The Suicide of the Man Who Loved David Ben-Gurion

“My life’s work has been to serve you”: The tragic death of Nehemiah Argov, David Ben-Gurion’s trusted aide…

David Ben-Gurion and his military secretary, Nehemiah Argov. This image is part of Archive Network Israel and is made available through the collaboration of the Ben-Gurion Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“My very dear Ben-Gurion,

My life’s work has been to serve you.

I believe with complete faith that the Jewish people would not have achieved independence, nor would it have reached its position in the world without your amazing character.”

So ends our story.

And so began the farewell letter written by Nehemiah Argov, David Ben-Gurion’s military secretary, to the man he admired. The letter is dated November 2, 1957, but several days would go by before Ben-Gurion would read the letter addressed to him.

Let’s rewind a bit. Our story begins four days earlier, on October 29, 1957. On that day, Moshe Dweck, suffering from a mental illness, tossed a hand grenade from the stands into the plenum of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, which was then at Frumin House on King George Street in Jerusalem. Four ministers were injured in the incident, as well as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who was hit by shrapnel and rushed to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.


Headline in the newspaper Haboker, October 30, 1957:”Grenade Tossed in the Knesset – Ben-Gurion and 4 Ministers Injured”

Although Ben-Gurion was only slightly wounded, his loyal military secretary Nehemiah Argov was very worried by the “Old Man’s” condition, and for several days did not leave the Prime Minister’s bedside. And so he wrote in a letter to a friend:

“The ‘Old Man’ will remain in the hospital for a few more days, with injuries to his leg and hand. The shrapnel from his leg will only be removed tomorrow. He is in good condition, and there are no concerns. However, it is hard to see this lion lying in bed . . . this lion’s place is not in a hospital bed!”

Four days after the grenade attack on the Knesset, on Saturday, November 2, Argov was driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to visit the “Old Man,” when he was distracted for an instant, losing control of the wheel and hitting a cyclist named David Kadosh. He placed the injured man in his car and sped to the hospital. Doctors initially feared that Kadosh would not survive the accident.

Argov was broken by the event and felt that he could not live with his actions. Believing that it was his fault that a life had been taken, he chose to end his own with a gunshot to his temple. He left two letters behind. One letter to his friends and family, and one letter to David Ben-Gurion.


David Ben-Gurion and his military secretary Nehemiah Argov, Bitmuna. The Edgar Hirschbein Collection. Collection source: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the letter to his friends he wrote:

“Today, the car I was driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem hit the cyclist David Kadosh. I am afraid that he won’t make it. David Kadosh has a wife and four children. I cannot forgive myself for the injury I have caused to this family. Even if David Kadosh does survive, who knows if he will be able to continue to care for his sacred family?”

In the letter he asked to leave his money to the victim of the accident and at the end he wrote:

“I imagine I have some friends who will be sorry for what I am going to do. I beg them not to be angry with me for doing what I did. I am not worthy of being mourned.”


The item published in Haboker, November 4, 1957


In his farewell to Ben-Gurion, he wrote:

“I was happy during the ten years that I had the privilege of serving you. I don’t know by whose right I had the privilege to serve you.”

He signed the letter “Your loving admirer, Nehemiah.”

The conclusion of Nehemiah Argov’s letter to David Ben-Gurion, Israel State Archives

But Ben-Gurion did not read the letter on November 2. Nor the next day either.

The doctors at Hadassah feared that the news of Argov’s death would worsen Ben-Gurion’s condition, as the Prime Minister was still recovering from the events of the grenade incident.

In an unprecedented move, the daily Israeli newspapers did something that had never been done before: they printed several special issues of their respective papers without the report of Argov’s death. The censored copies were brought to Hadassah hospital, and David Ben-Gurion, who would read the newspapers every day, remained in the dark about the tragedy.

We tried our best to locate the special issues at the National Library of Israel and in the archives of the daily newspapers, but unfortunately no copies were preserved.


