The Altalena: Israel’s (almost) civil war

Just a month after its establishment, the State of Israel was on the brink of civil war, with two of its greatest leaders — David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin — facing off in the ultimate power struggle. Noam Weissman unpacks an event that continues to reverberate through Israeli society to this day. Join him as he asks how the Zionist dream nearly imploded and who deserves the credit for ending one of the biggest crises in Israeli history.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. How did the Altalena Affair almost lead to an Israeli civil war?
  2. Who were the archenemies at the center of the Altalena Affair?
    • David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin
    • Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin
    • Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak
    • Israelis and Palestinian Arabs
  3. Which of the following facts are false about the Altalena Affair?
    • Begin believed he saved Israel by preventing civil war
    • Ben-Gurion believed he saved Israel by creating a unified army
    • The Altalena Affair led to lasting Israeli unity and uniformity
    • 16 Irgun fighters and 3 IDF soldiers were killed in the shootout
  4. Who was the leader of the Haganah?
    • Menachem Begin
    • David Ben-Gurion
    • Yitzhak Rabin
    • Yigal Alon
  5. Who was the leader of the Irgun?
    • Menachem Begin 
    • David Ben-Gurion
    • Yitzhak Rabin
    • Yigal Alon
  6. In what year did the Altalena Affair take place?
    • 1947
    • 1948
    • 1949
    • 1950
  1. Does the Altalena Affair speak more of extreme division in nascent Israel or unification in avoiding civil war?
  2. To many, Begin was the hero of this episode, as he instructed his men not to shoot even when being attacked. There are some who suggest, however, that Ben Gurion was the hero because he made the tough decision to ensure Israel would not have competing militias. Who do you think is the bigger hero in this scenario and why?
  3. Menachem Begin fought against the British before there was a state, headed the Irgun, became prime minister, and made a historic peace treaty with Egypt. Yet, Begin considers his behavior and leadership during the Altalena Affair to be his biggest accomplishment. Discuss why you think he saw it that way and whether or not you agree.
  4. The Altalena Affair made it seem like Israel was on the brink of civil war. There were other times in Israel’s history where there was concern for civil war, such as the evacuation of Yamit in 1982 and the evacuation of Jews from Gush Katif in Gaza, in 2005. Yet, civil war has never happened. Why do you think Israelis have consistently avoided civil war despite strong disagreements?
  5. If there is one way to describe Begin in this tragic episode, it is his ability to engage in self-transcendence. He did not think about his personal desires and beliefs. Rather, he sublimated them for the good of the country. As an individual, when do you drive your decisions not by what is in your personal best interest but rather by what serves the interest of the greater good of our community and nation?
  1. Play our Altalena Affair Kahoot!
  2. Lead a podcast listening party. Download our PDF Guide.

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