This Day in Jewish History / Moshe Sharett, Israel’s Diplomatic Second PM, Is Born

He told an interviewer: ‘I am quiet, reserved, and careful.Ben-Gurionis impulsive, impetuous and intuitive. My capital C is Caution;Ben-Gurion’s capital C is Courage.’

Frank Scherschel / GPO

October 15, 1894, is the birthdate of Moshe Sharett, Israel’s long-serving first foreign minister and, following David Ben-Gurion, its second prime minister. Sharett’s life and career were characterized by a belief in diplomacy, and in the need for Israel to seek agreement with its neighbors and finalize its borders, in contrast with the activist, “realist” thinking of Ben-Gurion (who was both friend and rival), which held that diplomacy’s main role was to provide cover for crucial unilateral actions, and that Israel’s survival depended on its taking advantage of opportunities to expand to more defensible borders. It’s a dichotomy that persists in Israeli politics.

He was born Moshe Shertok in Kherson, in what is today Ukraine, the son of Yaakov Shertok and the former Fanny Lev. Yaakov was an intellectual who had joined the proto-Zionist group Bilu in 1882, and even immigrated to Palestine, where he remained for four years, before returning to czarist Russia.

In 1906, Yaakov, joined by his immediate family and those of his brother and his sister, went back to Palestine, determined to stay. The three families leased land from Arabs in the village of Ein Sinya, between Ramallah and Nablus. During the two years they were there, Moshe worked in the fields under the guidance of one Abu A’oda, “an illiterate fellah [peasant farmer],” Sharett (he Hebraized his name in 1949) later wrote. From Abu A’oda he learned “Arab colloquialisms and Arab pronunciation, and Arab Muslim faith, and Arab folklore, and gained a treasure trove of the wisdom of life in general.”

In 1908, the Shertoks moved to the new Jewish settlement in Jaffa, and he attended the Herzliya Gymnasium, where he was a member – the valedictorian -- of the first graduating class in 1913. Law studies in Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, were interrupted by World War I, and by Sharett’s conscription into the Ottoman army, in which he served as a translator, reaching the rank of first lieutenant.

Following the war, Sharett became involved in the Zionist movement, work he continued in England after he went to study at the London School of Economics in 1920. He returned to Palestine in 1925, where he became deputy editor of the new Labor daily Davar.

In 1931, Sharett was appointed deputy to Chaim Arlozorov, head of the Jewish Agency’s political department. When Arlozorov was murdered two years later (a crime that remains unsolved to this day), Sharett succeeded him. The position entailed extensive responsibilities, including overseeing many of the diplomatic missions of the Jewish state-in-the-making, including coordinating between the Haganah and the British army during World War II. Hence it was natural that Sharett became foreign minister after statehood was announced in 1948.

Ups and downs with 'the old man'

Sharett’s relationship with Ben-Gurion was long-standing and generally mutually respectful, though in the end, their different approaches to life inevitably put them at odds. Sharett admitted to interviewer Michael Brecher that “I am quiet, reserved, and careful. Ben-Gurion is impulsive, impetuous and intuitive. My capital C is Caution; Ben-Gurion’s capital C is Courage.” 

When Ben-Gurion resigned the premiership in December 1953, he was succeeded by Sharett, but events beyond his control made his tenure lackluster and short-lived, and meant that Ben-Gurion soon returned to power. Sharett continued serving as foreign minister until Ben-Gurion, fearing he would oppose the Sinai Campaign, forced his resignation from that office, too.

In his final years, Sharett served as chairman of Am Oved publishing house and of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. Until shortly before his death from cancer on July 7, 1965, he remained an important moral voice in Israeli society. For many, that remains the case to this day.