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Irgun Fighter Remembers the Altalena

Malca Fein is a fit, sharp, outspoken, perfectly groomed octogenarian with a just a hint of an accent. But get her talking about the past and the fiery Zionist freedom fighter burns through her grandmotherly facade. At the age of 16, Malca, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1925 and now makes her home in Windsor, California, joined Irgun (also called Etzel, a Hebrew acronym), a paramilitary offshoot of Haganah that was bent on using armed force to expel the British from Palestine. In the fraught period between the end of World War II and the birth of the State of Israel, Malca put her life on the line proudly and unhesitatingly for the cause she believed in.

“I used a gun — a German Luger,” Malca reminisced recently. “I used to be quite an expert.” She participated in the notorious Irgun bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946 — a direct hit on the headquarters of the British military command that took down a wing of the hotel and killed 91 people. “I brought the bombs and ammunition,” she recalls matter-of-factly. “I transferred the TNT — we all did. Our goal was to destroy the records the British were using to round people up. The Irgun were geniuses at explosives.”

But what most haunts this 88-year-old mother of four and grandmother of eight is a pitched bloody battle fought between Jew and Jew on Israel’s shore. The Altalena Affair changed the course of Malca Fein’s life — and continues to reverberate through the Israeli political landscape.

On June 20, 1948, with the newborn state of Israel fighting for its life against the combined forces of its Arab neighbors, an American landing craft called the Altalena arrived off the coast of Kfar Vitkin (a farming village north of Tel Aviv) carrying some 940 Irgun volunteers and a sizable cache of weapons. David Ben-Gurion, leader of Israel’s provisional government (and later its first prime minister), rescinded an earlier agreement to permit the ship to dock and the weapons to be off-loaded. A series of violent clashes between Irgun fighters and the fledgling Israel Defense Forces ensued, in the course of which 19 men (16 Irgun fighters and 3 Israeli soldiers) were killed.

Malca Fein took part in the Altalena Affair in three different but overlapping capacities. As an Irgun foot soldier, she assisted in the abortive landing and unloading of the ship. As a trained nurse, she tended to the wounds that her fellow Irgun fighters sustained during exchanges of fire with the IDF. As a passionate young woman, she fell in love with and subsequently married the American captain of the Altalena, a 25-year-old Chicago-born U.S. Navy veteran named Monroe Fein.

“What a time,” Malca says today with a rueful smile.

At the heart of the incident was a bitter, long-festering conflict between two of the main factions that dominated the foundational period of the Jewish state — the left-leaning Labor Zionists that rallied around Ben-Gurion and the militant right-wing movement that Menachem Begin inherited from the fiery Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. After the Second World War, the two factions clashed sharply over how best to bring an end to the British Mandate. Irgun embraced violent tactics (some called it terrorism) like the bombing of the King David, while Ben-Gurion called for negotiation and moderation. There was a personal element in the conflict as well: Ben-Gurion and Begin were archrivals and bitter enemies, and some historians believe that Ben-Gurion was bent on marginalizing or destroying not only the Irgun but Begin himself.

The conflict came to a head over the Altalena.

After Israel was born in May 1948, Ben-Gurion insisted that all independent militias, Irgun included, must immediately cease to exist and be folded into the IDF. Begin agreed in principle and some Irgun units were integrated into the IDF, but the war that broke out immediately after Israeli independence created an extraordinary situation. The besieged Jewish sector in Jerusalem’s Old City, which was technically outside the jurisdiction of the new Israeli government, was being held by a small number of desperately under-equipped Irgun fighters. Arms from the Altalena had been earmarked for the Irgun in Jerusalem — and Begin argued that the delivery of these arms was a matter of life or death for Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter.

With numerically superior Arab armies closing in from all sides, the clash between Begin and Ben-Gurion was not a political debate but a national emergency.

