Yigal Allon, Native Son

Yigal Allon, Native Son: A Biography Anita Shapira. Translated by Evelyn Abel University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, Pp.385, £32.50, ISBN 978-08122-4028-3

Following the sudden demise of Yigal Allon in February 1980, a draft outline for the beginning of an autobiography was discovered in his papers. In the intervening period, Allon’s image has become more complex, stretching from that of a courageous, if emotionless, Palmah commander to a prime expeller of Palestinian Arabs in 1948, from a hawk who embraced the first settlements on the West Bank yet who later was regarded by Moshe Dayan as a dangerous dove. In this new biography, translated from the original Hebrew, Anita Shapira has attempted to reclaim the persona of the reticent Allon and to make sense of his seemingly contradictory approach and the selectivity of other writers to paint a partial picture of him.

Allon’s grandfather, an adherent of Hovevei Zion, arrived in Palestine from Belarus in 1890. Shapira tells well the story of the grinding poverty and bottomless frustration of the early Jewish settlers in the Lower Galilee in order to provide for their families. Allon’s father, Reuven Paicovich became a tenant farmer on the barren land of Um-J’abal in November 1908 – and spent the rest of his life attempting to coax it into life. Paicovich was obstinate and determined – and he demonstrated this to both his family and his neighbours. When the neighbouring Bedouin Zbekh tribe blocked his way, his anger superseded his common sense – and he used his rifle. The Zbekhs respected his courage and believed him to be a member of the Ashuri tribe from northern Syria since no Jew in their experience could ever act in such a bold fashion. Allon’s childhood in the village of Mes’ha was both hard and dangerous such was the frontier nature of the location. Indeed, Allon received a Browning semi-automatic firearm as a barmitzvah present from his father.

Yet shortly afterwards, Allon’s attendance at the nearby Kadoorie Agricultural School allowed him to view the world and the Zionist struggle in Palestine differently. Significantly, he joined the non-ideological, bourgeois and sportsoriented Maccabi Ha-Tzair rather than the Histadrut affiliated Ha-Noar Ha-Oved.

Shapira writes compellingly about Allon’s desire to escape the world of his father. It was this which clearly persuaded him to join the group establishing Kibbutz Ginossar. As ‘a country boy’, Shapira notes how his eyes were opened to the wider world, not least by a group of German Jewish youths including his future wife, who had left behind Nazi oppression and humiliation. Shapira incisively contrasts Moshe Dayan’s relatively intellectual upbringing and well-to-do circumstances with that of Allon’s impoverished, motherless, non-ideological background.

The Arab revolt of 1936 drew him into military service, first as a sergeant in the Jewish Settlement Police and then as a field commander for the Haganah. It was in this milieu that he first met fellow commanders and future rivals such as Dayan, Yossi Harel and Shimon Avidan. His abilities quickly brought him to the attention of leading figures such as Berl Katznelson, Yitzhak Sadeh and Israel Galili. All this allowed him to enter the circle of the Marxist Zionist theorist, Yitzhak Tabenkin and the leadership of his movement, Kibbutz Meuhad – to which Ginossar affiliated at Allon’s behest.

Shapira devotes several pages to Allon’s participation in the ‘blood vengeance’ reprisals against the villages of Daburiyeh and Lubya in 1938 in response to a massacre of Jews in Tiberias and the killing of a Jewish driver from Kibbutz Afikim. Allon emerges as cold and calculating. He clearly believed that the much vaunted ‘purity of arms’ belonged in the realm of myths and the graveyard of good intentions. Shapira quotes Allon’s pronouncement on presumed collective responsibility: ‘According to Arab tradition, it is enough to know the assailant’s village to have grounds for settling accounts with that village . . . If Jews are harmed, Jews killed, and it is impossible to strike at the assailant himself, one must strike at the tribe . . . this is something they understand’ (p.94).

The sequence of rapid defeats in Europe and the real threat of a Nazi invasion of Palestine forced the British and the Zionists to work together militarily. This led to the formation of the Palmah, an elite military unit which confronted the Vichy French in Syria in raids, organized with the Australians. Allon’s military coolness led him to be appointed, together with Dayan, as one of the first company commanders of the Palmah. Indeed, by 1942 there was a real fear that Rommel’s advance would catalyse the evacuation of British forces and leave the Jews of Palestine to their fate. This, in turn, persuaded the Palmah to be absorbed by the Kibbutz Me’uhad movement so that settlements could be defended.

