Confederate History Month in Tel Aviv

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect.

The plan is to comb the floor of the Mediterranean for the remains of the ship. The Israeli government will reportedly allocate $60,000 for the search. The next stage, much more costly, will be to salvage the Altalena and turn it into a memorial for the men of the right-wing Irgun underground, which sparked the momentary Israeli civil war in June 1948.

Judging by what the country’s leading politicians have said in recent days, the salvaged ship will commemorate the “crime” committed by the Israeli government against the rebels of the Altalena—and, bizarrely, the supposed saintliness of Irgun commander Menachem Begin for preventing fratricide. It’s as if the U.S. government officially endorsed Confederate History Month as a celebration of the South’s role in preserving the Union.

History is about the past, but the way it’s told speaks terabytes about the present. The effort by the ruling Likud Party to drag the Altalena from the depths of the Mediterranean and of memory shows that resentment and entitlement remain the foundation of the party’s message. It testifies that Likud leaders still think of themselves as heading a Jewish national liberation movement rather than an established democracy. It implies that they continue to distinguish between freedom fighters and terrorists based on who carried out the action, not the action itself. It helps explain why the Likud-led government seems intent on taking apart Israeli democracy, and why it has such an impossibly hard time enforcing democratic norms on today’s radical right.

Here I must pause for a solid, if brief, recounting of the Altalena affair and its context. Before Israeli independence, the rightist Irgun Tzva’i Le’umi broke from the mainstream Zionist movement. The Irgun and an even more extreme group, the Lehi, glorified blood and “iron,” codewords for armed struggle against Palestine’s British rulers and against Palestinian Arabs. A book called Chronicle of the War of Liberation, published after independence by veterans of the right, proudly lists attacks on British soldiers and police—and many attacks on civilians. There’s the June 1939 bombing of the Haifa produce market that killed 78 Arabs, and the attempted bombing of a funeral attended by British officials at an Anglican cemetery in April 1942, and the March 1947 “execution” of a Jew accused of collaboration with the British, not to mention the countless armed “confiscations” of money from banks.

Read the rest here.

1 thought on “Confederate History Month in Tel Aviv

  1. Until Jews can live, travel, and pray wherever they want in the world without security guards protecting them from being murdered, the State of Israel _is_ still a Jewish national liberation movement.

    The entire world distinguishes between terrorists and freedom fighters, as well as soldiers, and police, precisely according to who’s doing it. That’s realpolitik, each according to his worldview. Disingenuous to suggest that it’s wrong to distinguish only when the Likud party (for example) is doing it.

    And no, though it only needs saying when responding to a post like this one, no, the right wing in Israel is not analogous to the Confederacy of the U.S. 19th century. Nobody here is perpetuating slavery, or anything even close to it. (For that, check out some of the Arab countries.)

    America is a great success so it behooves Israel to consider American political paradigms in the Jewish context. But false analogies with the worst of America’s history, aside from being mind-boggling coming from American Jews, can hardly help Israel’s chances of (a) surviving and (b) exploiting the best of what it can learn from America.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.