The ship at the center of the incident was a vintage 4,000-ton American diesel-powered LST (or Landing Ship, Tank — a troop and cargo carrier adapted to amphibious combat) that had seen action during D-Day before being mothballed up the Hudson River near West Point. Irgun operatives in the U.S. arranged for the purchase and rechristened the ship the Altalena (Jabotinsky’s pen-name, and the Italian word for see-saw or swing). An experienced seaman was required to take command and Monroe Fein had had experience piloting LSTs in the Pacific during the war; he was young, healthy (except for occasional serious bouts with asthma), and a fervent Zionist. An Irgun recruiter interviewed Monroe in Chicago and promptly signed him on to captain the Altalena. Eliahu Lankin, who headed the Irgun in the Diaspora, called him an “intrepid Jewish patriot.”

The Altalena was transported across the Atlantic to Marseilles in the first week of June 1948. With the cooperation of the French government, it was loaded with a considerable cache of arms and ammunition — 300 Bren guns, 50 German Spender guns, 500 anti-tank guns, 1000 grenades and 5 million rounds of ammo. Young people from all over Europe, many of them survivors of the camps, streamed aboard; among the 940 volunteer fighters, there were 120 women. When Monroe set sail at dusk on the night of June 11, passengers and crew broke into “Hatikvah.”

Controversy swirled around the ship as soon as it entered the open sea. The day of its departure, a 28-day cease-fire in the regional war went into effect, and a delivery of arms and fighters would have been in violation of its terms. Nonetheless, Ben-Gurion approved the Altalena’s arrival and Monroe proceeded on the assumption that the mission had the “full knowledge and acquiescence of the Israeli government.” Begin had attempted to negotiate an arrangement with the Israeli government whereby the arms would be unloaded, with 20% of the cache going to Irgun forces in Jerusalem and the remainder to Irgun units that had been absorbed into the IDF, but the negotiations had stalled. Well aware that the ship was steaming toward Israel, Ben-Gurion gave instructions that Captain Fein was to anchor off Kfar Vitkin in order to avoid detection by U.N. observers. There, under cover of night, weapons and fighters would be transferred to land.

But that was not how the scenario played out.

“It was a big trap,” Malca recalls. “Begin was very naïve for agreeing to land the Altalena in Kfar Vitkin because it was a den of Haganah. We started unloading — we were there all night — but then [the IDF] started shooting at us.”

Malca adds one detail that had important consequences for her personally. At some point while the ship was still anchored off Kfar Vitkin, she boarded and asked Captain Monroe Fein if she could have some food for her hungry comrades. “Monnie said, ‘I don’t like women on my ship,’” recalls Malca, laughing. “And I told him, ‘I don’t want to be on your boat — I just want food.’”

Evidently, it was not love at first sight.

In any case, whatever sparks were flying between the future husband and wife were overshadowed by the desperate turn of events. Unbeknownst to the Irgun, Ben-Gurion had summoned an emergency cabinet meeting to determine how to deal with the arrival of the Altalena. Insisting that “there are not going to be two armies” in Israel, the prime minister made an executive decision to instruct the IDF to open fire if Begin did not agree to surrender the entire cargo of munitions.

The clash played out over the course of two bloody days, first in Kfar Vitkin and then in Tel Aviv. The Altalena’s 940 passengers were allowed to disembark peacefully at Kfar Vitkin on the night of June 20, but trouble arose when Captain Fein and his crew attempted to off-load the cargo of munitions. IDF soldiers had sealed off Kfar Vitkin, and two Israeli navy corvettes had taken up position near the ship. According to an account that Monroe wrote later, less than 20% of the cargo had been off-loaded when a fire fight broke out on the beach of Kfar Vitkin. Monroe, concerned for the safety of his crew and remaining cargo, decided to take the ship back out to sea — but before he got very far, “suddenly and without any warning whatsoever, both [Israeli Navy] corvettes opened fire on the Altalena with heavy machine guns.”

Six Irgun members and two IDF soldiers died at Kfar Vitkin, but worse was still to come. Monroe managed to get the ship down to Tel Aviv without incident, but shortly after midnight he ran aground not far from the beach, at the foot of Frishman Street. That morning, about 8:30 a.m., future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin led a full-scale attack on the Altalena. Two of Monroe’s crew members were killed in the fire fight, and Irgun leader Avraham Stavsky (who had worked tirelessly to save Jews from the Nazis during the war) sustained mortal wounds. After a cease fire and a round of tense negotiations between Begin and the IDF commanders, the IDF opened up with a second barrage. A fire ignited in the cargo hold and grew rapidly; Monroe, aware of the imminent danger, ordered all men to abandon ship.

