Hypocrites and Fools in the Reparations Debate
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 Hypocrites and Fools in the Reparations Debate

Though it's unlikely to become a best-seller, 'The Reparations Controversy' may be the best means available to learn about the most dramatic, incisive, painful debate ever held in Israel.


By Yossi Sarid


A review in "Haaretz" Literary Supplement, August 1 2007


"Pulmus hashilumim: Moshe Sharett bema'arakhot hamasa umatan al heskem hashilumim migermania" ("The Reparations Controversy: Moshe Sharett and the Reparations Controversy: Collected Documents") Edited by Yaakov Sharett, 973 pages, NIS 98.


This is the most interesting boring book I have read in the past few years. On the face of it, what could possibly be of interest in a book that is a collection of minutes from debates in the cabinet, Knesset, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and Mapai party institutions; original documents; correspondence; and entries from personal journals?


There's little reason to think that "The Reparations Controversy" will become a best-seller, yet I am certain that, without it, learned readers will be denied the best means of learning about the most dramatic, incisive, painful debate ever held in Israel.


The German-Israeli reparations agreement of 1952, which led to West Germany paying some 3 billion marks to Israel over a 14-year period, as compensation for the costs of resettling 500,000 Holocaust survivors there after the war, as well as for stolen property, still raises questions of intense national and personal interest: How could Israel have survived, conducted its affairs and developed without the money from the reparations, which enabled it, inter alia, to absorb within a short period of time millions of penniless immigrants? Would it have managed to handle this major task or would it have collapsed under the weight of its fundamental obligations to its citizens, especially new immigrants? Second, if the government of today had been in power then, would it have been able to sign the agreement? I ask this not necessarily because of a difference in moral stance between the two coalitions, but rather because of the different quality of leadership that prevailed then, a quality that is steadily becoming scarcer and scarcer. David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett were made of different stuff than their successors. Third, where would any of us have stood in this debate? None can swear, I certainly cannot, what position they would have taken.


Ben-Gurion (who was prime minister until 1954, and then again from 1955 until 1963) and Sharett (foreign minister from 1948 until 1956, and prime minister as well during Ben-Gurion's time in the desert) were on the same side in the litmus test of the reparations agreement, despite their differences of opinion and substantially contrary outlooks on matters of security and foreign affairs. Had there not been close cooperation between the two, the negotiations with the Germans would never have been launched and the agreement certainly would not have been signed. Sharett (whose son edited this volume) was the one who made the major sacrifices and who led the debate without rolling his eyes heavenward; he recognized the reparations' vital importance to a young state that was barely breathing and the significance of the mission history had placed on his shoulders. In 1956, Ben-Gurion, who by then had returned to the Prime Minister's Office, dismissed Sharett as foreign minister, and the two went their separate ways.


At the time, Sharett's political legacy seemed orphaned - doomed to having no heirs. Ben-Gurion's heirs multiplied, filling the land, whereas Sharett had no successors, no disciples. As I read "The Reparations Controversy," I repeatedly thought about the way history's judgment is sometimes delayed. Considering the present situation, Sharett's disciples and spiritual heirs today appear to outnumber Ben-Gurion's disciples. Granted, the spiritual father, Sharett, the first dove in Israeli politics, is still considered a stepfather - as if it is neither proper nor pleasant to recognize him as a biological-ideological father. Nevertheless, his political moderation, and his belief that Israelwould not ultimately be able to solve its problems with its neighbors through warthought, are enjoying a new lease on life after a prolonged death. Even Ben-Gurion's most loyal disciple, President Shimon Peres, has been more of a Sharettist in recent years than a Ben-Gurionist, although he might find it difficult to admit this for sentimental and public-image reasons.


The self-confidence of fools

There were valid arguments on either side of the debate over the reparations. However, as usual in crucial, fateful debates, the hypocrites, not the Sadducees or the Pharisees, were the ones who were infuriating. Even more infuriating were the fools, whose foolishness was exceeded only by their self-confidence. I am not referring to the members of Maki, the representatives in Israel's parliament of the Israel Communist Party. Meir Vilner, Shmuel Mikunis, Esther Vilenska and their colleagues had much to say in their condemnation of the reparations agreement with West Ge<

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