Oom Shmoom Revisited: Sharett and Ben-Gurion
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Oom Shmoom Revisited: Sharett and Ben-Gurion


Paper for AIS Annual Meeting, Toronto May 11 2010

Neil Caplan, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History, Concordia University

Note: at present only the first part of this paper is listed here. Part two will be uploaded shortly.


Conference Theme:

"Israel in the World"

Since independence, Israel has lived with a paradox--needing and seeking legitimacy, understanding, and empathy from the world community while simultaneously also discounting the world, which David Ben Gurion articulated so succinctly with his “Oom Shmoom.” These tension-laden tendencies reflect not only strong cultural dispositions along with issues arising from Israel’s troubled birth, development, and existence, but also some of the deep ruptures in what it means to be Israeli in a globalizing world.

We therefore aim to reflect upon Israel’s delicate balance between its desire to be different from a world that it simultaneously genuinely needs and that it also wants to be a legitimate member of.


Reviewing his first year in office, and perhaps even foreshadowing the surprise announcement which would come in September 1993 of the historic mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared before the Knesset:


The train that travels towards peace has stopped this year at many stations that daily refute the time-worn canard -- “the whole world is against us.” The United States has improved its relations with us.... In Europe, our dialogue with the European Community has been improved and deepened. We have been inundated by visiting heads of state -- and we have responded to them with friendship and with economic and other links. We are no longer “a People that dwelleth alone.”[1]


This optimistic snapshot of Israel’s place among the family of nations reflected happier days some 18 years ago, and was part of a deliberate attempt to break away from longstanding negative, cautious and suspicious Israeli and Jewish attitudes reflected in the those two well-known slogans, the whole world is against us and a People that dwelleth alone. Such a negative worldview derives from a sweeping and general Jewish and Israeli alienation from, and sometimes disdain for, all the goyim -- the entire gentile (non-Jewish) world.


            Those who share such a pessimistic worldview would no doubt also endorse the rallying call attributed to David Ben-Gurion: “It matters not what the goyim say but [rather] what the Jews do.”  Taken together, these slogans constitute something of a syndrome, reflecting a complex set of negative attitudes to the outside world firmly entrenched in Israeli political culture into which the colorful Yiddish phrase “oom-shmoom” fits perfectly.


            The phrase “oom-shmoom” has been a well-known one in Israeli public life ever since the mid-1950s. It is a classic application of the all-purpose Yiddish idiom of repeating a word and adding the prefix “shm-” the second time, to indicate mockery of the original word. Thus, “oom” -- the Hebrew abbreviation of ha-umot ha-me’uhadot (the United Nations) -- becomes, derisively, oom-shmoom.


            Today, the phrase serves as a shorthand for negative Israeli attitudes to the United Nations. As Aharon Klieman has written, “[r]esentment is deep at how Israel fares in world public opinion and in international forums such as the United Nations. Cynicism prevails... The world beyond Israel’s borders is often perceived of ... as distinctly inhospitable -- a dangerous and challenging place.”[2] From the perspective of Israel’s critics, oom-shmoom is also presented as damning evidence for the “well-established contempt for the United Nations within Israel’s ruling circles.”[3]



The first written evidence of the expression “oom-shmoom” entering the highest levels of Israeli political debate dates back to March 1955. Although the phrase has been attributed to David Ben-Gurion, it does not appear in any of the prime minister’s writings and papers,

Israeli leaders were quick to learn that there was, operating within the United Nations, a double-standard according to which more powerful states might have no cause to fear critical or condemnatory resolutions, or could ignore them more successfully than smaller, weaker states. This point was vividly illustrated in late 1956, when the Soviet invasion of Hungary never evoked any real threat of international sanctions while Israeli occupation of Egyptian territory in the wake of the tripartite Anglo-Franco-Israeli attack did.


            Yet the UN did have “teeth” at selected moments, namely, when one or more of the great powers chose to employ incentives or threaten sanctions in support of, or in conjunction with, the world body. And if Israel (correctly) viewed the UN as unable, on its own, to force compliance with all its declared wishes, in the early 1950s her leaders could not help but notice when the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union or (to a lesser extent) France stood ready to back the UN in pressing Israel to accept an international edict.