“As men began jumping off the ship and swimming toward the shore,” wrote Monroe, “those of us still on shipboard saw that they were being shot at continuously from rifles and machine guns on the beach.” Monroe hastened to hoist a white flag on the ship’s bridge, but the firing continued.

Monroe succeeded in evacuating every last man from the ship, including Begin, who had insisted on remaining on board, before the Altalena exploded in an inferno of flames and detonating bullets. (According to Fein family legend, Begin refused to leave, and Monroe had to throw him overboard before the ship blew up.) Eleven Jews perished in the fighting at Tel Aviv — 10 Irgun and ship crew members and one IDF soldier.

It was, in Rabin’s words, a “black day” for Israel.

According to Monroe’s written account, after the ship exploded, he and other crew members were hustled away from the shore and transported to Irgun headquarters; later he was taken prisoner by an IDF contingent and held for interrogation at an army camp in the northern outskirts of Tel Aviv. After being detained for four days, including a stint in an unventilated cell that triggered a serious asthma attack, the Altalena’s American captain was released. That was when the romance with Malca was kindled.

Monroe’s nephew Steve Shender says, “After his release from detention, my uncle became ill, and Malca, who was a nurse in the Irgun, nursed him back to health. They were definitely in love at the end of his convalescence.”

Malca adds a few more details: “We dated once in Tel Aviv — we went to a movie — but Monnie didn’t know how to get back to his hotel, so I had to walk him there and then return home by myself. He sent me a letter and a birthday gift.” The attack on the Altalena had soured Malca on Israel: “When they bombed the ship,” she says, “I decided to leave — if Jews can kill Jews, I don’t belong there.” Soon after, she went to New York on Irgun business. Monnie came east from Chicago on a visit, and at the end of two weeks he proposed.

Malca’s answer was “Of course!”

But it wasn’t exactly happily ever after. A few years into their marriage, after their first child was born, Monroe and Malca returned to Israel. Monroe wanted to make aliyah, but his involvement with Irgun made it impossible for him to get work, so they were forced to go back to the U.S. Monroe held a series of jobs, first at General Electric on the East Coast, then at Science Research Associates in Chicago, and finally at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Asthma plagued him his entire life, and he was treated with steroid-based medications that weakened his heart. In 1982, while swimming in Santa Monica, California, his heart failed and he went into a coma. He died at the age of 59.

Although the Altalena incident happened 66 years ago, it has not been forgotten. Supporters of Ben-Gurion argue that the use of force against Irgun was necessary to establish the new government as the only legitimate power in Israel. Ben-Gurion’s opponents question whether preserving one party’s hegemony could ever justify the killing of Jews by Jews.

According to Jerold S. Auerbach, professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College and the author of a recent book about the Altalena affair called “Brothers at War,” “the dark shadow of the Altalena still hovers over Israel more than six decades later, raising vital issues of political legitimacy that have yet to be resolved in the Jewish state.”

“To this day the Altalena continues to surface as a bone of contention and a warning in Israeli politics,” asserts Auerbach. “During the 2005 countdown to the disengagement from Gaza proposed by Ariel Sharon, the Altalena was repeatedly cited to justify or condemn the forced removal of Jewish settlers by Jewish soldiers. Until this legitimacy conundrum is resolved — if it ever is — the Altalena is likely to continue to haunt Israeli society. The affair has an afterlife.”

As for Malca Fein, she looks back with a touch of wonder, and quiet pride, at a fraught chapter of history that shaped the rest of her life. “Was I aware at the time that we were making history?” she asks. “There was no time to think about it. You did what you had to do. You did it and that’s all. If you were lucky, you got home. If you weren’t, you didn’t. It was as simple as that. We gave, we sacrificed, what we thought should be done, we did it.”

David Laskin’s recent book, “The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the Twentieth Century,” will be out in Penguin paperback in September.

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