“Last night, everything was done to keep this news from the Prime Minister who is at hospital, recuperating from his injuries sustained when a grenade was thrown in the Knesset […] ‘Maariv’ will also print special editions, which will not include this article concerning the Argov affair. Mr. Ben-Gurion is receiving these amended editions today…” – Item published in Maariv, November 4, 1957

Ben-Gurion was given the difficult news the next day. As expected, he was shocked and heartbroken. Two weeks later, on the speaker’s podium in the Knesset, he said:

“The thing that set Nehemiah apart is that he had one exceptional quality, and that is devotion and loyalty. Nehemiah was a man of the highest dedication . . . Nehemiah was endowed with a precious and rare gift from God—the great gift of love. This was a flame that burned in Nehemiah continuously and by which he was consumed, with love and agony.

Please permit me to stand here alone, in silence, for a short moment in his memory.”

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion napping on the grass during a lunch break on a tour ahead of the Sinai Campaign (1956). Behind Ben-Gurion is his military secretary Col. Nehemiah Argov (reading a newspaper). This image is part of Archive Network Israel and is made available through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The cyclist David Kadosh, the victim of the accident, eventually made a complete recovery. With the weight of Argov’s suicide on his shoulders, he also sent a letter to David Ben-Gurion, written from his hospital bed:

“Forgive me and accept my condolences for the great tragedy that has taken your great aide from you, the noble, honest and gentle soul, the late Nehemiah Argov.”


The letter sent by David Kadosh to David Ben-Gurion, the Ben-Gurion Archive

Further Reading

David Ben-Gurion: A Biography – by Michael Bar-Zohar

Nehemiah Argov (Hebrew)


The Chaotic Origins of Israel’s International Airport

Confusion and combat preceded the grand opening of Israel's main airport, some six months after the young state's founding

New immigrants arriving in Israel the day Lod Airport reopened, November 24, 1948 (Photo: Benno Rothenberg / Colorization: MyHeritage). Israel State Archives, Meitar Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“Disorder, noise and incompetence” were used to describe the Port of Haifa in 1947, “modern – though already inadequate,” one of multiple “gateways of the Mediterranean [that] exploit rather than serve the traffic on which they thrive.”

The roughly decade-old Lydda Airport (today’s Ben Gurion Airport), on the other hand, was then a place of “order, civility, and efficiency.”

That would change dramatically just over a year later, as the British Mandate drew to a close, virtually all British officials left Mandatory Palestine in the months leading up to May 15, 1948, as war and chaos reigned.

Lt. Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham, the last British High Commissioner of Palestine, at Lydda Airport (Public domain)

The morning after the passage of the UN Partition Plan in November 1947, five passengers on an Egged bus were killed after it was attacked adjacent to the airport. They were apparently the conflict’s first casualties.

Nonetheless, the airport, staffed by Jewish, Arab and British employees, continued operating. As the Mandate’s end approached, it’s exact fate remained undetermined – a recipe for confusion.

How or when exactly that airport chaos and confusion started was quite unclear at the time, with varying and even contradictory reports coming out.

On April 21, the head of customs at the airport on behalf of the British authorities issued a rather unexpected statement “suddenly and without any prior warning,” that effective immediately he would no longer be responsible for any of the goods stored in his office. He essentially and practically abandoned the property under his care, including those items not destined for Mandatory Palestine at all, but simply in transit on their way to other destinations, including the Far East.

The confusion continued the following week, as the airport ceased operations.

Perplexingly, more than one “last” flight out of Lydda was reported during those turbulent days.

An Associated Press report cited on April 26, indicated that the last flight, belonging to Air France, had taken off the previous morning, yet on April 28, the following was published:

“The evacuation of British civilians from Palestine will be virtually completed today, when all Britons except 20 high Government officials will fly to the U.K. Their flight from Lydda will be last from that Airport under British administration.”

The chaos of confusion and war (not to mention the limitations of communications technology at the time) left many things hazy.

