It was one of the very worst moments in modern Jewish history.
On May 14, 1948, Israel was reborn. Five Arab nations immediately invaded the new state of Israel, which would have to fight for its life with a limited supply of guns and ammunition. To help remedy the situation, the Irgun, the underground Jewish fighting force led by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin, sent a ship, the Altalena, loaded with volunteers and ammunition, from Europe to Israel. Meanwhile, the Irgun reached an agreement with Israel’s newly established army, with plans for the army to absorb the Irgun and its fighters into its ranks.
Despite the agreement, the new Israeli government, led by David Ben Gurion, viewed the arrival of the Altalena as a threat to its power. The new army was empowered to use force if necessary to confiscate the ship and its cargo. Though Menachem Begin hoped to reach a peaceful agreement with the new government, events soon spun out of control. On June 20, as the ship sat off the coast of Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion ordered the shelling of the ship. One of the shells struck the Altalena, and the crew was afraid the resulting fire would spread to the holds which contained large amounts of ammunition and explosives. Hundreds of people jumped into the water, swimming to shore, where they were confronted by the army. Sixteen Irgun volunteers were killed.
Just as Israel was born, it was about to be torn in two; civil war seemed inevitable, even as the new country was fighting for its life on all fronts. Members of the Irgun, furious at the government for its unprovoked attack, were ready to declare war on their fellow Jews. But that night, when the Altalena was destroyed, Menachem Begin spoke over the radio about the ship and those who had died. He wept over the tragedy and gave honor to those who had needlessly died. And then he made the most fateful decision of his life: he ordered his men not to fight back. Instead, he called for them to assemble in Jerusalem and continue the battle for the Old City. “And so it came to pass that there was no fratricidal war in Israel to destroy the Jewish State before it was properly born. In spite of everything – there was no civil war!” (Menachem Begin, The Revolt).
It was, as Begin himself said, his greatest accomplishment. But it was not the first time in Israel’s history that a leader’s greatest accomplishment was defined by awesome self-restraint. For that, we must turn to Samson.
The entire people of Israel were terrified of their Philistine oppressors, with one exception: Samson. Samson fearlessly sabotaged Philistine warriors and destroyed their crops. In response, the Philistine army threatened to attack the men of Judah. Terrified, the men of Judah captured Samson and resolved to hand him over to the Philistines, in hopes of appeasing the Philistines and saving their own skins:
“Thereupon three thousand men of Judah… said to Samson, “You knew that the Philistines rule over us; why have you done this to us?” He replied, “As they did to me, so I did to them.” “We have come down,” they told him, “to take you prisoner and to hand you over to the Philistines.” “But swear to me,” said Samson to them, “that you yourselves will not attack me.” “We won’t,” they replied. “We will only take you prisoner and hand you over to them; we will not slay you.” So they bound him with two new ropes and brought him up from the rock” (Judges 15:11-13).
The people of Israel finally had a leader brave enough to fight the Philistines. But instead of embracing him, the terrified and defeatist people handed Samson over to the enemy!
Samson had every right to be furious. In Jewish tradition, handing over a fellow Jew to the enemy is a terrible sin, for it is a rejection of Jewish unity and the obligation that citizens of the nation owe to one another. But not only does Samson not lash out at his own people, he goes to great lengths to ensure that his battle with the Philistines will not involve his frightened countrymen. He allows the men of Judah to hand him over to the Philistines, proving their “loyalty” to the hated oppressors!
Though Samson is most famous for his incredible physical strength, which he used to kill thousands of Israel’s enemies, I believe that this was his greatest accomplishment. Like Menachem Begin, he refused to fight his fellow Jews, even when they showed no love or loyalty to him.
“Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1)