An Eternal Love Song: 10 Classic Israeli Hits Inspired by the “Song of Songs”

A tour through the Bella and Harry Wexner Libraries of Sound and Song - Legacy Heritage Foundation at the National Library of Israel reveals the biblical Song of Songs is ever-present in contemporary Israeli music

Shoshana Damari and Yehoram Gaon (the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection) and a Tu B’Av celebration in Hadera, early 20th century (Sonia Kolodany, the Khan Hadera Archive and Museum, colorization by MyHeritage)

Love is in the air, the hot, muggy air. This year, the August heat, the full moon, and the Perseids meteor shower will coincide to create love – or something close to it – on Tu B’Av eve.

Tu B’Av – for those unfamiliar with this minor Jewish holiday with clearly pagan roots – falls on the eve of the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, when the moon is full. During the Second Temple period, the date marked the beginning of the grape harvest. According to tradition, on that date, unmarried young women would go dance in the vineyards, dressed in white, to eventually be joined by the young men – hopefully in the bonds of matrimony.

The early kibbutz movement revived Tu B’Av as a day for celebrating the grape harvest, and a day for weddings. The modern State of Israel brought Tu B’Av back to what it probably always was – a good excuse to party all midsummer night long. However, given its history, Tu B’Av deserves a proper romantic playlist featuring 10 favorites. And where better to start if not with the Songs of Songs?


Search the National Library of Israel’s music collection using the category “love songs” and you’ll get a long and detailed list of sub-categories, like “suffering” and “unrequited” (the most common of this genre in any language, place, or time), but there are also “courtship”, “dreams”, “hope” – and the “fifteenth of Av”.

Most prominent under the sub-category “fifteenth of Av” is a recording of Kol Dodi (“The voice of my beloved”), as performed by its composer, Israel Prize laureate Sara Levi-Tanai, choreographer and founder of the Inbal Dance Theater. The Library’s recording is from the 1950s but the most famous version by far of this love song, which takes its lyrics from the Song of Songs, was performed by Shoshana Damari, whose archive is housed at the National Library of Israel.

Shoshana Damari sings Kol Dodi 


Another melody penned by Levi-Tanai with lyrics from the Song of Songs was El Ginat Egoz, (“To the Walnut Garden”). The NLI music archive notes, “Written and choreographed straightaway as a folk dance in 1947, the song’s success gave birth to an entire genre of slow-tempo Yemenite-inspired dance-songs with the same hallmarks: lyrics taken from or in the spirit of the Song of Songs, structured in two short parts of two or four bars each, a melody based on a single motif with Eastern musical elements, and a 2/4 or 4/4 beat time signature, based on the Yemenite dance step.”


The Song of Songs also figures in the song Yesh Li Gan (“I Have a Garden”). First penned by Hayim Nahman Bialik in 1908 as poem of longing as spoken by an unnamed woman for her beloved David, who may or may not return to her garden, the text is similar in style to the biblical text. The melody from the 1930s, (mistakenly attributed as a Syrian folk song, but later rightly credited to the famous Egyptian singer-composer Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Maslub), was adapted by singer, songwriter, musicologist, and actor Bracha Tzfira. The Library’s collection also includes a performance by singer Nechama Hendel, recorded at the Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel) public radio studios in 1961.


Another recording from 1961: Keshoshana ben HaHohim (“Like a Rose Among Thorns”). Composed by Yosef Hadar – one of the most important Israeli composers of the 1950s and early 1960s – the song was complemented by choreography by Yankele Levy, one of Israeli folk dance’s founding fathers. With romantic verses from the Song of Songs (Like a rose among thorns / So is my beloved among the young women / Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest / So is my beloved among the young men), Keshoshana ben HaHohim has become a couples folk dance standard.

