Why should anyone remember a notorious pariah ship from Israel’s war for independence? If for no other reason (and there are many), because it is likely to resurface from the depths of memory should Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, if and when they ever begin, focus on Jewish settlements.
The prospect of expelling thousands of Jews from the biblical homeland of the Jewish people will surely widen, perhaps violently and irreparably, the deep chasm that already separates secular from religious Israelis. Such a dangerously polarizing conflict has not roiled Israel for more than sixty years. When it did, in 1948, it brought the fledgling Jewish state to the precipice of civil war.
During its first weeks of independence, Israel confronted a military invasion from five Arab nations that were determined to annihilate it. The new state was already battered from months of Palestinian Arab violence within its porously unstable borders, climaxing with the fall of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. Israel was desperate for an infusion of weapons and fighters to prevent its annihilation.
Enter the Altalena, with more than nine hundred Holocaust survivors, war refugees and fighters, and tons of desperately needed military supplies. It sailed for Israel from Port-du-Bouc in southern France on June 11, the day when a month-long United Nations ceasefire began. Inspired, funded, and provisioned by loyalists of Menachem Begin’s Irgun, it would join the roster of ill-fated ships that had exemplified the Zionist struggle to rescue Jews from annihilation and return them to their homeland.