The Altalena Affair, on Film

By Nathan Burstein

Published January 28, 2009, issue of February 06, 2009.
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A battle pitting Jews against Jews during the Israel War of Independence is the subject of a new historical drama that aired recently on Israeli television.

DEFINING MOMENT: A film that tells the story of the ship Altalena was recently aired on Israeli television.
DEFINING MOMENT: A film that tells the story of the ship Altalena was recently aired on Israeli television.

“Altalena,” set during a cease-fire in the war, tells the real-life story of the titular ship — a vessel bringing contraband weapons and nearly 1,000 Jewish immigrants to the newly declared State of Israel. In one of the pivotal clashes of the period, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered soldiers of the freshly formed Israel Defense Forces to fire not on Arabs fighters, but on fellow Jews — those smuggling weapons into the country on behalf of the Irgun, a Zionist faction led by Menachem Begin, who years later would become prime minister. Following a standoff in the waters off central Israel, the Altalena sailed south toward Tel Aviv, where the battle erupted. Though the battle left 19 dead, it set the precedent that a single leadership would wield authority and arms in the new country.

Invoked in recent years as the sort of formative episode yet to occur in Palestinian society — where Fatah and Hamas currently fight for control — the Altalena Affair is now considered one of the key moments in the consolidation of the new Jewish state. Playing Begin and Ben-Gurion in the film, respectively, are stage actors Yoram Hattab and Yossi Kantz. The latter previously portrayed Ben-Gurion in “It’s Now or Never,” a 2005 TV movie about the fateful United Nations vote partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish homelands.

Currently offered on demand by Israel’s HOT cable company, “Altalena” will also air on regular broadcast television in Israel later this year.


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