled "The Debate in Mapai on the Use of
Violence, 1932-1935" (Studies in Zionism, Spring 1981), Prof. Anita Shapira, one of the leading historians of Zionism today, found that many Labor Zionist leaders considered violence a perfectly legitimate means of combating their political foes: "The concept of non-violence was not a basic tenet of the labor movement in Europe in the 19th century," the movement from which Labor Zionists derived their ideology.
Shapira writes: "Tolerance of political or class opponents and the idea of 'fair play' were not fundamental to the[ir] outlook..." Thus, in the 1930s, the Labor Zionist leaders did not hesitate to send goon squads to assault Betar demonstrators or non-Histradrut workers, after which the Labor newspaper Davar would cheer the "healthy instincts" of the "masses" in "fighting the fascists."
The Labor Zionist leadership was not disturbed when a leftwing mob stormed a Betar clubhouse in Herzliya in 1940 and beat to death a young nationalist named Eliahu Shlomi (the Ramat Eliahu neighborhood in Herzliya was named in his memory).
Nor did they ever express any regrets for the "Season," the period during the 1940s when the Haganah kidnapped and tortured dozens of Irgun members, and handed them over to the British (who then deported them to East Africa in most cases). One Irgun youth, Yedidya Siegel, died at the hands of his Haganah interrogators.
The tragedy of Jewish violence against fellow-Jews began long before November 1995.
Herbert Zweibon is chairman of Americans for A Safe Israel.