Political Leader of the Jewish Agency – Moshe Shertok
A profile by Murray Frank
Apparently written 1946-1947
In the daily humdrum of newspaper life, a meeting with Moshe Shertok is an interesting experience for any newspaperman on the lookout for a colorful and exciting personality to break the monotony. To the Jewish journalist, the striking up of an acquaintanceship with the Chief of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency for Palestine is an event of utmost interest and significance for here he comes face to face with one who is at the very vortex of current Jewish history, one who literally lives and breathes with Jewish heroism of the present day.
A Dynamic Leader
Shertok is a veritable dynamo of creative Jewish life, a man possessed of a terrific capacity for work and unusual capabilities, which makes it difficult to characterize so dynamic a personality. It is related that after a conference between Shertok and General Sir James Steele, during the war years, the British General remarked to Shertok’s military secretary: "Sec, tell me, how׳ do you manage to stand the impact of your chief? No wonder you are so thin."
Bern in Russia, brought up in an Arab village, educated in a Hebrew secondary school, served as an officer in the Turkish Army during World War I, studied at a university in England, was associate editor of the Palestine Hebrew daily Davar, became political secretary to the late Mr. Chaim Arlosoroff who headed the Agency's Political Department, and, upon the latter's death in 1933, succeeded him to this most important office of "Foreign Minister of the Jewish State in Being", as he is sometimes called. While this, in a nutshell, describes the main features during the 53 years of his dynamic life, one should not overlook other important phases, notably his high linguistic aptitude, his expert knowledge of Arab affairs, etc.
During a conversation his dark, penetrating eyes become glued to a spot on the table, at times they are pensive, then suddenly they begin moving to and fro quickly and restlessly. He speaks convincingly, very movingly, and highly informatively. His words follow in rapid succession as he proceeds to analyze a problem or indicate a solution.
Early Love for Zion
Shertok was born in Kherson, in the Ukraine, in 1985. From the beginning, he was instilled with a love for Zion so that at the age of three and a half young Moshe, so the story goes, could trace out the map of Palestine with its detailed features. Back in 1882, following the first wave of pogroms in Russia, his father had joined the "Bilu" , the first modern Zionist pioneer group, and proceeded to Palestine where he worked as an agricultural laborer in one of the early Jewish settlements and later as a wood carver in Jerusalem. Several years later he returned to Russia to see his family and while there he was married, began to build a family and dreamed of returning to Palestine.
The opportunity came early in the 20th century when a new wave of pogroms spread over Russia. In 1906, he gathered up his family, including his 11-year old son Moshe, and came to Palestine where they settled in an Arab village in the hills of Samaria. They were the only Jews in the entire vicinity. There young Moshe helped his father with supervision of the household and the land, he would observe the Arab tenants in their work on the land, in the olive grove, on the dairy farm or tending the sheep flock. During the two years they lived there Moshe had no formal schooling, the nearest Hebrew teacher being in Jerusalem, some five hours away by donkey.
Nevertheless, what he had lost in the way of a formal education in those two years, he gained in the way of a first-hand knowledge of the Arab way of life, Arab customs, ceremonies, language and outlook, as well as first training in "diplomacy" since it was incumbent upon him to act as family representative at weddings, funerals, holiday celebrations and. similar events of the local Arab community. After two years, however, the Shertok family decided to return to civilization. They settled on the outskirts of Jaffa in 1909, in a suburb then known as Achuzat Bayit, which was the beginning of the great modern city of Tel Aviv. Moshe became one of the first students at the Herzlia Secondary School, which had been established a short time earlier, and was in its first graduating class in 1913.
A Fantastic Plan
By now, Moshe Shertok was all of eighteen years old. Already in those years immediately before World War I, Palestine had a group of young visionaries who dared to dream of the day when the country would be reconstituted as the Jewish Homeland. Shertok was the youngest of this group, which included David Ben Gurion (now chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency) and Isaac Ben Tzvi (now president of the Jewish National Council of Palestine). Like most visionaries, they had a plan - a fantastic plan. They would proceed to Turkey, under whose administration Palestine was at that time, try to penetrate the Turkish Civil Service administering the Holy Land, then begin a fight against the system of baksheesh and graft in the country thus gaining the confidence of the Turkish Government, and then integrate Palestine as the Jewish Homeland on legal foundations within the Ottoman State.
Shertok came to Constantinople and entered its university. He lived with a Turkish family, wore a tarbush, spoke Turkish and attended the university as a Young Turk. After completion of his first year, he returned to Palestine on vacation, landing in Jaffa on the day war broke out. Unable to return to Constantinople to complete his studies, he remained as instructor of the Turkish language at Herzlia, where he met Zipporah, one of his pupils, whom he later married.
Sunrise over London
In 1316, when he reached 21, Shertok was pressed into service with the Turkish Army, serving as warrant officer on the Macedonian front. Later he was transferred to Aleppo, Syria, where he was stationed when the British had occupied Palestine and penetrated into Syria. When the order came for the Turks to retreat, Moshe broke away from his unit and reported to the British. The first question the British officer asked him after Moshe told him he was a Palestinian Jew was: "Are you a Zionist?” Shertok was at first rather surprised by this sudden question, but quickly replied: "Yes". Whereupon the British officer exclaimed with joy: ״Well then, you are our friend." In relating this incident, Shertok always hastens to assure his listener that he has not changed his views on Zionism since that happy day, “but how different are today the views of Britain and her officials in Palestine”.
Following his return to Palestine, Shertok served for a time as secretary of the Arab Department of the Zionist Commission (predecessor to the Jewish Agency), but in 1920 he decided that it was not yet too late to complete his university studies which he began in Constantinople, but this time it was to London that he made his way. London had become more important for the Jews and the future Jewish Palestine. Indeed, if Shertok had any doubts about it, he verified it shortly after his arrival in London. A few months after he had entered the University of London, Arab riots broke in Palestine - the riots of 1921, sometimes designated as the first Arab riots - and Shertok was called upon to act as unofficial representative of the young Yishuv in Palestine, explain its viewpoint and collect funds for the purchase of arms for Jewish self-defense.
In the same year, he was the delegate of Palestine Jewish Labor at the Brighton Conference of the British Labor Party, at which its firs