Rumors circulated that the British had handed the airport over to Arab Legion forces, though it soon became clear that the British themselves hung onto it (at least a bit longer), even reportedly killing a number of Arabs who had tried to loot the premises.

Right to left: Gen. John Bagot Glubb, commander of the Arab Legion; King Abdullah I of Jordan; General Sir Evelyn Barker, commander of the British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan, 1947. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The exact circumstances surrounding the cessation of proper operations was also anything but clear. Zionist outlets reported that the Jewish airport employees had abandoned their posts after the British had refused to protect them. A similar account appears in At the Gates of the State, an official history of the airport, which also adds that despite three Jewish employees refusing to evacuate, all of the others left by April 23, “after collecting a lot of equipment”.

The evacuees included members of the Haganah’s secret Tsipora Unit, which had been organized shortly after the war began in order to protect Jews in and around the airport.

According to the official British account of that day’s events, it had “ceased to function normally, because members of the Jewish staff had sabotaged operations by making off with 18 transmitters.”

The general chaos and confusion of the time had many ramifications, including the end of airmail services – then a critical means of communication with the outside world. In mid-April, it had apparently been announced that airmail service would cease on May 10, just a few days before the official end of the British Mandate. Yet with the airport no longer functioning as of that last week of April, airmail service abruptly stopped. Letters piled up, many of them likely never reaching their destinations.

Regardless of the order of the events, Lydda Airport was, in fact, ultimately taken over by Arab forces, who controlled it for a couple of months until it was captured by the IDF in July 1948, part of the massive and critical Yigal Alon-commanded “Operation Danny”.

Lydda Airport after it was captured by the IDF, July 1948. From the Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
Tanks and soldiers at Lydda Airport during Operation Danny, July 1948 (Nadav Mann / BITMUNA). From the collection of the 8th Brigade during the War of Independence. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The following first-hand account of the battle appears in At the Gates of the State:

“… through orchards, fences, canals, the airport structures get closer. Artillery and machine gun fire opened on us abruptly. We approached, slowly, slowly. Suddenly the enemy’s resistance stops. We are already on the landing strips. From afar, we see the [Arab] Legion vehicles fleeing towards the city of Lod… The radio technician announces: …the airport is in our hands! The airport is in our hands!”

Just a few months later, on Wednesday, November 24, 1948, the airport was once again operational as:

“Letter number one in Israel’s newly-inaugurated air mail service was delivered to the Minister of Communications, Mr. David Remez… when the airport was opened to civilian traffic under Israel [sic] management.”

There was no British presence in sight, though Air France, Czech Airlines, and T.W.A. ticket counters, among others, could be found in the new airport, which also boasted restored radio and telecommunications equipment.

In addition to foreign companies, not one, but two Israeli airlines had also already contracted to use the facility: El Al and the now-defunct Aviron.

Aviron airplane, ca. 1940s (Photo: Boris Karmi). The Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
Right to left: Emmanuel Zur, Aviron’s head pilot; an unnamed pilot; Uri Michaely, Aviron’s director, 1946. Zur would become Lod Airport’s first Israeli manager and Michaely later directed Israel’s Department of Civil Aviation (Photo: Paul Goldman). Part of the Israel Archive Network, made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

In the coming months and years, Lydda Airport would welcome thousands of Holocaust survivors, other immigrants and tourists. Its name would be soon be changed to “Lod Airport” – using the biblical Hebrew form of the nearby town’s name – before ultimately being renamed “Ben Gurion Airport,” following the death of Israel’s first prime minister.

A few months after the grand reopening in late 1948, Uri Michaely, acting director of Israel’s Department of Civil Aviation, declared:

“We hope that the time will soon come when, with the restoration of peace, air communications between Israel and the Arab countries can be resumed… We are looking forward to the time, no longer distant, we hope, when planes with the emblem of Israel on their wings will take to the air for all parts of the world, carrying the message of Israel reborn to the Jewish people wherever they are.”