            Despite the growing list of UN resolutions criticizing Israel’s behavior on several fronts (refugees, Jerusalem, armistice violations), this cannot be attributed in the 1950s to determined Israeli decisions to act on the basis of the dismissive oom-shmoom attitude. The following examples testify to a pattern of Israel’s respect – rather than contempt – for what the goyim at the United Nations and in the United States might say or be prepared to do.


Example 1:  Bnot Yaacov Water Diversion Project

In October 1953, Ben-Gurion (over Sharett’s protests) initially brought Israel into a showdown with the United Nations over the UNTSO Chief of Staff’s recommendation and the UN Security Council’s request to cease its water-diversion works at the Bnot Yaacov bridge in the Israel-Syria DMZ. If Israel’s decisions had been truly motivated by the syndrome of defiance and rejection illustrated by oom-shmoom and “It matters not what the goyim say, but what the Jews do,” this diversion of the Jordan waters would have gone ahead despite international criticism or even condemnation. Yet, once the US administration suspended financial aid, a pragmatic Ben-Gurion gave in (“without prejudice to Israel’s rights, claims or position in the matter”) and within two weeks ordered a “temporary” work stoppage -- an action that was immediately followed by a resumption of American aid.[29] This was the first of several illustrations of Ben-Gurion backing down when he realized that he could simply not afford to ignore what the goyim associated with oom-shmoom were saying -- largely because of what the goyim in the American administration were doing in support of the world body.


Example 2:  Cabinet Decisions on Reprisals

Israel’s reprisals against neighbouring Arab states were decided by the Cabinet. During 1955, it rejected (usually for fear of provoking an international backlash) a number of proposals developed by Defense Minister Ben-Gurion in concert with his Chief of Staff, Moshe Dayan, for far-reaching military action against the neighbouring states. In late March 1955, Ben-Gurion urged the Cabinet to approve the capture of the Gaza Strip; this proposal was defeated on 3 April. The following day, the Cabinet voted down his proposal to abrogate the Egypt-Israel GAA. Later that year, Ben-Gurion and Dayan elaborated a plan to break the Egyptian blockade of Eilat’s access to the Red Sea by capturing the Straits of Tiran. On 5 December, a slim majority of the Cabinet rejected this proposal. In the spring of 1956, Ben-Gurion himself vetoed an IDF request to respond with reprisals to fedayyun provocation from Gaza; the Prime Minister was, on this occasion, urging restraint in deference to the UN Secretary-General’s trouble-shooting visit to the region.


            Whenever it came to a vote, Ben-Gurion’s “activist” approach was espoused by only a minority of Israel’s leaders, both in Cabinet and within the Mapai Central Committee.[30] Being out-voted on a number of his pet proposals helps explain Ben-Gurion’s growing vehemence in denouncing Sharett for what he felt was an exaggerated concern for international opinion.


Example 3:  Reactions to “Excessive” Reprisals

In the cases of Israeli reprisal attacks on Qibya (October 1953), Gaza (February 1955) and Syrian bases opposite Lake Kinneret (December 1955), the IDF did end up -- for various reasons -- inflicting greater death and destruction than originally conceived or approved at Cabinet level. In light of the resultant international condemnation of Israel, a majority of Israel’s Cabinet openly or implicitly chastised Ben-Gurion and his Chief of Staff, Moshe Dayan. Not only Foreign Ministry officials, but also many of Israel’s leading politicians, were concerned about Israel’s standing in world public opinion, whether in the eyes of the United Nations or, more importantly, in Israel’s dealings with its western allies: the US, Britain and France.[31]


            Such reaction was especially strong after the Kinneret raid, which resulted in the killing of more than fifty Syrian soldiers and which had involved a failure to consult the Cabinet. Sharett, who was in the United States at the time, wrote mockingly in his diary:

Ben-Gurion the Defense Minister consulted with Ben-Gurion the [Acting -- during Sharett’s absence] Foreign Minister and received the green light from Ben-Gurion the Prime Minister.


