Biography-Moshe Sharett: Biography of a Political Moderate / Ben Gurion and the Holocaust

By Perlmutter, Amos | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Biography-Moshe Sharett: Biography of a Political Moderate / Ben Gurion and the Holocaust


Perlmutter, Amos, The Middle East Journal


Moshe Sharett: Biography of a Political Moderate, by Gabriel Sheffer. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. xvi + 1021 pages. Bibl. to p. 1031. Index to p. 1065. $120.

Ben Gurion and the Holocaust, by Shabtai Teveth. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996. lxiv + 260 pages. Notes to p. 289. Index to p. 310. $30.

Moshe Shertok-Sharett was one of the leading members of Israel's Socialist movement and Mapai Party. He was Israel's first minister of foreign affairs (1948-56) and second prime minister (1953-55). With David Ben Gurion, he formulated Israel's foreign policy that guided the state and party to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Sharett labored in the vineyards of Palestine and socialist Zionism for close to four decades. His ascendance in the party was due primarily to his role as an outstanding senior Israeli diplomat, second only to Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization and a leading Jewish Zionist diplomat and statesman. Moshe Sharett was the symbol of moderate Zionist diplomacy, its most competent, intellectual defender.

Sharett's was a brilliant political career, covering almost an entire half century. Although Sheffer focuses on a period of 30 years, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, it is significant that Sharett's formative years paralleled the formative decades of the Yishuv and Israel as well as "the crucial period in which the Jews became firmly locked into the protracted conflict with both local Arabs and the Arab states" (p. 3). And yet, this remarkable person has disappeared from the political and intellectual annals of the history of Palestinian and Israeli politics, diplomacy and international relations. His obscurity is puzzling in light of his political history, which Sheffer has recounted thoroughly and successfully in what certainly will be the definitive biography of Moshe Sharett. It is doubtful that any other historian or scholar would surpass Sheffer's prodigious research. He has devoted close to 20 years of his life and professional career to the study of Sharett. He has examined every piece of Sharett's considerable writings, including Sharett's remarkable eight-volume personal diary. Other sources used by Sheffer are: Hebrew and British archives and papers; the archives of the Haganah, as well as those of Ben Gurion, the labor movement and Mapai; the Central Zionist Archives; cabinet, state and ministry of foreign affairs papers; and the private papers of the Sharett family. The book also includes extensive interviews with Israeli political, military and judicial leaders in the 1970s and 1980s.

Why has Sharett disappeared from the political and historical consciousness of Israelis and Jews while David Ben Gurion has loomed so large and glorious despite his critics? The reason is that Ben Gurion, who was more determined, stronger and a greater visionary, overshadowed Sharett in life and in death. The judgment of history is brutal and unfair to Sharett. He was an elegant, handsome and sophisticated man, who trimmed his mustache and did his best to appear as a nonLevantine Western-oriented leader and diplomat in the very Levantine Middle East in which he operated. Sharett was not a leader, but a sensitive, introspective and intellectual man, who admitted in his diary that he did not have the strength and political guile of Ben Gurion. Sharett was very different from the more power-oriented Polishand Russian-born Zionists and socialists who governed the country.

There was, unfortunately, no place for such a gentleman, a true intellectual, in the ideologically determined and aggressive Zionist leadership. As editor of Davar, the Mapai-Histadrut paper, Sharett spent more time correcting the Hebrew grammar of his authors than accumulating political, economic and social power, in contrast to his socialist Zionist colleagues. Sharett was not destined to lead in an era when, after the Holocaust, a Jewish state had to be established with the use of brutal force to complement its diplomacy, and friends and foes had to be persuaded that a Jewish state not only was possible, but would survive and thrive. …

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