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

“Jews Shooting Jews”: A Look Back at the Days of the Altalena Affair

The Altalena affair remains one of the most controversial episodes in the history of the State of Israel | The Altalena's sinking was the climax of a dramatic internal crisis that lasted for three tense days | An in-depth examination of the sequence of events offers a more complex picture | Featuring new photos of the curfew enforced in Tel Aviv

Soldiers and civilians looking on as the Altalena burns off the coast of Tel Aviv. Photo: GPO

“An arms ship that has arrived at the country’s shores has been seized by Irgun forces. The government of the State of Israel has come to a unanimous decision and ordered the Israel Defense Forces to use all measures to transfer the weapons to government custody.”

In June 1948, mere weeks after the State of Israel declared its independence, the above message was printed in Hebrew on flyers handed out across Tel Aviv. The Altalena, a ship carrying new immigrants, Irgun fighters, and a huge cache of weapons was docked off the coast of Tel Aviv. The Israeli government perceived its arrival as a threat to its own authority. The bitter finale of this episode is well known: After the parties failed to reach an agreement, the Altalena was sunk, and some would say the affair remains an open wound to this day. Yet the events that unfolded in the dramatic days between the Altalena’s arrival and its sinking are less familiar to the public, and they reveal quite a bit about the state of affairs in the young nation.

האלטלנה בוערת. אחד הפגזים שנורו מהחוף פגע במחסן שעל הספינה, והביא להתלקחותו בתוך שניות. דרך נדב מן, ביתמונה. מאוסף יצחק שדה. מקור האוסף: יורם שדה. האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
The Altalena on fire. One of the shells fired from shore hit the ship’s storeroom setting it ablaze. The fire spread quickly and the passengers were forced to abandon ship.

First Destination Tel Aviv?

The Altalena set sail for Israel following a long delay and without informing Menachem Begin, the commander of the Irgun in Israel. “The Irgun” was the common term used in English to refer to the group known in Hebrew as HaIrgun HaZvai HaLeumi Be’Eretz Yisrael (“The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel”), or in short, Ha’Etzel. The Irgun had fought against both the British and the Arabs as a radical right-wing underground group in the pre-state period. In June 1948 it was no longer underground, but had yet to fully merge with the IDF.

The ship was supposed to have left in May, before the Irgun signed an agreement to disarm and prior to the UN-led ceasefire and international arms embargo coming into effect. Unable to stop the ship from setting sail, Begin took it upon himself to mediate the situation, but he did not have much success. Ben-Gurion and the Israeli government commanded the Altalena to anchor off the deserted coast of Kfar Vitkin, north of Tel Aviv, where it was to evacuate its passengers and hand over its weapons. This was where the first confrontation took place. The ship’s crew began unloading the supplies, passengers and fighters, while the IDF encircled the beach. Shortly after, Irgun forces attempted to break through the barricades, leading to an exchange of fire that left four Irgun members and two IDF soldiers dead.

אוניית ה"אלטלנה" בדרכה לישראל, עמוסה בלוחמים, עולים לארץ וניצולי שואה, תחמושת וציוד. רוב העולים ירדו בכפר ויתקין, ויחד איתם נפרק חלק מהציוד. צילום: ארכיון המדינה
The Altalena on its way to Israel. The ship was loaded with fighters, new immigrants and Holocaust survivors, as well as weapons and supplies. Most of the immigrants disembarked at Kfar Vitkin, and some of the supplies were unloaded as well. Photo: Israel State Archives

After the battle, many Irgun members (including Begin) returned to the Altalena, which then retreated out to sea. At the same time, another battle took place at Beit Dagan between the IDF and members of the Irgun. In this case, there were even some former Irgun members, already serving in the IDF, who defected from the army to come to the aid of their comrades after hearing rumors of the events involving the ship and the ensuing battle.

After fleeing out to sea, those aboard the Altalena decided to head toward Tel Aviv, the ship’s original destination. The choice was no accident: the young city was considered a sympathetic stronghold of the Irgun (contrary to its current image), and the landing of a Hebrew arms ship at Israel’s largest and central city would have gained the Irgun fame and public support in the event of another confrontation. The Irgun also planned to send some of the weapons to its fighters battling for the liberation of Jerusalem, in the hope of securing the Holy City and the Temple Mount.

