Moshe Sharett (and David Ben-Gurion); or, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Dove

By Chertok, Haim | Midstream, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Moshe Sharett (and David Ben-Gurion); or, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Dove


Chertok, Haim, Midstream


I was of three minds, Like a tree In which there are three blackbirds. (1) --Wallace Stevens

Valedictorian: In Zionist historiography, several photographs taken on May 14, 1948 at the old Tel v Museum of Art have become iconic. In each may be discerned the drawn features--much wearied by heavy responsibility, lack of sleep, and the burden of transatlantic travel--of the same visage that since 1987 has adorned the twenty shekel bill, the most widely circulated banknote in the land. Although his name and dates--1894 and 1965--may be distinguished in squinty crimson print on a side panel of the note, it will soon be obvious to anyone who devotes an hour or so to surveying cab drivers, waitresses, or grade school teachers that exceedingly few Israelis are able to identify him at a glance. When I queried a university class of twenty-three, only eight students could name the man who had served as Israel's second prime minister. (2)

In his time, however, Moshe Sharett was anything but just another Zionist worthy. Among the foremost Zionist figures of his era, he stood third to none. For more than two decades, he and Ben-Gurion, each possessed of unique qualities and abilities that complemented the other, worked in prickly tandem. Never intimates, not even friends, nevertheless this twosome may be likened to Blanchard and Davis of American college football lore, another Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside that flourished in the '40s. Several years ago, Sharett's older son Ya'akov conjectured in these pages that the unwarrantable erasure of his father from public memory might best be comprehended as an accident of timing: he "belongs to the pre-1967 war era, a war considered by many as the watershed of Israel's political course ..." (3)

Expiring at seventy, on the farther shore of that historical divide, Sharett had never manifested any symptom of coveting prestige or vulgar ambition. His star had inexorably risen on the wings of abnegation, intellectual brilliance, and total dedication to the Zionist cause.

A polyglot fluent in eight languages (including, almost uniquely among Ashkenazi Zionist leaders, Arabic), Sharett in 1913 had glittered as the reigning valedictorian of the maiden graduating class at the Herzliah Gymnasium, Tel Aviv's elite secondary school. He was a particularly fine Hebrew stylist. Indeed, the rejuvenation of the language became one of his truest passions. Based upon a three-letter, ancient Hebrew cognate, he delighted in formulating neologisms appropriate to a modern, dynamic society.

Over the course of a lifetime he created dozens of new words, many of them in use to this day. Typical of his creative extrapolations are yitsug (representation) and lavyan (satellite). Irrepressible, he did not even hesitate to red-pencil and return-to-sender letters written to him by his children. (4)

Indeed, words were both Sharett's passion and his weakness. Like a poet, the perpetual valedictorian was inebriated by them, at times exasperating Ben-Gurion or Dayan with what they considered pedantry or rambling. At other times, his critics have thought him guilty of mistaking words for deeds. For homo politicus, that might justly be considered a grievous fault.

Junior Partner: The following is excerpted from a letter by Moshe Sharett dated February 12, 1914:

   We have forgotten that we have not come to an empty
   land to inherit it, but we have come to conquer a country
   from a people inhabiting it, that governs it by virtue
   of its language and savage culture ... Recently there has
   been appearing in our newspapers the clarification
   about "the mutual misunderstanding" between us and
   the Arabs, about "common interests" [and] about "the
   possibility of unity and peace between the two fraternal
   peoples." ... [But] we must not allow ourselves to be
   deluded by such illusive hopes ... for if we cease to look
   upon our land, the Land of Israel as ours alone and we
   allow a partner into our estate, all content and meaning
   will be lost to our enterprise. … 

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