Following a storm of protest among the various coalition partners, a Cabinet decision demanded that, in future, all reprisal operations be submitted for approval. There is ample evidence of Ben-Gurion being put “on the defensive” among his colleagues in late December because of the Kinneret raid.[32] While maintaining a confident and unapologetic facade before Israeli and world opinion, Ben-Gurion reportedly confided to one of his commanders that the operation might indeed have been “excessive” and “too successful.”[33] The timing of the Lake Kinneret raid — the eve of Moshe Sharett’s return from the US — also seriously compromised the Foreign Minister’s personal credibility with John Foster Dulles, and thus Israel’s relations with the US. Sharett and Eban both complained bitterly at the time that the raid had the effect of undermining Israel’s quest for American arms, which they believed (erroneously, it turned out) was on the verge of receiving a positive response.[34]


Example 4:  “Preventive” War

Intense worry mounted inside Israel in the months following the Soviet-(Czech-)Egyptian arms deal announced in September 1955. Much public and secret discussion revolved around whether Israel ought to launch a pre-emptive strike or “preventive” war against Egypt, at a time of Israel’s choosing and before Egypt had successfully absorbed its latest arms acquisitions. During this period Ben-Gurion, serving as both Prime Minister and Defense Minister, found himself frequently reining in his more-consistently activist Chief of Staff, Moshe Dayan, and other IDF commanders who believed Israel had to act quickly in initiating such a “preventive” war. For example, when in mid-November 1955 Dayan recommended a massive military confrontation with Egypt as soon as possible, Ben-Gurion ordered him to hold off until the end of January, claiming there was still a prospect of obtaining arms from the US.  As Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov has argued,

Ben-Gurion, who usually attributed minimal importance to external constraints in implementing his policy of retaliation against the Arab states, was now more restrained. When the question became one of [initiating a] war with Egypt, he considered the constraints of the great powers more seriously.[35]


Although the main considerations in Ben-Gurion’s calculation were timing and arms procurement, his decision against preemptive military action was one which showed respect for what the goyim -- especially those in Washington -- might do or say with regard to Israel’s arms requests.


            An even more striking illustration of Ben-Gurion in the perhaps-unexpected role of “restrainer” rather than “activist” was his mid-December 1955 address to the IDF General Staff, conveying and justifying the Cabinet’s recent rejection of the “preventive war” option at that time. Once again, the overriding factors in his analysis were timing and arms procurement, but the Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister presented two further reasons for restraint at that time. The first was the heavy cost of even a victorious war to Israel’s border villages, youth and economy -- “a loss that will set us back as much as five to seven years.” Ben-Gurion’s second reason was his concern for Israel’s image in international opinion:

Up to now the Arabs have attempted to denounce us as expansionists, and aggressors, with varying [degrees of] success. If we were to start this war, we would indeed become known as the aggressors, and it will not redound to our credit.... As the victims of aggression they [the Arabs] will receive arms from all sides. One thing I am sure of: we will receive no arms.... Israel will have no arms, and we shall have to face the Third Round. We shall be in the same position as today, but the circumstances will be much more difficult, and whatever satisfaction we may have experienced on the day of victory will have been dissipated. It will be much as it is today, except that in the eyes of the world we shall have been at fault.... We must take all these matters into consideration.... [We must] do everything to obtain arms, to improve the Army and not become involved in a preventive war. The belief that the best thing for us to do now is to attack immediately is an emotional and hurried decision which fails to take into account all the factors involved....[36]


Such appreciation for Israel’s need to be seen by the outside world as being in a defensive, rather than an aggressive, posture harked back to Ben-Gurion’s preference, since the 1930s, for havlaga (restraint) over activism and revenge in the face of Arab provocation. It displayed a concern for attempting to set Israel on the moral high ground of international opinion, rather than appearing to behave as a nation defiantly promoting its narrowly-defined security interests.[37]


Example 5:  Preparing for the Sinai Campaign

In September and October of 1956, Ben-Gurion considered the possibility of collaboration with France and England in an attack on Egypt. In elaborating a set of conditions he wanted to place on such collaboration, Ben-Gurion displayed a remarkable sensitivity for what at least certain goyim might say or do. While the conditions he sought to lay down did not, in the end, govern Israel’s collusion arrangements, the following two diary entries are nevertheless noteworthy illustrations of his approach:


