August 05, 2007

New immigrants shape their identity around the Altalena story

It is hard to fathom, hard to comprehend, hard to accept. I still don't understand why this happened. From Ha'aretz:

On June 22, about 100 people climbed aboard the ship Sababa in Jaffa port, and sailed toward Tel Aviv. On board were veterans of the prestate Etzel underground and Russian-speaking new immigrants. They were sailing to the point where the arms-laden Altalena sank 59 years ago after being fired on by order of prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Etzel (the Irgun Zvai Leumi) had bought the arms and was led by Menachem Begin.

While Etzel veterans have learned to keep to their stories circulating among the their few thousand still-living members, the initiative for the voyage this June came from the Russian-speaking contingent: The new immigrants took upon themselves to widen the circle and even to create their identity as Israelis around the story.

The shipboard ceremony was beautiful, albeit a bit strange. In a heavy Russian accent, a member of the group invited his friends to cast a wreath of sunflowers into the water where the Altalena had sunk. Another proclaimed: "This is a memorial wreath to our brethren who were butchered by Cain."

The state is almost 60 years old, and still it is Cain and Abel.

Red, heart-shaped balloons were released. There was the sense of an elite unit not only preserving a memory of the past, but also seeking to shape the future.

A few days later, we met at the Etzel Museum on the Tel Aviv beach. Representing the veterans was Yoske Nahmias, 82, a sixth-generation Israeli and an Etzel company commander who was on board the Altalena; representing the immigrants was Dr. Mark Radotzky, 50, who came to Israel 17 years ago and thought up the idea of the commemoration voyages.

They explained the surprising alliance, filling both with new energies.The Etzel people say their new immigrant supporters are the fresh Zionists who have sprung from roots that have withered. The new immigrants say that like in a family, when one member is tired or busy, another straightens things out for him.

"My heart is still bleeding," Nahmias said as he remembered every second, every bullet fired, every order Menachem Begin gave not to return fire. "Sixteen of my friends were killed. The hate has gone down, but the wound has not healed. Then, I hated very much. If I would have met Ben-Gurion I would have strangled him with my bare hands. Today I am angry, but I don't hate."

Radotzky sees that day as the beginning of the destruction of civil society in Israel. He learned about it after he came to Israel. "History defined which political side I would take here," he said, explaining his rightist tendencies. "It I were looking for the brotherhood of nations, I would have stayed in Tashkent," he added. "I came to live in a Jewish state, and in the ideological search I came to [Ze'ev] Jabotinsky," he said, referring to the right-wing prestate leader.

When Radotzky went to buy the wreath for the Altalena ceremony, he said the florist challenged him: "But you weren't there." Radotzky answered: "Were you at the Exodus? But you mark that event every year."

It all began when Rabin was assassinated, Radotzky said, and he was put off by the collective response to the murder, which he said reminded him of the Former Soviet Union. Then he heard for the first time about the Altalena and Rabin's role in giving the order to open fire on the ship.

He experienced a moment of truth when he came across the monument on the Tel Aviv beach to those killed and it bothered Radotzky that the place was so neglected and forgotten.

"On the Altalena, not only people were killed, so was the Israeli democracy; Israeli civil society ended." Radotzky said. "We have not come to rebuild it again," he added.