By 1944, this movement, as Ahdut Ha’avodah, led by Tabenkin, split from the umbrella social democratic party, Mapai, essentially over the prospect of a post-war partition of Palestine. Shapira interestingly reports that when the Haganah established a coordinating body to conduct the ‘saison’ against Menahem Begin’s Irgun, Allon was second-in-command. Yet he and other members of the Palmah baulked when it was proposed to hand over Irgun fighters to the British with the result that Allon tendered his resignation. Yet Allon favoured an armed struggle against the British, but objected to being in alliance with both the Irgun and Lehi because it legitimized them in the minds of the public. The inevitable British crackdown in 1946 resulted in widespread raids and the burning of the Palmah archives. The British also discovered the Palmah’s membership card index, yet their intelligence officers failed to crack its encryption.

In early 1947, Allon visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, chaperoned by a Mossad emissary, Zvi Netzer, in a general tour of illegal Palmah operations in Europe. Allon never openly mentioned his visit except for a reference to ‘this cursed continent’ in a letter to his wife. Yet it certainly informed his actions before and during the war of 1948. Already at this time Allon was becoming disillusioned by life in the Palmah, in part because of Ben-Gurion’s quiet manoeuvres to diminish Tabenkin’s influence both politically and militarily and to insert Mapainiks into pivotal positions. This seemed to have catalysed a deeper interest in politics and an advocacy to forge a leftwing opposition to Mapai through a coalition of Ahdut Ha’avodah and Hashomer Hatzair. Yet although these two groups, together with Left Poale Zion, merged to establish Mapam in early 1948, there were ideological differences between the two Marxist groupings. As Shapira recalls, Hashomer Hatzair believed in a bi-national state and expressed an unrequited love for the USSR – they had sent Stalin two red leather-bound copies of a Hebrew translation of his ‘Problems of Leninism’.1 Ahdut Ha’avodah shared this adulation for all things Soviet despite the persecution of Zionists and the transportation of Marxist Zionists to the Gulag.2 In a letter to his wife in March 1947, Allon wrote that ‘Class consciousness, loyalty to the workers’ party and the trade union war, eagerness for ties with the forces of tomorrow (the Soviet Union), political realism and pioneering – constructivism’. Like many of his ideological generation, Allon reacted to the reactionaries and not to the issue. The United States was seen as Britain’s unquestioning ally and the fount of capitalist advance. Stalin’s Red Army, on the other hand, was admired for its military prowess during the struggle against Hitler. Indeed, Allon believed that the British would never leave Palestine or would do so temporarily only to be welcomed back following a Jewish military and political debacle. He claimed that the British had prepared camps in Greece to receive Jewish refugees from Palestine. Allon followed Tabenkin’s line in 1947 in support of an international trusteeship, opposition to partition and a belief that the building of a socialist society should be uppermost in the minds of Marxist Zionists – not the immediate establishment of a nation state as the be-all-and-end-all of Zionist ideology. Yet Shapira does not elucidate in depth Allon’s – and Ahdut Ha’avodah’s – approach to the Palestinian Arabs and how it fundamentally differed from the much more dovish and conciliatory Hashomer Hatzair. Significantly, Allon spoke of his vision of the future at Mapam’s founding meeting on 23 January 1948. He commented that ‘a very large Arab population’ would remain within the borders of the Jewish state and that there would be Jews living both in the Palestinian Arab state and in internationalized Jerusalem. There would have to be vigilance – a Haganah ‘out of uniform’. Clearly, there was no hint here of a premeditated plan to expel Palestine’s Arab inhabitants.

Shapira deftly relates the growing tension between Ben-Gurion and Allon during the war of 1948. While Allon would have had no qualms in carrying out BenGurion’s orders to fire on the Altalena, he pointedly disobeyed him in dropping Latrun as an important target and concentrating on the Burma Road instead. Although Allon commanded the southern front, Ben-Gurion made several futile attempts to detach him from ‘Tabenkin’s private army’ as a first step towards dismantling the Palmah. Shapira comments on Ben-Gurion’s ideological and personal double-standards: ‘Things for which Ben-Gurion never forgave Allon – irresponsibility, lack of discipline, doing as he liked – skimmed over Dayan without touching a hair. Dayan was no less crafty than Allon and was far more ruthless in the pursuit of his aims.’