לוחמי אצ"ל, יושבים על משוריין של הארגון הצבאי הלאומי וצופים במצור על תל-אביב. ניתן לראות את הסימון "רק כך" לצד ציור של רובה ומפת ארץ ישראל השלמה-מקראית, סמלו של האצ"ל. צילום: בוריס כרמי, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
Irgun fighters sitting on an armored vehicle during the curfew in Tel Aviv. Visible on the vehicle is the Irgun’s insignia with the Hebrew words rak kakh (“only thus”) alongside a picture of a gun and an outline of the biblical borders of Greater Israel. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Israeli Navy sent two frigates to stop the Altalena from reaching the shores of Tel Aviv, but Captain Monroe (Emanuel) Fein, an experienced former commander of a US naval ship, managed to evade them. The exchange of fire that followed didn’t do much damage either. Later, it was decided to run the Altalena aground, about 100 meters from shore in order to convey a clear message: a ship that has run aground does not engage in rebellion. However, those on the opposite side saw things differently. The Palmach headquarters was located in the beachfront Ritz Hotel and the Altalena was anchored directly across from it. The army commanders feared that Irgun supporters would again rush to support those stranded on the ship, as had happened at Kfar Vitkin and Beit Dagan. Given the lack of communication and understanding between the IDF and the Irgun, Ben-Gurion believed that a real coup attempt was underway which could undermine the state’s authority and establish a competing military force.

אברהם סטבסקי (בחולצה הלבנה) עומד על סיפון האלטלנה. סטבסקי היה אחד מהשניים שהואשמו ברצח ארלוזרוב, והוא זוכה במשפט שנערך לאחר מכן. סטבסקי נהרג על סיפון האלטלנה מפגיעת אש שנורתה מהחוף. לצדו של סטבסקי עומד אליהו לנקין (מרכיב משקפיים), מפקד הספינה. צילום: ארכיון המדינה
Abraham Stavsky (in a white shirt) aboard the Altalena. Stavsky was one of the two accused of the murder of Haim Arlosoroff, and was acquitted at trial. Stavsky was killed aboard the Altalena from a shot fired from shore. Next to Stavsky is Eliyahu Lankin (wearing glasses), the ship’s commander. Photo: Israel State Archives


האלטלנה עלתה על שרטון מול חופי תל אביב בכוונת תחילה, כדי להעביר מסר שאינה מתכננת להגיע לחוף בכל מחיר. על אותו שרטון עלו בעבר שתי אוניות מעפילים אחרות, שתיהן בשנת 1939. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, ארכיון המדינה, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
The Altalena purposely ran aground opposite the Tel Aviv shore to send a clear message that it was not intent on reaching the shore at all costs. Two other refugee ships had run aground at the same location, in 1939. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Curfew: The Kiryati Brigade Closes Off the First Hebrew City

With the Altalena anchored in Tel Aviv, the government held an urgent meeting and imposed a curfew on the city. Forces from the Kiryati Brigade put up roadblocks and evacuated civilians from all areas near the coastline. Cafés were closed by military order. Fearing that civilian government institutions and military headquarters in Tel Aviv would become targets, the Kiryati Brigade commander Michael Ben-Gal (Rabinovitch) issued a general order for the immediate recruitment of “all forces in the defense zone of Tel Aviv … in order to block all traffic along known routes, with the exception of persons carrying security ID, supply vehicles and our army units.” Yitzhak Rabin, arriving at the scene by chance, took command. The Altalena sent a small boat ashore in another attempt at negotiation, but this too was unsuccessful.

