My Struggle for Peace: The Diary of Moshe Sharett, 1953–1956
Edited by Neil Caplan and Yaakov Sharett
Indiana University Press, 2019
Reviewed by Alexander Kaye
Middle East Journal, Vol. 74 #1, Spring 2020
For many historians of Israel, especially those on the left, Moshe Sharett is portrayed as a character from a kind of tragic romance. He was a leading figure of the Zionist movement before Israel’s establishment in 1948 and served as Israel’s first foreign minister and second prime minister. His role in Israel’s leadership, however, in particular his mostly dovish foreign policy, is largely forgotten.
Moshe Sharett (1894–1965) was born Moshe Shertok in Russian-ruled Ukraine. He emigrated to Ottoman Palestine with his family at the age of 12, later studied law in Ottoman Istanbul, attended the London School of Economics, and, on his return to Palestine worked at the Hebrew Zionist newspaper Davar. In 1933, Chaim Arlosoroff, the head of the political department of the Jewish Agency, was assassinated in Tel Aviv. Sharett, nominated to replace him, was thrust into the forefront of Zionist leadership alongside Chaim Weizmann, later Israel’s first president, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Sharett admired the older Ben-Gurion but developed very different political instincts. In many ways, these diaries are the story of the unraveling of their relationship and, eventually, the undisputed political triumph of Ben-Gurion over Sharett.
As minister of foreign affairs, Sharett was widely recognized as a competent minister and valued member of Israel’s political elite, devoting himself to pursuing diplomatic relations, arms deals, and negotiating an international agreement regarding the use of the water of the Jordan River. In January 1954 the trajectory of his career was altered when Ben-Gurion (temporarily) resigned from politics, and Sharett was eventually nominated to take his place as prime minister. Surprised and reluctant, he led the country for almost two years, until November 1955, when the Lavon Affair, a series of catastrophically unsuccessful and deeply embarrassing covert Israeli missions in Egypt (of which Sharett was quite unaware), forced his resignation and the return of Ben-Gurion. Sharett retained his position as minister of foreign affairs, where he consistently opposed Ben-Gurion’s increasingly uncompromising policies toward a belligerent Egypt. Sharett believed that Ben-Gurion’s actions would result in an escalation of violence that was not in Israel’s long-term interests. Tired of Sharett’s opposition, Ben-Gurion eventually engineered his ouster. Sharett spent the rest of his political career on a diplomatic tour of East Asia, before retiring from public life.
The book under review is an abridged three-volume translation of Sharett’s personal diary. The original Hebrew diary was published in eight volumes in 1978, edited by Yaakov Sharett, Moshe’s son, who is also one of the editors of the translation. This version covers entries from October 1953 to December 1956. The coeditor and translator is Neil Caplan, a widely published scholar in the field. His translation is fluid and precise. It was wise to abridge the English edition. Any serious scholar of the subject should be able to access the diaries in their original Hebrew, and these nearly two thousand pages are more than enough for researchers who must resort to the English version. (Indeed, the reader sometimes wonders whether a shorter, more manageable translation might not have served a greater purpose than this hefty treatment.) The editors have enhanced this edition by interpolating translations of important documents referred to in the diaries, or otherwise relevant to the subject matter. Frequent footnotes provide background on key personalities and events. The volumes also include two essays: an introduction by the editors, which offers their perspectives on Sharett’s life and the history of the diaries themselves, and an article by Caplan about the end of Sharett’s career. Also included are a healthy bibliography and extensive indexes. All in all, the translation and production of this diary is a massive piece of work and a significant scholarly achievement.
Sharett’s prose is expressive, sometimes even beautiful. Some entries have a level of detail that make them useful only for the specialist, and some are short, even clipped, though often nonetheless poignant. Take, for example, the entire entry for October 12, 1954: “I am sixty. Depression. In the evening a family gathering at Ada’s. Singing” (p. 492). But many entries are novelistic and emotive, making much of the diary a delight to read. It also contains so much detail that cultural and social historians will find reams of useful material in these pages that is often overlooked by scholars of politics and diplomacy. It might be helpful for historians of domestic life to know that Sharett once returned home from work, exhausted, at 2 a.m., but could not take a bath because “the tub was full of washing which had not been hung outside to dry because of the rain” (p. 155). Historians of Arab-Israeli social history might be interested in details such as the relationship between the Sharetts and the Sabbaghs, a family of Palestinian fishermen in Jaffa, who had become close with the Sharett family since Sharett’s brother in-law had helped them to become part of the Zionist labor federation (pp. 7, 182). (Unlike Ben-Gurion and many of his Jewish contemporaries, Sharett spoke Arabic well.) Cultural historians will take pleasure in Sharett’s detailed description of the Soviet Embassy in 1954, which was decorated “with a mixture of cumbersome and tasteless Russian furniture and pieces of Israeli furniture, coated with ugly show-off bright silk and velvet” and “simplistic Zhdanovist” art, as well as his disappointment that, after “the okra and the pickled mushroom and the traditional Russian borscht with cream and the meatballs and the stuffed dumplings,” dessert was nothing but canned fruit, which Sharett deemed “a disastrous demonstration of lack of culture,” wondering “to what a climax a French chef might have brought us with a dessert to this feast” (p. 310).