Shapira devotes several pages to the issue of Allon and the expulsion of the inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda in July 1948. Allon regarded the presence of a hostile population remaining behind the lines of an advancing army as extremely dangerous. He therefore wished to expel some 50,000 inhabitants in the direction of the Arab Legion. Shapira seems to confirm Benny Morris’s view that Ben-Gurion Book Reviews 151 Downloaded by [SOAS, University of London] at 06:35 08 March 2015 desired this outcome, but was averse to stating it openly.3 She cites an interview with Yitzhak Rabin in October 1982, stating that Ben-Gurion did wave his hand and say ‘Remove them’. She further quotes from Mula Cohen’s book,4 published in 2000, Allon’s comment that ‘Ben-Gurion, as head of state, could not give the order. I do what a commander has to do in the heat of battle’. Allon rationalized this in terms of what the Arabs of Palestine would do to the Jews if the latter lost. Moreover, in locations where they were on the losing side such as in Tiberias and Haifa, the local Arabs preferred to leave en masse, encouraged by both their own leadership and the British, and to await the arrival of the Arab armies whom they hoped would carry them back to their homes on their bayonets.

Allon explained his rationale in a lecture to Kibbutz Meuhad on 17 June 1950 – from which Shapira quotes extensively. On that occasion, Allon argued that the expulsion was the central factor in halting the advance of the Arab Legion and averting the threat to Tel Aviv. However, he did not define this as solely a military necessity, the reality of a brutal war, part of the ‘them or us’ syndrome, but as a means of securing a Jewish majority in Palestine: ‘I think that the process of Arab flight was a positive process. Furthermore, I think that our activity to empty large, militarily valuable areas of a hostile Arab population, this too was a justified case of no-choice, not only momentarily, in the heat of battle, but justified over time.’

Allon clearly would have liked to have pressed on into the West Bank up to the River Jordan as well as down to Gaza to secure a wider exodus of Arabs. Shapira does not explain if this was ideologically driven – after all, Ahdut Ha’avodah’s Moshe Carmel commanded the northern front where similar expulsions took place. This clearly created an ideological ruction with the Hashomer Hatzair half of Mapam which believed in Arab–Jewish workers’ cooperation in the building of socialism in Palestine. Mapam summoned Allon and the party’s commanders to an internal inquiry. Yet, as Shapira notes, there are no minutes of what was said and what was the outcome.

Eventually, Ben-Gurion replaced Allon with the loyalist Dayan as head of Southern Command despite his reputation as one of the leading Israeli military figures of 1948 – and still only 30 years of age. In addition, it seems that Allon also grew tired of being a party man and distanced himself from its heavy hand.

Here, the book deliberately stops in 1950. An epilogue of just over 20 pages covers Allon’s momentous career as a Labour politician, the progenitor of the Allon plan and his position as Foreign Minister and Deputy Premier under Rabin in the 1970s. Clearly this latter part of his life merits further exploration.

The author was not served well by the English translation, which sometimes seems stilted amidst a strange admixture of popular, often hagiographic and sometimes academic language. The attack on the Altalena is facilitated by ‘a holy canon’ (cannon) and the 14th Royal Scots Regiment evolves into a unit of whisky imbibers (14th Royal Scotch Regiment). Phrases such as ‘give them an inch and they took an ell’ will perplex younger readers. Shapira’s own reference to ‘the Revisionist Irgun Zvai Leumi’ is misplaced since neither Begin nor the IZL regarded themselves as part of the Revisionist movement. Although Jabotinsky was head of the Irgun, Betar and the New Zionist Organisation in the late 1930s, it did not mean that they all went in the same political direction.

All in all, this is a useful overview of Allon’s career as a military leader and especially of his early years, which will help the English speaking reader make greater sense of the conflict and the rise of Israel. Notes 1. Jewish Herald, 23 May 1947. 2. A. Rafaeli (Tsensiper), B’Ma’avak L’Geulah (Tel Aviv: Davar, 1956), pp.139–41; B. West, Struggles of a Generation: The Jews under Soviet Rule (Tel Aviv: Massada, 1959), p.96; N. Levin, The Jews in the Soviet Union since 1917, Vol.1 (New York University Press, 1990), pp.117–18. 3. B. Morris, 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War (London: Yale University Press, 2008), p.290. 4. S. (Mula) Cohen, La-Tet u-le-Kabel: Pirkei Zikhronot Ishiim (Tel Aviv: Kibbutz Meuhad, 2000).

Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 45, No. 1, 149–160, January 2009

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