חיילים חמושים אוכפים את העוצר ברחובות תל אביב בסמוך לחוף בו נמצאה האלטלנה. העיר הצעירה נחשבה אוהדת ותומכת בארגון, שרצה מראש להביא את האלטלנה לחופי תל אביב מסיבה זו. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, ארכיון המדינה, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
Armed soldiers enforce the curfew on Tel Aviv’s streets next to the shore where the Altalena was anchored. The young city was considered to be supportive of the Irgun, which had originally wanted to dock the ship in Tel Aviv, for this reason. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Still clinging to the hope of unloading the weapons on the shores of Tel Aviv, the Altalena decided to send yet another boat, this time with fighters and weapons, to put pressure on Israel’s leadership. Meanwhile, many Irgun members reached the shores of Tel Aviv and managed to capture part of the nearby beach strip, even taking control of Navy headquarters at the San Remo Hotel. Ben-Gurion authorized his commanders to use harsh measures, and to open fire if necessary. The Irgun’s arms boat, loaded with light weapons, machine guns and PIAT anti-tank launchers managed to reach shore. It then set out for another round, returning with more forces, and unloaded them about 300 meters north of the ship while coming under fire. Some of the newly arrived Irgun fighters stationed themselves at the Panorama Café on HaYarkon Street and laid siege to the Palmach headquarters.

עמדת מקלעים של צה"ל שהוקמה בקפה "פנורמה" בחוף הים, מכוונת לעבר האלטלנה וכל מי שינסה לרדת ממנה. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
An IDF machine gun post at Panorama Café along the beach, positioning against the Altalena and anyone trying to disembark. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Jews Shooting Jews

In his memoirs, Rabin described the next hours with an expression that became synonymous with the whole affair: “Jews shooting Jews.” Heavy gunfire was exchanged between the respective forces on shore, while the Altalena also opened fire and was targeted in turn, suffering casualties. After the Irgun forces fired a PIAT shell at Palmach headquarters, the commanders – led by Rabin – decided to act before the building was breached, throwing grenades from the roof at the Irgun forces and badly injuring many. A lull in the fighting enabled them to remove the injured and regroup. Residents of Tel Aviv took to the streets in the hope that the fighting had ended; however, this was not the case. The Palmach commander, Yigal Alon, arrived at the scene and established a command post at Camp Yona (today the Hilton Hotel gardens). After many soldiers refused to cooperate with Alon’s operation, codenamed “Purge,” the Carmeli, Negev and Yiftach Brigades were called in for backup and to enforce the curfew. All the while, along the beach there was an exchange of fire with Irgun members who came to support their comrades from the Altalena.

חיילי פלמ"ח שהשתלבו בצה"ל אוכפים את העוצר ברחובות תל-אביב. ניתן להבחין כי המשוריין שלהם היה בעבר שייך לפלמ"ח. צילום: בוריס כרמי, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
Palmach soldiers who joined the IDF in enforcing the curfew on the streets of Tel Aviv. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Alon issued an ultimatum demanding (again) the Altalena’s unconditional surrender. After the ultimatum expired, Ben-Gurion ordered Alon to begin firing mortars. The second shell hit a ship storeroom that immediately ignited, and the Altalena began to burn. Years of tension and anger had built-up over the years between the Irgun and its rivals in the Haganah and the Palmach – now they were exchanging live fire. Rabin and other commanders testified that they tried to prevent the shooting, but were unsuccessful. Many Irgun members jumped from the burning ship. Palmach and IDF forces were only able to retake control of the shore toward evening. About 19 people in all were killed and many were injured. The incident was a scarring experience for the young State of Israel.

