SHALL WE EVER MEET AGAIN? Letters of an Ottoman Soldier - 1916-1918 by Moshe Sharett (in Hebrew). The Moshe Sharett Foundation. 415 pp.
The Jerusalem Post, 3 September 1998
By more than a pinch of partisan and deliberate design and by the erosion caused by the passage of time, the memory and the stature of Israel’s first foreign minister and its second prime minister are not what he deserved.
Moshe Sharett was undoubtedly one of the most gifted leaders of the pre-state era, and his contribution in laying the foundations and forging the high standards of the Foreign Ministry and its diplomatic service at its initial stages was widely recognized. What is less appreciated is his introduction of a moral code of political conduct, his projection of the concept of civil society as a prerequisite in the life of a democratic country. But ask today’s Israelis under 50, or new immigrants of the Iast four decades, who Moshe Sharett was, and you will get a very feeble response.
Under these frustrating circumstances, one must commend the tenacity and the determination of his son, Yaacov, to publish over the years Sharett’s eight volumes of personal diaries, and to assemble now his father’s letters. If the diaries of public figures are inevitably suspected of having been designed for future publication, the private letters of a young soldier are more likely to be seen as authentic and honest.
In April 1916, aged 22, Moshe Sharett (Shertok), was inducted into the Ottoman army. He was one of about 120 Jewish graduates of the Herzliya Gymnasia and of two teachers’ seminaries in Jerusalem who were conscripted and expected to be trained and commissioned as officers.
Most of the 127 letters that have been preserved were written in Hebrew; some were written in French, German, Russian and even Arabic - a reflection of Sharett’s linguistic capabilities, to be later augmented by superb English, not to speak of his perfectly fluent Turkish, which helped him survive the tribulations of military service. The letters are prefaced by an illuminating introduction by his son, who edited the volume and provided very useful footnotes.
The letters reveal the very private facets of the young Sharett, but also the kernels of the future leader and statesman. The editor was absolutely right in not being tempted to censor even the more intimate personal letters, just as he was unwavering in producing the entire diaries, when many critics rebuked him for having exposed his father to the heartless public glare. The value for the student of history is in the authentic material, not in the tailored version of a biased editor.
The question that today’s reader may ask is: How did Sharett come to be an officer in the Ottoman army? In 1914, a year after he graduated from high school, Sharett moved to Istanbul to study law, being convinced that he was destined to take part in the leadership of the Jewish community of Palestine in its relations with the Turkish authorities. At the time, the stability and permanence of Ottoman rule over Palestine was not in doubt. World War I broke out when Sharett was visiting Tel Aviv for the summer holiday. He was already involved in the public life of the 85,000-strong Jewish community.
The war caused immense problems for many Jews in Palestine who held alien papers and were formally citizens of countries suddenly at war with Turkey. Many of these people departed in haste. There was a deep concern that the community would dry up. As a result of these developments, a call for “Ottomanization” was launched by prominent leaders, headed in Jerusalem by David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi. If Ottomanization was necessary to save the Jewish community in Palestine from the danger of disappearing, there was a real controversy over the question of whether to join the Turkish army. Those in favor argued that it would demonst