Obituary: Eliahu Lankin

Joseph Finklestone
Monday 15 August 1994 23:02

Eliahu Lankin, military commander, lawyer, diplomat: born Gomel, Russia 25 September 1914; married Doris Kaplan (one daughter); died Jerusalem 10 August 1994.

ELIAHU LANKIN was a central figure in one of the most dramatic and controversial events during Israel's war of independence of 1948. Israel has never come closer to civil strife than it did in June that year when government forces led by David Ben-Gurion fired on the Altalena, a ship manned by the militant right-wing group Irgun Zvai Leumi and under Lankin's command, while it was anchored near Tel Aviv.

The incident still casts a shadow over Israel today, even though the Irgun's commander, Menachem Begin, went on to become the country's prime minister and the first Israeli leader to sign a peace treaty with an Arab leader, the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. When people speak, somewhat exaggeratedly, about the 'war of brothers' (milchemet achim), they refer to this clash, which led to the loss of Jewish lives during a critical period of the war against the Arabs, when Israel urgently needed both arms and men. Jewish tradition has it that the Temple was destroyed by the Romans and Jerusalem razed to the ground not because of Roman might but because of Jewish divisions. Eliahu Lankin had come to take command of the Altalena in France by a circuitous route. He had been born in Gomel, Russia, and educated at Harbin, in China. He made his way to what was then Palestine in 1933, working first as a watchman and unskilled labourer before joining the Irgun, which gave allegiance to the charismatic Zionist Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Adopting a far more militant attitude to the conflict with the Arabs and with the British, the Irgun became a feared fighting group. The blowing up of the King David Hotel in 1946 - with the loss of many lives, British and Jewish as well as Arab - and the hanging of British soldiers later cast the Irgun in a demonic light in Britain and even provoked anti-Jewish riots in a number of cities. The Irgun's arguments that the British had been given warnings about the King David bombs and that the hangings were meant to stop British 'atrocities' against Irgun members found few listeners in Britain. Britain arrested senior members of the official leadership of the Zionist movement - though they failed to catch Ben-Gurion because he happened to be in Paris - but the authorities generally differentiated between the leaders of the self-defence organisation Haganah, such as Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, and the 'terrorists' of the Irgun, led by Begin, for whose capture a large ransom was offered.

As an increasingly influential Irgun member, Lankin took part in operations against Arab bands during the 1936-39 Arab revolt. Orde Wingate, then a member of the British intelligence staff in Palestine, used unorthodox night tactics to help suppress the Arab revolt, and became a legend in the reborn Israeli state. Lankin, already seen as a bright if controversial young man, also helped in the Irgun's campaign to bring in illegal immigrants from Europe as Hitler's Nazis began to threaten the lives of the millions of Jews trapped there. At this time Britain, not wishing to offend the Arabs, kept the doors of Palestine closed except to a limited number of lucky Jews with entry visas.

A secret deal between the Polish government of the day and the Irgun led to Lankin's travelling to Poland, where he underwent special training under the auspices of the Polish army. He later claimed that the Poles secretly assisted the Irgun in the hope that terrorist actions would bring about the withdrawal of a White Paper issued by the Chamberlain government which proposed strictly limiting the number of Jews who could enter Palestine from 1939 onwards and specifying that Palestine would become afterwards an Arab state. The Polish government is said to have hoped that once Britain abandoned the White Paper many of Poland's 3.5 million Jews would leave for Palestine. Though this plan was laid not for Zionist or altruistic reasons but out of a desire to get rid of some of Poland's unwanted citizens, Poland's Jews would have been happy to have benefited from such a scheme had it worked. As it was, the great majority of them ended their lives in the Auschwitz, Treblinka, Maidanek and Sobibor death camps.

As the Irgun stepped up their attacks on British soldiers during the Second World War, the British authorities arrested several of their leaders. Lankin was deported to Eritrea in 1944 but escaped, making his way to Sudan, then to Ethiopia and eventually to Paris, where he became the European commander of the Irgun.

When the war of independence broke out in 1948, after Ben- Gurion had proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel, Begin still controlled his own Irgun units, whose achievements and failures were to become matters of intense controversy. Under Begin's iron rule the Irgun became a respectable fighting unit, though never as effective as the Haganah's famous Palmach, led by Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin. Whatever explanation was given by Begin for the massacre in 1948 of several hundred Arab villagers at Deir Yassin, it won him no friends in the outside world and angered Ben-Gurion and his commanders, who accused the Irgun of waging their own, uncoordinated war.

A decisive and single-minded leader, whose courage led to the foundation of the State of Israel and whose vision enabled it to defend itself successfully, Ben- Gurion could not brook the idea of independent units outside the state's armed forces. When the Altalena, packed with arms for the Irgun, either bought or donated by the authorities of a friendly French government, arrived off the shores of Kfar Vitkin, near Tel Aviv, on 19 June 1948 - during the first truce in the fighting between Israel and Arab forces - Ben-Gurion demanded that the arms be handed over immediately to the lawful Israeli government. He suspected that the Irgun was planning a revolt to take over power, a claim which was hotly denied by Begin. Begin insisted that some of the arms should be given to the Irgun units fighting in Jerusalem, pointing out that the Irgun was in the process of integration into the regular army, the IDF. Some botched negotiations ended in Ben-Gurion's giving the order to destroy the ship. Israeli troops opened fire, and the ship was hit, sinking with all the arms and the loss of the lives of 21 of the 41 Irgun men on board. Lankin was among the survivors.

When he later broadcast about this tragedy, Begin openly wept. Yet his bitterness against Ben- Gurion did not prevent his seeing the man's greatness. When Israel was in peril in 1967 before the Six Day War, Begin proposed that Ben-Gurion should return to power as Prime Minister.

After his dramatic times as a leader of the Irgun and commander of the Altalena, Lankin enjoyed a more peaceful existence. He became a respected member of the Knesset and a lawyer. He was chosen as a member of the board of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and a trustee of the Hebrew University and of the Public Council of Israel Radio. However, in 1981 he returned to his old love, international affairs, when his friend Begin, now Prime Minister, appointed him ambassador to South Africa, where he served until 1985. He felt himself at home among the large Jewish community, mostly 'Litvaks', immigrants from Lithuania, and fervent supporters of the State of Israel.

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