האלטלנה בוערת לנגד עיניהם של מפקדי צה"ל והממשלה בחוף תל אביב. יגאל אלון העיד כי ביקש את הפקודה לירות פגזים בכתב, ורק לאחר שקיבל זאת הורה על פתיחה באש. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, ארכיון המדינה
IDF commanders and government officials watch the Altalena burn from the Tel Aviv beach. Yigal Alon testified that he asked to receive the order to open mortar fire on the Altalena in writing, and only after receiving written authorization did he order the forces to fire. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Israel State Archives


A closer look at the events of the Altalena affair in Tel Aviv and the battles in Kfar Vitkin and Beit Dagan offer a more complex perspective on this historical episode. The ambivalence and lack of communication among the forces, the panic in Tel Aviv and the curfew enforced on the city tell the story of a young country facing a predicament that hit upon all of its exposed nerves, at a time when it was still engaged in an even greater war. The Altalena’s conduct while anchored on Israel’s shores presents the Irgun as an organization attempting, unsuccessfully, to maintain its power in a changing reality, in which it suddenly had become a foreign force within a newly-established state. While the Haganah and Palmach managed to retain their weapons even after signing agreements with the government, the delay in the Altalena‘s departure prevented the Irgun from doing the same.

הבאת האלטלנה לחופי תל אביב, לאחר שהצליחה להתחמק ממשחתות חיל הים שניסו לעצור אותה, אפשרה לאנשי האצ"ל לקבל את האפקט הפומבי שרצו, שבא לבסוף לידי ביטוי בכך שהמונים ראו את הספינה עולה באש. גם נוכח העוצר, העשן היתמר למרחקים. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, ארכיון המדינה, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
The Altalena’s arrival on the shore of Tel Aviv, after managing to evade the naval destroyers sent to stop it, gave the Irgun the public effect it had desired, eventually resulting in crowds of thousands who watched the ship burn. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In retrospect, one can assume that the Irgun was motivated by a desire to hold on to its prestige and power within the process of integration into the IDF. The entire chain of events, from the ship’s late departure to the lack of coordination between Begin and his men aboard ship, led the Israeli government to fear a rebellion. The government and Ben-Gurion refused to compromise on what they perceived as an undermining of the authority of the state and this fear led them to act harshly. It is impossible to know what would have happened if the Irgun members had chosen to accept the government’s demands and disarm, just as it is impossible to assess what would have happened if the state had authorized the Irgun to unload its weapons and equip its people already serving in the IDF and in Jerusalem.

האלטלנה השרופה עמדה מול חופי תל אביב למשך שנה, מפוחמת ומעלה חלודה, כאנדרטה שותקת. לבסוף הטיל בן גוריון על חיל-הים לפנות אותה. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, ארכיון המדינה, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
The hulk of the Altalena remained as a silent witness, anchored opposite the Tel Aviv shore for a year. Ben-Gurion eventually authorized the Navy to dispose of it. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Donating Pocket Money for Jewish Refugees in Cyprus

In 1947, Britain was still holding tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants in camps in Cyprus, many of them Holocaust survivors. The children of the Yishuv joined in the aid effort, donating their pocket money and clothing so that the displaced children could stay warm in the cold winter months.


Children donate clothing for Jewish refugees in Cyprus, 1948. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Ships packed with refugees make their way to the shores. The authorities do their best to locate and capture the boats before they anchor. The intelligence services collect information about the movement of the illegal immigrants. Coast Guard destroyers try to block the rickety and overloaded vessels. When a boat is captured, the passengers on board are sent to detention camps…

Though the above could easily be a description of recent migrant crises in the Mediterranean, it actually refers to the period of Jewish immigration to the Land Israel after the conclusion of World War II and the Holocaust. The British directed considerable resources to counter unauthorized, illegal immigration during this period, an enterprise that the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine worked hard to renew after World War II. The goal was to bring as many Jewish survivors as possible to the Land of Israel.

Once a ship had been captured, the passengers on board were sent to detention camps in Cyprus set up by the British. These camps operated from 1946 to the beginning of 1949—that is, they continued to operate even after the establishment of the State of Israel.

Many Holocaust survivors—men, women and children—found themselves among the detainees in Cyprus. Some had already survived the concentration camps and then lived in DP camps in Europe. These homeless refugees took incredible risks to reach the place that promised to be their homeland, and instead of a refuge, they found themselves once more surrounded by barbed wire fences. The conditions in the camps in Cyprus were not easy and while the British took care to provide basic food and services, both were insufficient.