(1) On September 27th, 1956, Ben-Gurion wrote:

I made three negative assumptions: (1) We shall not be the ones to open [hostilities]. (2) We shall not participate unless there is British agreement and their agreement must also include our defence against a Jordanian and Iraqi attack. (We on our part will promise not to attack either Jordan or Syria.) (3) That no action will be taken contrary to US opinion and without it being informed.[38]


(2) During his secret meetings at Sèvres, near Paris, on October 22nd, Ben-Gurion recorded in his diary:

I explained my reasons for rejecting the ... proposal that we start the war against Egypt and, 48 hours later, after an ultimatum to both sides, the English and the French would take the Canal. There are ethical, political and military reasons. Why should we all of a sudden become the aggressors -- and have our friends in the world denounce us? (Pineau tried to explain that with their veto they will prevent a condemnation in the Security Council.) The US would disapprove, and there’s no telling what Russia would do. And most important -- Egypt would bomb the airports in Tel Aviv and in Haifa.[39]


Indeed, as Shabtai Teveth has noted,

Ben Gurion’s deep concern over the possibility of aerial bombardments on Israeli population centers was at the heart of his conviction that Israel should not go to war without a strong ally.... The need for a powerful ally seemed so vital to Ben Gurion that at one time he thought Israel should join the British Commonwealth and tried to suggest as much to the British Government. Later his aides explored the possibility of Israel joining NATO. Both of these attempts came to naught, and without allies Ben Gurion felt that Israel would gain little or nothing from war with the Arabs.[40]


            When finally recommending Operation “Kadesh” to his cabinet on 28 October 1956, Ben-Gurion realized full well that power would “be brought to bear to force us to retreat from Sinai,” adding the confession that he feared America most of all since it was fully “capable of forcing us to withdraw. She doesn’t need to send an army for that purpose. She has other effective means which are powerful enough.”[41] All in all, the calculations made by Ben-Gurion along his road to Suez seem hardly those of someone who cared not what the goyim might say or do.


Example 6:  From “Victory Speech” to Agreement to Withdraw

On 7 November 1956, Ben-Gurion pronounced what was seen as a great “victory speech” to the Knesset. Expounding his “new revelation at Sinai,” he declared the GAA with Egypt null and void, claimed that the Sinai Peninsula had never been recognized as belonging to Egypt, and argued that the Jews had an ancient historic claim to the islands of Sanapir and Tiran at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba.[42]  Michael Brecher describes the speech as “a tactical error of the first magnitude,” noting that “it alienated not only ‘oum shmoum’ and Israel’s enemies -- but her friends as well.”[43]


            There were a number of intersecting external pressures building up on Israel to retreat, both prior to and following Ben-Gurion’s speech. These included:

(a) a menacing letter from Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin, made worse by French and US indications of a real danger of Soviet missiles being used, and the noteworthy absence of any offer of US protection against such attack;[44]

(b) a request for assurances of Israel’s withdrawal from US President Eisenhower, accompanied by not-so-veiled threats of both losing America’s international diplomatic support and suffering an embargo of US financial aid;[45]

(c) early indications that American Jewry would not unanimously back Israel in a struggle against the US Administration;[46] and

(d) persistent requests for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from Egyptian soil made by an impatient and unfriendly UN Secretary-General, accompanied by a movement within the General Assembly for condemnatory resolutions with the prospect of sanctions, and Israel’s total isolation in world opinion.[47]


