How Israel's First Foreign Minister Broke the Silence
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How Israel's First Foreign Minister Broke the Silence –

and Was Censored in Turn

Ofer Aderet, Haaretz, 23/1/2016

Moshe Sharett decried troops' vandalizing Christian holy sites in 1949, telling lawmakers that such events could tarnish the fledgling state’s international image. 70 years later, his exact remarks are still classified.


In the transcript of the Israeli government meeting on July 5, 1949, about 30 lines are blotted out. Somebody decided to censor the remarks of Israel’s first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, just at the most interesting part of a long speech he made on a hot topic on the agenda at the time.

Nearly 70 years have elapsed since then but the transcript, which is preserved at the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, is still not accessible to the general public. “We have the transcript in our possession and it is indeed censored,” the archives informed Haaretz this past week.

The draft of a new book that has come into the hands of Haaretz prior to its publication helps dispel the mystery surrounding the hidden lines. The text reveals what Sharett told the ministers of the first government, which was so problematic that to this day the general public is not allowed to know about it.

The exact quote is still forbidden for publication, but transcripts that documented things Sharett said about the same issue and during that same period in other forums enable a nearly exact reconstruction of it. The issue at hand was acts of vandalism committed by soldiers of the fledgling Israel Defense Forces in churches during the War of Independence. Sharett defined the phenomenon as “abuse of the holy that is fit for savages and not members of the Jewish people.” Moreover, he said, they constitute a “disgraceful page full of filth” in the history of Israel. He compared the state, under the auspices of which these deeds were carried out, to “Caesar, who initially behaved like some savage evildoer, a drunkard who destroys and desecrates.”

Reports of acts of vandalism and looting of alien property carried out by IDF soldiers during the War of Independence, including places holy to other regions, have already been documented in history books. In recent years it has also been revealed that soldiers took entire libraries from Arabs’ homes in order to enrich the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. What is new now is the publication of the harsh things that were said in real time by a senior Israeli minister.

In a conversation with Haaretz this past week, his son, Yaakov Sharett, emphasized the difference between the damaging of the churches in 1949 and the incidents that are happening nowadays, like the slogans against Christians sprayed this past week on the Church of the Dormition in Jerusalem.


“The damaging of churches that my father talked about was not directed and was not done out of religious hatred or a desire to harm a church or Christianity or to cause the Christians to flee from here, which is what is happening today,” he said. “The army took control of those places then during the war. The soldiers slept and defecated there, and stole the things they saw there. In a war there is always lawlessness.”

In the summer of 1949 Sharett shared with members of the government the information that came his way in his capacity as foreign minister, which shocked him deeply.

Sharett’s remarks about “vandalism and desecration” carried out by IDF soldiers in churches throughout the country during the War of Independence are harsh and unpleasant to read, even at a distance of many years. He said that this chapter in the history of Israel is “a disgraceful page full of filth,” and explained that he was using the word “filth” literally, “because there were cases in which soldiers turned places of worship into places of filth, into toilets, and covered the floor with their feces.”

These quotes are published in the second book in the series (in Hebrew) of “Speaking Out,” which documents transcripts of oral statements by Sharett, who headed Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs during its first nine years. The book, which focuses on 1949, will be published about a month from now by the Moshe Sharett Heritage Society, edited by his son Yaakov and his daughter-in-law Rina Sharett, both of them 88 years old.

The book documents harsh things Sharett told an audience that came to a meeting with activists of Mapai (the acronym for the Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel, precursor of today’s Labor Party), on an unknown date in June 1949 – the month in which Sharett made the speech at the government meeting, parts of which were censored.

In his remarks, Sharett detailed a number of examples of specific acts of vandalism that were brought to his attention. “I do not know whether you know that in one church a crown was stolen that is not only immeasurably valuable, because it is all pearls and precious stones, but also because it is a sacred object,” he said. “I don’t know whether you know that a certain statue – Jesus or Mary – stood in the center of a church and they broke its hand because there was a ring on one of the fingers.”

Sharett stressed that all these acts “were committed by Jews in cold blood and these things went on for months.”

‘A terrible sin’

Half a year later, at a meeting of the Mapai Knesset faction on December 31, 1949, Sharett brought up the subject again. From the documentation of his remarks, which also appear in the new book, it emerges that at the time Sharett said that Israel had committed “a terrible sin,” in his words, in that “it did not know how to organize in advance to impose iron discipline on its people lest there be those who abuse what is sacred to other peoples. The mind cannot grasp the terrible and savage things that were done in various places.”

He went into detail: “It is not possible to imagine what was done: desecration, conscious desecration, contamination, breaking of symbols, tearing of fingers off statues in order to steal some ring, theft of precious stones and pearls from monasteries, dirt, ripping of books, theft … objects, objects for sacred use used as fuel for heating, and so on and so forth.”

Sharett revealed to the faction’s Knesset members that because of the extensive damage IDF soldiers caused in the churches, Israel had to block the church at Capernaum, “where the situation is terrible,” to tourists. Similar scenes, he said, were also at “most of the churches in Jerusalem and in various places – Jaffa, Haifa and all kinds of places.”

He blamed the state. “We didn’t know in advance how to take control,” he said. “We didn’t know in advance how to impose discipline. We didn’t know ourselves that we were uneducated to such an extent or deplorably educated.”

His son Yaakov explained this past week that his father was very sensitive to Israel’s image in the world. “He argued that the state only came into the world on the basis of moral principles according to which the Jewish people deserves a piece of land and all of a sudden we look like bullies. Also as a man of culture this barbaric act was hard for him to bear.”

“One of the most difficult fronts we are facing is the Catholic front abroad. We must do everything possible to quell this ire,” the elder Sharett told party activists in June 1949. To minimize the damage he related that Israel was preparing to pay monetary compensation to the churches in an attempt to buy their silence.

“We will pay compensation and we will not publish this by any means ... For this we will demand cessation of propaganda and incitement, and with this we will put an end to the matter and there is no need to sift through the details and publish another article about what the Jews did,” he explained.

Sharett informed his audience that in the world press things were being written in condemnation of Israel and presented Israel’s difficulty in the image struggle.

“We are dwelling here in our land and reading newspapers ... but there are people who are reading newspapers in France and in Belgium and in Holland and in other Catholic countries – and the horror is what is happening there,” he described. “Clearly they [the Catholics] are adding a dimension of their own and a large percentage of distortions and exaggerations. But if you come along to deny – you have to say what is true and what isn’t true. If we have to say what isn’t true there, they will infer that the rest is true, and you can’t say that none of it is true.”

Sharett tried to put his remarks in context and in proportion.

“I imagine there have been revolutions in the world in which more horrible things were done. I imagine that our soldiers did not crush pregnant women and did not rape young girls and did not systematically burn homes with the inhabitants inside them, though in all those areas there were deeds. It is possible to defend this from a historical perspective. But we are in the midst of this thing and in the meantime we are being judged for every savage act of this sort,” he concluded.


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