Most of all, the diaries evince the central preoccupations of Israel’s leading political figures in the early 1950s, including negotiations over the use of the water of the Jordan River, the retaliatory Israeli attack on the Palestinian village of Qibya, the pursuit of arms deals, and, most of all, the Suez Crisis. In addition to these concerns, Sharett also had to deal with questions of religion-state relations. He decided, for example, to open the port of Haifa on a Jewish holiday to accommodate pilgrim tourists but stipulated that their onward travel to Jerusalem should avoid the heavily Orthodox Me’a She‘arim neighborhood (p. 329). He also kept an eye on the relationship between Israel and American Jews, warning at one point that Israeli territorial expansion “would be the kiss of death to any identification by American Jewry with Israel” (p. 390).
For political historians, the diary is most important for its descriptions of Sharett’s valiant efforts to resist Ben-Gurion’s policies. Whereas the latter was typically more charismatic, impulsive, and militaristic, Sharett tended to be more measured, reserved, and diplomatic. Indeed, Sharett’s diaries have always served as a treasure for dovish Zionists looking for forebears. Yaakov Sharett published the very first section of his father’s diary in 1965, as evidence against Ben-Gurion’s claim that Sharett had backed the extremely controversial attack on Qibya. In fact, the diaries revealed, Sharett opposed the action, writing that “If I had any reason to fear such a slaughter, I would have raised hell” (p. 29). Similarly, the diary records Sharett’s consistent opposition to Ben-Gurion’s willingness to escalate tensions with Egypt over the closure of the Suez Canal to Israeli traffic. Ben-Gurion did not disguise his disdain for Sharett’s “cowardice,” and called him a “talker” (p. 1231), as opposed to a man of action. Indeed, it was Sharett’s push for diplomacy that resulted in his removal from office by an impatient Ben-Gurion. A few months after Sharett’s forced retirement as minister, the Suez Crisis reached its peak. The diaries describe Sharett’s humiliating position when this occurred. He was then serving as Israel’s goodwill ambassador to Southeast Asia, where he found himself having to defend the very policies that he had so deeply opposed while in office. When he finally returned from his travels, he told his wife, “I have come home, but my country has left me” (p. 1849). It is with those words that the abridged translation ends.
Given this history, it will come as no surprise that the publication of this diary serves a political purpose as well as a scholarly one. This translation, like most of Sharett’s published writings, was produced under the auspices of the Moshe Sharett Heritage Society, directed by Yaakov Sharett. The society’s website informs readers that Moshe Sharett’s views are not widely known because they “differed from those of Israeli political and defense establishments” and that “acquainting the Israeli public with Sharett’s moderate, peace-oriented political philosophy, especially nowadays, seems essential and urgent.” Having said that, it is frankly refreshing to see the political mission of a scholarly society being explicitly stated. And it is certainly true that Sharett’s influence on Israeli public life was diminished because of his opposition to the policies of his more assertive and charismatic colleagues. Indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of the diaries is that they show how the narrative of Sharett’s legacy was being shaped when he was still in power. He understood his rise to prominence to be a result of a series of accidents (the assassination of Arlosoroff and, later, the disastrous Lavon affair), and he viewed his retreat from power as a humiliating but ultimately inevitable marginalization by Ben-Gurion, a man whose “main motive in talking is always his wish to express himself rather than a need to state or explain anything” (p. 70). These diaries are a valuable resource for scholars interested in Israel and the wider Middle East. They are also an affecting monument to both the political career and the inner life of one of Israel’s least appreciated leaders.
Alexander Kaye is the Karl, Harry, and Helen Stoll Chair of Israel Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University.
 Editor’s note: an earlier version of the latter essay appeared in this publication as “Why Was Moshe Sharett Sacked? Examining the Premature End of a Political Career, 1956” The Middle East Journal 70, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 275–97. https://doi.org/10.3751/70.2.15.
 Yaakov Sharett, “The Moshe Sharett Heritage Society website,” December 18, 2006, www.sharett.org.il/cgi-webaxy/sal/sal.pl?lang=he&ID=880900_sharett_new&act=show &dbid=pages&dataid=English_about-society.htm.