            “Within less than 48 hours,” notes Shlomo Avineri, “after Bulganin’s letter and the clear indication from Eisenhower that Israel would be on its own against a Soviet threat, Ben-Gurion changed course completely.”[48] For purposes of our analysis, Ben-Gurion’s about-face illustrates that he was making difficult decisions based on conscious calculations of what the powerful “goyim” -- including those involved in the UN (oom-shmoom) -- were thinking, saying and threatening to do. Despite his apparently cavalier dismissal of what he called Ambassador Eban’s “frightened” communications of those tense days and Foreign Ministry Director-General Walter Eytan’s reports of Israel’s near-total isolation in world opinion, even Ben-Gurion was not exempt from sharing the general sense of alarm -- including fears of bringing the western world to the brink of a world war involving the Soviet Union -- in the days following his “victory speech.” On November 8th, he instructed Eban to announce Israel’s conditional compliance with the UN call to withdraw, while he himself took to the airwaves at 30 minutes after midnight to make the difficult and painful announcement to the Israeli people.[49]



Students of Israeli foreign policy should be wary of accepting at face value simplistic and overdrawn applications of the admittedly useful “activist”-“moderate” dichotomy sometimes popularized through self-serving memoirs, political rivalries, personal backstabbing and electoral rhetoric. Differences over oom-shmoom and “It matters not what the goyim say ...” between the fondly-remembered David Ben-Gurion, on the one hand, and his non-charismatic and much-forgotten partner, Moshe Sharett, on the other, were not always the contrasting polar-opposites that have commonly been presented.


            Most writers presume, along with Avi Shlaim, that “the dominant school of thought” in Israeli foreign policymaking during this period “was inspired and led by Ben Gurion” while Moshe Sharett “was an independent and original thinker on the basic questions of Israeli security” who “represented a clear and serious alternative, albeit one which was never tested.”[50] The examples cited above of actions taken and not taken are evidence that -- notwithstanding the mid-1956 ouster of Sharett as Foreign Minister and the heroic mythology surrounding the Sinai campaign[51] -- the dominant trend during this period was not a “Ben-Gurionist” or activist approach, but rather a blend of tough reprisals along the frontiers, on the one hand, tempered by a “Sharettist” sober appreciation of international opinion, on the other. In their day-to-day political decisions, both Ben-Gurion and Sharett showed a healthy respect for the United Nations, for the great powers who stood ready to back UN decisions, and for what the goyim might do should Israel act in open defiance of international opinion on selected issues.



*   This paper is adapted from my “‘Oom-Shmoom’ Revisited: Israeli Attitudes towards the UN and the Great Powers, 1948-1960,” in Global Politics: Essays in Honour of David Vital, eds. Abraham Ben-Zvi and Aharon Klieman (London: Frank Cass, 2001), 167-99.



[29] Primary documentation from the Israeli and American perspectives can be found, respectively, in Israel State Archives, Documents on the Foreign Policy of Israel, vol.8 (1953), ed. Yemima Rosenthal (Jerusalem: 1995), 645-1025 passim [docs. 366-620], -- hereafter ID8,  and United States, Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: 1952-1954, vol.IX, eds. Paul Claussen, Joan M. Lee and Carl N. Raether, (Washington: USGPO, 1986), 1303-1434 passim [docs 658-9, 661, 663, 665, 673, 675, 682, 725, 734-6].  Critical discussions of the episode are given in:  Brecher, Decisions, chap. 5;  Stephen Green, Taking Sides: America’s Secret Relations with a Militant Israel (New York: Morrow, 1984), chap. 4; Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, “The Limits of Economic Sanctions: The American-Israeli Case of 1953,” Journal of Contemporary History 23 (1988), 425-43; See Abraham Ben-Zvi, The United States and Israel: The Limits of the Special Relationship (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), chap. 2; Sheffer, Moshe Sharett, 682.


[30] Cf. Bar-Siman-Tov, “Ben-Gurion and Sharett,” 352; Shlaim, “Conflicting Approaches,” 191, 195, 198; Sheffer, “The Confrontation,” 135-40.


[31] For primary documentation on the negative fallout in western capitals, at the United Nations and among diaspora Jewry after the Qibya raid, see reports and correspondence in ID8, 756-913 passim [docs. 433-35, 439, 448, 461, 471-72, 477, 479, 483, 490-91, 495, 499-501, 503-05, 514-15, 518, 533, 539, 544].  Cf. Neil Caplan, Futile Diplomacy, vol.3: The United Nations, the Great Powers and Middle East Peacemaking, 1948-1954 (London: Frank Cass, 1997),  222-25; Benny Morris, Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 244-62; ‘‘The 1953 Qibya Raid Revisited: Excerpts from Moshe Sharett’s Diary,’’ special document introduced by Walid Khalidi, annotated by Neil Caplan, Journal of Palestine Studies 31:4 (Summer 2002), 77–98.