Dance demonstration of Keshoshana ben HaHohim


The song Dodi Li, whose lyric also comes verbatim from the Song of Songs, (I am my beloved’s / and my beloved is mine), was originally set to music in 1948 by musician-composer Nira Chen. It became a popular folk dance in the 1950s, with the song performed by singers like Naomi Tzuri and groups like Lahakat HaUzim (also known as Lahakat HaHalutzim). Sometime in the late 1960s, however, the new generation of Israeli artists apparently felt the need to bring sexy back and allow the Song of Songs’ simmering passion to rise. Check out this hip version by jazz vocalist Rimona Francis.


No list of Israeli love songs would be complete without Erev shel Shoshanim (“Evening of Roses”). Composed by the aforementioned Yosef Hadar with lyrics by the poet Moshe Dor, which again borrowed imagery from the Song of Songs, it was first recorded in 1955 by singer Miriam Avigal and then in 1957 by Yaffa Yarkoni. But the song gained international fame with a version by singing duo HaDudaim. Following the Six-Day War, Erev shel Shoshanim became a hit throughout Europe, recorded in countless versions till today.

Yaffa Yarkoni sings Erev shel Shoshanim


The dark-skinned female in the Judeo-Spanish song Morena, Morenica, a traditional Ladino cancionero with roots in old Spanish poetry, was perhaps inspired by the Song of Songs verse, “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem”. For centuries, this verse had been set to music; in modern Israel it was adopted by composers like Daniela Dor (pseudonym of Hungarian-born Barbara Kaufman), who wrote the song Schora Ani u Na’ava for the unusual four-octave vocal range belonging to Eritrean-born Yemenite-Israeli singer Hanna Ahroni.

Hanna Ahroni sings Schora Ani u Na’ava


Another song in Ladino, Avre Tu Puerta Cerrada (“Open Your Closed Door”), is among the most-loved and much-performed of the romancas – the Judeo-Spanish variation of traditional Spanish ballads of the Middle Ages. Doors, windows, and garden gates, whether open or closed, were frequent symbols in medieval Iberian poetry and song, and the lyric, from the would-be lover’s point of view, is an expression of deep desire.

The Library catalogue lists at least 40 other recordings, including those from a series of radio broadcasts in Ladino launched in 1954 by musicologist Yitzhak Isaac Levy, head of the Kol Yisrael ethnographic department. While these recorded performances – like this one from 1958 – represent an important resource for researchers, they are also hugely enjoyable, such as this swinging version by pop star – and Israel’s first Eurovision entrant (in 1973) – Ilanit.

However, perhaps the best-known version was recorded by Yehoram Gaon, in a 1969 album that broke Ladino music through to mainstream Israeli popular culture.

Yehoram Gaon sings Avre Tu Puerta Cerrada

9 and 10

As the Mizrahi music genre began slowly gaining legitimacy within the Israeli music establishment, the “I am black and beautiful” verse – but with a far different melody – won first place in the 1977 Israel Oriental Song Festival. Sung by Shimi Tavori, the song Schora Ani u Na’ava started a winning streak that ended only in 1982 when Tavori opted out of the contest. This allowed the now-legendary Zohar Argov to step in, and win with the now-iconic – and Song of Songs-adjacent – HaPerach beGani (“The Flower in My Garden”).

Zohar Argov sings HaPerach beGani   

There are hundreds more songs of romance, passion and longing to be found in the Bella and Harry Wexner Libraries of Sound and Song – Legacy Heritage Foundation at the National Library of Israel. These recordings span decades, and a multiplicity of languages – Arabic, English, French, Greek, Russian, Yiddish, and more – plus the universal language of love (or something close to it).


Mapping 50 Years of Zionist Pioneering

The desert was pushed back, the swamps were dried up and water reached every corner of the land - this historic map celebrated 50 years of the Zionist enterprise…

To mark the jubilee of the Zionist Organization, a pictorial map was published by the Jewish National Fund in 1947. It surveyed 50 years of Zionist settlement and development of the Land of Israel. Edited by Ernst Mechner, and designed by S.F. Loeb, the map was issued in three editions: Hebrew, English and Yiddish.

