The current political turmoil in Israel, which seems to intensify daily, is not new to Jewish history in the Promised Land. An Israeli friend reminded me of a previous example of “brothers at war” that erupted one month after the birth of the State of Israel in 1948.
The arrival of the Altalena, a ship dispatched from France by the right-wing Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, was filled with desperately needed weapons and munitions. On board were more than 900 fighters prepared to defend the newborn Jewish state with their lives if necessary.
But its arrival triggered a violent internecine conflict. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, claiming that the Altalena posed a menacing challenge to the legitimacy of the Israeli government—and to his authority—ordered the newborn IDF to destroy it.
The ensuing battle on the beaches of Kfar Vitkin and Tel Aviv brought Israel to the brink of civil war. Sixteen Irgun fighters and three IDF soldiers died during the fighting and the ship, with its desperately needed weapons, was destroyed. Ben-Gurion and his defenders insisted that force was justified to save the fragile new nation from self-destruction.
The Altalena tragedy was long ago and its memory has faded. But Israel now confronts an ominously deepening conflict between its newly elected right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political opponents on the left. According to an Associated Press report, his right-wing governing coalition has “prompted an unprecedented uproar from Israeli society.”
And not only among Israelis. New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Patrick Kingsley described the newly elected government as riding “a wave of far-right agenda items that would weaken the judiciary, entrench Israeli control of the West Bank … and bifurcate the military chain of command to give some far-right ministers greater control over matters related to the occupation.” For the Times, the “occupation” invariably refers to the return of Jews to biblical Judea and Samaria following the Six-Day War.
Kingsley cited the “centerpiece” of Netanyahu’s program as “a detailed plan for a sweeping judicial overhaul that includes reducing the Supreme Court’s influence over parliament and strengthening the government’s role in the appointment of judges.” Netanyahu’s agenda “threatens Israel’s democratic institutions” and “sounds the death rattle for long-ailing hopes for a Palestinian state.”
There will also be “a more combative stance toward the Palestinians” by reducing funding to the Palestinian Authority. And Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new national security minister “has angered Palestinians and many Arab countries by touring a sensitive religious site,” referring to the Temple Mount. Its name, of course, refers to the location of the most sacred ancient Jewish—not Palestinian—holy site, but Kingsley is oblivious to history.
According to the AP, the Netanyahu government’s commitment to annex the West Bank would “add fuel to calls that Israel is an ‘apartheid’ state.” Indeed, Israel’s “most right-wing and religiously conservative administration ever,” supported by “settlers and ultra-Orthodox parties that have vowed to reshape Israeli society,” threatens Israel’s “liberal democracy.”
Isabel Kershner, a New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem, contributed her own dire analysis. Not only is the new minister of national security an “ultranationalist” who has expanded authority over the police. The new “hard-right” finance minister claims more authority over settlements in the “occupied” West Bank. And “ultra-Orthodox lawmakers” want more autonomy and funding for religious schools. Worse still, the new coalition wants to empower the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court rulings.
The looming question is whether Israelis on the left can tolerate a right-wing government unlike any that has preceded it. Or whether, in the name of “democracy,” their fury over a lost election will erupt in violent protest that could tear their country apart.
To locate it within a historical framework: Can the Israeli left reject Ben-Gurion’s appalling resort to violence against Jews and accept the result of a democratic election? Can it accept Netanyahu’s reminder, “to lose in elections is not the end of democracy, this is the essence of democracy”?
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena (2011).