[32] Yoman Ishi V: 1310 (16 Dec. 1955).  Cf.  ibid., 1314 (25 Dec. 1955); Mordechai Bar-On, The Gates of Gaza: Israel's Road to Suez and Back, 1955-1957, transl. Ruth Rossing (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, 62f.; Ben-Gurion to Eban, 19 Dec. 1955, in David Ben-Gurion, Rosh ha-Memshala ha-Rishon: Mivhar Te'udot (1947-1963)  [The First Prime Minister: Selected Documents], eds. Yemima Rosenthal and Eli Shaltiel (Jerusalem: Israel State Archives, 1996), 288-9 [doc. 75]; Ben-Gurion speech to Mapai Political Committee, 28 Dec. 1955, op. cit., 290-2 [doc. 76]; Eban, An Autobiography, 198-99 and Personal Witness, 248-49; Morris, Israel’s Border Wars, 365-68.


[33] Ariel Sharon, with David Chanoff, Warrior: The Autobiography of Ariel Sharon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 126f.  Cf. Mordechai Bar-On, Sha’arei Aza: Mediniut ha-Bitahon ve-ha-Hutz shel Medinat Yisrael: 1955-1957 [The Gates of Gaza: Israel’s Defense and Foreign Policy] (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1992), 78 and 437 n.15; Morris, Israel’s Border Wars, 366, 368.


[34] Isaac Alteras, Eisenhower and Israel: U.S.-Israeli Relations, 1953-1960 (Gainsville, etc.: University Press of Florida, 1993), 154, 161; Bar-On, Gates of Gaza, 58-61, 352 n.19; Sharett, Yoman Ishi V: 1314-5 (25 Dec. 1955); Eban, An Autobiography, 198-99 and Personal Witness, 248-49; Gideon Rafael, Destination Peace: Three Decades of Israeli Foreign Policy: A Personal Memoir (New York: Stein and Day, 1981), 47-48; Herzog, A People that Dwells Alone, 241; Morris, Israel’s Border Wars, 368.


[35] Bar-Siman-Tov, “Ben-Gurion and Sharett,” 341, citing Moshe Dayan, Avnei Derekh: Autobiografia [Stepping Stones: An Autobiography] (Jerusalem: Edanim [with Dvir, Tel Aviv], 1976), 164-65 (13-14 Nov. 1955). See also Shabtai Teveth, Moshe Dayan: The Soldier, the Man, the Legend, transl. Leah & David Zinder (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), 249, 254-55; Shlaim, “Conflicting Approaches,” 194.  On the internal debates for and against Israel’s launching of a preventive war, see, Bar-On, Gates of Gaza, chap. 4, and Motti Golani, Israel in Search of War: The Sinai Campaign, 1955-1956, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.

            It should be noted that Ben-Gurion’s argument against a war initiated by Israel was consistent with the IDF’s chosen policy of deliberately attempting to provoke Nasir into being the one to initiate -- and be seen by the world to be the one who initiated -- full-scale hostilities.  See: Bar-On, Gates of Gaza, chap. 4; Neil Caplan, Futile Diplomacy, vol.4: Operation Alpha and the Failure of Anglo-American Coercive Diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1954-1956 (London: Frank Cass, 1997), 164-68.


[36] Address to General Staff, 16 Dec. 1955, English text as transmitted to Allen W. Dulles, 10 Jan. 1956, US National Archives, NEA Lot59 D518 Box33.  Cf. Dayan, Avnei Derekh, 174-75; Teveth, Moshe Dayan, 248-49, 255; Shlaim, “Conflicting Approaches,” 196; Bar-Siman-Tov, “Ben-Gurion and Sharett,” 342; Lorch, “David Ben-Gurion and the Sinai Campaign,” 294; Bar-On, Gates of Gaza, 66-68.


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