The Rutenberg Power Station and adjacent settlement of Tel Or, south of the Sea of Galilee, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection
The complete map presents the development of Jewish settlement over three periods, and the green shading indicates the expansion of Jewish owned land

The Zionist Organization, established at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, the Palestine Office and its successor the Jewish Agency, Keren Hayesod, which coordinated the collection of donations for the development of the country, and the Jewish National Fund, all assisted over the years in purchasing land and establishing Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel. In this map, summarizing the work of these bodies between 1897 and 1947, the editor chose to highlight the sites that in his view constituted milestones in the timeline of settlement of the Land of Israel.

For example, “Degania 1909 ‘The Mother of Kvuzot’” – Degania was the first Jewish communal settlement to be established in the Land of Israel.

Degania, “The Mother of  Kvuzot”, was established at the initiative of the Palestine Office, which  invited a group of pioneers there in 1909 to work the settlement for wages. This is the reason for the date that appears on the map, and not 1910, which is considered the official date of the founding of the Degania communal settlement.
The commune’s pioneers at Umm Juni (Degania), 1912. Photo: Leo Kahan. This image is part of Archive Network Israel, made available through the cooperation of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel
Degania’s buildings in a German aerial photograph from 1918, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The swampy marshlands of the Jezreel Valley which appear in the illustration above should be taken with a grain of salt. We know that swamps characterized some settlement regions, such as the area south of Zichron Yaacov (the Kabara swamps), or the area around Hadera, but in the Jezreel Valley swamplands represented only a minimal percentage of the area, as can be seen for example in the article, The Swamps of Emek Yizre’el (Jezreel Valley) – Myth and Reality, by Yoram Bar-Gal and Shmuel Shamai. The association of swampland with the Jezreel Valley reinforced the idea of the redemption of desolate land and its transformation into flourishing settlements, and it seems that in this map that message took precedence over geographical-historical accuracy.

Water sources were a necessity for settlement: special effort was invested in a water carrier system to provide water for both drinking and agriculture purposes to the Negev; to illustrate the immensity of this Zionist project, the pioneer on the map is depicted as a giant.

Laying the first water pipes to the Negev, 1946–1947
Excavations in preparation for laying the water pipes to the Negev. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna, the Hanan Bahir Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
Laying the water pipes to the Negev. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna, the Edgar Hirschbein Collection. Collection source: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The map includes eighteen figures of pioneers, three of them women.

A female pioneer picking oranges

Pioneers working with a pickaxe, fishing in the Sea of Galilee, plowing a field with a tractor and guarding on horseback.


The Rutenberg Power Station in Naharayim and the adjacent settlement Tel Or where the workers and their families lived. The power station supplied electricity to the settlements in the Land of Israel from 1928 to 1948, when the station ceased operations and the settlement was abandoned.


Construction of the power station at Naharayim, ca. 1927. The image is part of Archive Network Israel, made available through the cooperation of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel


Construction of the power station at Naharayim, ca. 1927. The image is part of Archive Network Israel, made available through the cooperation of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel


In the most recent section of the map, the caption refers to the Jewish Agency’s efforts to establish settlement positions in the northern Negev in 1946.


The map shows the year of the establishment of the Tel Aviv port, the number of Jewish residents in the city, the establishment of the new workers’ settlements and more.


The bay of Haifa, with the industrial center and the petrochemical refinery cooling towers. To the north is the tower and stockade settlement of Kibbutz Hanita


Metzudoth Ussishkin (Ussishkin Strongholds), a group of settlements that Menachem Ussishkin (a Zionist leader and president of the JNF) requested be named for him, including tower and stockade settlements, such as the Kibbutzim Dafna and Dan


An epigram by Herzl is printed on the back of the map:


Besides serving as a summary and documentation of the past, the colorful, trilingual editions of this map served the Jewish National Fund as a means of fundraising for the Zionist institutions, as they continued their efforts to purchase land and develop the country.

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