How to stave off civil war I



In April 1982, a few days after the town of Yamit was bulldozed to rubble and the Sinai settlers were compelled to evacuate their homes, Israel marked its 34th Independence Day.


It was a sullen holiday. In his broadcast to the nation, prime minister Menachem Begin said this of the razing of Yamit:


"No one knows more than I the pain of the sacrifices we made for the sake of peace with Egypt. The scenes of the final days of theevacuation of Yamit were agonizing.


"All of us were glued to our television sets. What did we see? We saw Jewish settlers raising their hands against Jewish soldiers performing their duty in accordance with the decisions of their democratically elected government.


"We saw sacrilegious violence pitted against sacred decency – the decency of an army eschewing its weapons. Other armies mount machine guns facing such rooftops filled with unruly and lawless citizens. And when they are compelled to descend, many are carried off on stretchers, dead and wounded.


"Not so at Yamit. We all saw the behavior of our soldiers there. We saw them climbing ladders without weapons, trying to reach the rooftops. People on the rooftops pushed the ladders away. Some soldiers were pushed off. Yet not a single one used a weapon.


"Our army at Yamit shed not a single drop of blood."


A WEEK later, a Young Leadership mission of the Israel Bonds Organization called on the prime minister, and one of its members asked what exactly had passed through his mind as he watched those scenes of confrontation at Yamit.


For the briefest moment the premier stared balefully back at the questioner. Then, shifting to the front edge of his chair, he answered slowly, percussively, "What went through my mind was that a Jew must never lift a finger against a fellow Jew. A Jew must never shed the blood of another Jew.


"And by the by, we've had the experience. Twenty centuries ago our Second Commonwealth was destroyed because of senseless hatred and civil war."


Then, with a stab of the finger, his face as granite as his eyes: "I want you to know that I made a solemn oath many years ago that no matter what the provocation, I would do all in my power to prevent civil war. Yehudim anachnu! We are Jews!"


"Are you saying there was a time when a Jewish civil war was conceivable?" asked someone, a little breathlessly.


Begin didn't answer immediately. He sat forlorn and saddened, staring past the young questioner into his own thoughts, as though momentarily mesmerized by alarming memories. And then, plaintively, he said, "Oh yes. It happened twice in my lifetime."


In astonished silence his visitors listened as he led them deep into the secret cellars of the tormented world of the Irgun underground of decades ago, to shine a light on a very black hole.


It was 1944. Britain ruled the land. Whitehall sealed the country's gates. European Jewry was being slaughtered in the millions. The Hagana under David Ben-Gurion and the Irgun under Menachem Begin were at loggerheads over what best to do. The Irgun chose to revolt against the British. The Hagana chose to oppose it.


So the Devil himself came down to take a look at the Jewish backbiting, liked what he saw, and decided to stay awhile. As an outcome, the Hagana went on a manhunt. Its informers stalked and hunted Irgun members, hundreds of them, and turned them over to the British. It was "Open Season."


"First, our people lost their jobs and their children were expelled from school," reminisced Begin sadly. "Then came the kidnappings." He had leaned back in his chair, a sure sign he was disturbed.


"Our kidnapped men were often treated grimly before being turned over to the British. Lists of our members were handed in. There were daily roundups. Arms dumps and safe houses were exposed. It was the brink of civil war."


Gloom gripped the room, and the prime minister removed his spectacles and rubbed them vigorously with a handkerchief in an effort to contain the bitter remembrance.


But then he struck a lighter pose and, in the easy tone of one whose authority on the matter was not to be disputed, said, "You know, there's a bright side to life in the underground. For living in the underground enforces seclusion and, by the by," – he liked that expression, "by the by" – that's a good thing, because seclusion makes for deep and clear thinking."


As the irony of it sank in, Begin smiled an intriguing little smile that narrowed his bespectacled, deep-set eyes, and lit up his shrewd Jewish Warsaw face.


"Oh yes," he mused, a bitter-sweet edge to his voice, "being isolated can do wonders in turning a dark cellar into a high watchtower."


The young delegation of 20 or so gazed back at him puzzled, yet enthralled.


"Indeed, we could see very far from the top of our watchtower in our cellar. Visibility was excellent. And what did we see? We saw our people in Europe in an endless procession of death. We saw the ghettoes going up in flames. We saw the oppressor plotting against us all, Hagana and Irgun alike. And from down the corridors of time we heard the echoes of that other civil war of almost 2,000 years before.


"So, having seen all that, we were gripped by a profound Jewish instinct as old as our nation. And it cried out to us, commanded us: 'Do not retaliate. Do not raise a hand against a fellow Jew. Do not spark a civil war! Not at any price!'"


Begin, looking intrepid, sat ramrod-straight, his hands balled, when, as if on cue, the door creaked slowly open and two middle-aged tea ladies waddled in with a trolley, Without fuss, they gave the prime minister his usual glass of plain tea with lemon and sweetener, and began pouring refreshments for the rest.


By the time everyone had been served the prime minister was well into his recollection of the other occasion when Jews found themselves on the brink of civil war – the occasion of the Altalena.


IT WAS June 1948. The fledgling Jewish state, hardly a month old, was embattled on every side. The infant IDF was still a hotchpotch of disbanded Hagana, Palmah, Irgun, and Lehi units. Everything was improvised, makeshift, provisional.


Amid the muddle, the Altalena, an Irgun arms ship, arrived off the shore of Tel Aviv, overdue. It was loaded with hundreds of volunteers and packed with desperately-needed arms.


So, yet again, the Devil looked down at the fractious sight, grinned, and dispensed a mortal brew of such malice, mistrust, and misunderstanding that Ben-Gurion suspected Begin was fomenting a putsch. So he ordered his loyalists to shell the Altalena, which caught fire. In the blaze, several volunteers were killed and wounded, and the weaponry lost.


Eyewitness accounts describe Begin as standing on the Altalena's burning deck like some figure in a parable, black from the acrid smoke, flinging up his arms and yelling frantically to his men, "No – don't shoot back! Don't open fire. No civil war!"


That night, eyes dark-circled by anxiety and fatigue, Begin broadcast over the Irgun underground transmitter, speaking in tears about the Altalena, its arms, and its dead.


The young adults of the Israel Bonds delegation, listening to him 34 years later, stared intently, as if the pitiful spectacle was taking place before their eyes.


"Some antagonists jeered me because of those tears I shed in public that night," he told them broodingly. "Yet to this day, I feel no shame. On the contrary. There are fateful times when a choice has to be made between blood and tears.


"During our revolt against the British, blood had to take the place of tears. But at the time of the Altalena – Jew against Jew – tears had to take the place of blood. Better that one Jew shed tears from his heart than that he should cause many to weep over graves."


Pulling back his shoulders and lifting his jaw, he said in conclusion: "It was extremely hard to order my men to restrain their natural instinct for revenge. But I had to do it.


"Twice in my lifetime I had to do it – to cry out, Yehudim anahnu! We are Jews! Never raise a hand against a fellow Jew.


"It was the most important decision of my life."


The writer served on the staff of four prime ministers, including Menachem Begin. (

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