Detention camp residents in Cyprus being freed from the camps, photo by Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Jews already in the Land of Israel did not forget their fellow Jews in the detention camps.  After the establishment of the state, the struggle for the release of the detainees intensified, but even before, the Jewish Agency and other pre-state institutions had been working busily on their behalf. Hebrew language instruction was provided, all the underground movements sent representatives to recruit and train the camps’ residents, and in April 1948, an illustrious cultural delegation including poet Nathan Alterman and singer Shoshana Damari visited the camps.

The “Committee for the Cyprus Exiles” was the chief body set up by the Jewish Agency, the National Committee, and the JDC, to assist the detainees. The committee mainly collected donations—money, food packages and other items. Packages with the various items were sent regularly through the committee, which also organized deliveries of toys, books, newspapers, and tools. Before the holidays, they would send special foods and other necessities required for the holiday’s observance. The committee organized regular cultural activities in the camps and provided employment for the occupants, as well as many other activities designed to ease the lives of the refugees.

A harsh winter threatens our brethren in the camps – Bring forth clothing and shoes!” reads this Hebrew Poster published by the Committee for the Exiles of Cyprus for a “Winter Clothing” drive in 1947, the Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel

The committee also organized special fundraising campaigns. One of the largest was Operation “Winter Clothing”, which began in the fall of 1947, immediately after the committee had completed its work for the Jewish High Holy Days. This latest campaign was the third winter fundraising drive the committee had conducted. All the newspapers carried stories on the operation, whose goal was to provide blankets and clothing for about 50,000 refugees in detention camps in Cyprus, the DP camps in Europe, and also for refugees from the Aden riots in Yemen. Women’s organizations and youth movements mobilized for the two-week-long effort.

Hundreds of collection depots were set up in the larger cities for citizens to deposit clothes, blankets, food or other items. The announcements in the newspapers called on residents not to wait until the collectors came to their homes but instead to go the collection points with their donations. The Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, whose own resources were quite limited, rallied to help its fellow Jews imprisoned abroad.

The processing center for donations during Operation “Winter Clothing”, 1947. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

When the operation was over, the committee did not rest on its laurels, and immediately began a campaign to supply holiday necessities and matzah for Purim and Pesach.

Operation Winter Clothing was one of the largest and most successful of its kind at the time. And not only adults lent a hand, but so did the country’s children. In the photos accompanying this article you can see children bringing clothes to collection points. The local children’s newspapers also addressed the issue. An editorial in one of these newspapers called on its young readers to ponder the question: “As we prepare our own winter clothes here in Eretz Yisrael, we should ask ourselves: Do our brothers and sisters in Cyprus have what to wear?” The same children’s newspapers also regularly reported on children who chose to donate their birthday money to the children of Cyprus: one child donated one Palestine pound or lira, another gave three, and another donated 300 mil (1 Palestine pound = 1000 mil). In one case, an entire class collected money for the benefit of the displaced children.

Children donating clothing during Operation “Winter Clothing”, 1947. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel


For the Chidren of Cyprus – Aza Tel-Tsur (of Afikim) donated 300 mil of her pocket money on the occasion of her 9th birthday”  – Children’s newspapers were filled with announcements about children’s donations for the benefit of the refugees in Cyprus. Davar LeYeladim, October 9, 1947


For the Children of Cyprus – David Tirza (of Motza Elit, on his 11th birthday – 1 Palestine pound“, Davar LeYeladim, November 13, 1947, from the very days of the clothing drive

The donations continued throughout 1948. The last of the detainees were finally released in the first months of 1949, a full nine months after the establishment of the State of Israel. Their release was only obtained after considerable Israeli efforts – the British had curiously insisted on holding onto the detainees, almost 4 years after the end of World War II. At last, the story of illegal Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel had come to an end

All the photographs in this article, and many more documenting Operation Winter Clothing in 1947 were taken by the photojournalist Benno Rothenberg and are now part of the Meitar Collection at the National Library of Israel.  Click on the link here to view them all.