Life's Dreams and Woolen Socks

In addition to shedding light on the history of the Zionist movement and his own personality, the letters of Moshe Sharett also show that the conflict with the Palestinians was the same then as it is today.

"Moshe Sharett: The London Days Letters, 1920-1921," The Association to Commemorate Moshe Sharett, 520 pages, NIS 95

In the summer of 1920, a girl named Rosa arrived in Palestine. She came from Russia, as did nearly everyone in that period. Moshe Shertok, also a native of Russia, gave her a letter of recommendation: She is "an important young lady," he wrote to his sister Ada. Indeed, Rosa Cohen came from Berl's hometown and Katznelson himself even knew her personally. Shertok thought it was very worthwhile to encourage her to remain in the country and instructed his sister to devote special attention to her: "She hasn't seen a Jewish face for years," he wrote, "and now she is afraid of this. She also has fears about communal living, to which she is not accustomed. For her, the Cohen house is suffocating - you know the type of intelligent Russian girl from the haute bourgeoisie who has broken off all connection with her family and her society and can't stand them any more."

Cohen was not a Zionist. "She is very far from everything we are involved in," as Shertok wrote, and she "just happened" to find herself in Palestine, according to him. Apparently she had actually intended to immigrate to the United States. By chance she met a group of people who were sailing for the Land of Israel on the ship Ruslan, and for some reason decided to join them.

The Ruslan was a kind of Zionist Mayflower: Many of its passengers became mothers and fathers of the Hebrew elite in the Land of Israel. Rosa was the niece of the writer and activist Mordecai Ben Hillel Hacohen, the patriarch of a dynasty that includes a number of well-known figures including a chief of staff, Yigal Allon, and a number of Israel Defense Forces generals. Rosa Cohen married a man named Nehemiah Rabin, and their first-born son was Yitzhak.

The letters that Shertok sent during that period from London reveal, among other things, a huge romantic drama that could serve as the basis for a Zionist telenovela: His sister Rivka found it difficult to make up her mind as to which of two boyfriends she would love more, and finally chose Dov Hoz; the other one, Eliyahu Golomb, got her sister Ada. Shertok himself married Zippora Meirov, who was the sister of Shaul Avigur - a founder of the Labor Movement in the Land of Israel and of the security establishment.

There are streets named after these people, but many of them, perhaps even Shertok himself, have been nearly forgotten. He changed his name to Sharett and served as the first foreign minister and as the second prime minister of Israel.

Diplomatic restraint

Shertok-Sharett wrote a great deal during his lifetime and his writings, among them the diaries and the letters, reflect the history of Zionist movement and the struggle for the establishment of the state. In general he was not strong enough to stand up for his opinions and he often did not dare to do this; therefore, he ultimately was also not that important a figure. In fact, it is possible that the most important thing Sharett contributed to the state is the personal diary he wrote during his tenure as prime minister. It is difficult to overstate the importance of those eight volumes to the study of the 1950s and to the understanding of Israeli history as a whole. This is a debt that Israel also owes to his son Yaakov, who saw to the publication of his father's diary. He is also one of the editors of this volume.

Some of the letters that the student Shertok wrote at the beginning of the 1920s are quite interesting, in part because they reflect some of the aspects of the personality that peek out of the diaries that prime minister Sharett kept during the 1950s. When he went to study law at the London School of Economics, Shertok was about 26. The English method of teaching left Shertok bored "to the point of nausea" and he quickly preferred to get involved in the work of the Zionist movement. "I know that my life will be political activity. This is inevitable," he wrote even before he left. In London he found himself a partner to the effort to raise funds, purchase arms and make political contacts with the Palestinians.

During his stay in London, the first acts of terror in Palestine began, initiated by Palestinians against the Zionists. One of those killed was the writer Yosef Haim Brenner. Shertok was overwhelmed with grief at this "holocaust," as he wrote: "I wept like a child, like after the death of a father." Later Sharett became known for his diplomatic restraint, in contrast to the military activity led by David Ben-Gurion, but when he heard about Brenner's murder, he wrote: "There have to be hangings and hangings. Just hangings." These early incidents instilled in the consciousness of the Zionist movement the almost deterministic sense that Palestinian terror has to be seen as a permanent and inevitable factor.

Sharett's letters also show that the conflict of his day is also the conflict of our own day. Shertok was present as an interpreter at a discussion that was held between Chaim Weizmann and the first leader of the Palestinian national movement, Musa Qassem al-Husseini, and when it was over he wrote: "It was interesting, but no results. No results at all." Elsewhere he wrote: "Nothing came of it, and apparently nothing will." His letters transmit a sense that the public in the Land of Israel can rely only on itself.

The first donations for the acquisition of weapons were obtained by Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Everything was secret, and it was even forbidden to report on it to David Ben-Gurion because Ben-Gurion, wrote Shertok, was "a miserable person, who has no control over his tongue." Even then, as he was taking his first steps in a movement that itself was only just starting out, Shertok encountered all-embracing personal intrigues and immortalized them in a rush of passion. "One-eyed Jimmy has gone to the Land of Israel," he reported to Dov Hoz, referring to James de Rothschild, the son of Baron Edmond, who eventually paid for the construction of the Knesset building; he had lost one of his eyes in a golf game.

Shertok: "Jimmy has kingly pretensions ... He is driven by leadership aspirations, overweening ambition and power, envy of Weizmann on the one hand and envy of Jabotinsky on the other, and he thinks they are both heroes in the eyes of well-known circles and wants to snatch the imaginary laurels from their heads." He described Rothschild as a "degenerate nobleman" and "a maniac in the colloquial sense." There is no need to elucidate how dangerous he is, noted Shertok, or for that matter, his supporters. One is "a spy and an informer," another is "a poor, naked, stupid baby" and the rest are "infernal." Shertok instructed Hoz on how to deal with Rothschild: "Extract as much money as possible - and commit to absolutely nothing."

Total self-effacement

He often used hyperbole, perhaps in the style of the times. When his raincoat was stolen, he reported that he had suffered "a disaster." Like the diaries of prime minister Moshe Sharett, the letters of the student Shertok reflect a boundless egocentricity alongside a tendency to total self- effacement when in the gigantic shadow of an admired leader. He traveled from London to Vienna, although in the context of his Zionist activity, but his sister Rivka who was living there did not take advantage of his presence to get married at long last. He felt that she was wasting his precious time and was deeply insulted. Insult, it seems, was also one important, fairly pathetic element, in his later life among the other characteristics of his identity. He always felt that he was not getting the respect that was due to him, he always felt denigrated and downtrodden: "Moshe the water-skin," he wrote of himself in one of the letters, always with utter seriousness, with no self-irony, almost without a smile. Almost everything is equally important and unimportant: the future of the people and the bathwater, his life's dreams and the woolen socks he needed.

The diary of prime minister Shertok reflects a painful and embarrassing self-abnegation toward David Ben-Gurion; the student Shertok abnegated himself before Berl Katznelson. "I think of you especially all the time and I submit myself to your judgment," he wrote to him, "to you who are so distant and so close to me, dear and beloved. You cannot know and you cannot imagine what you are to me. I am afraid to tell you this openly and outright. I am doing this also to obligate you to responsibility, responsibility for myself. To not forsake me and do not grow distant from me. I need you like air to breathe, like light for my eyes."

In one of his letters to his sister Rivka he wrote: "Sometimes I regret that I am not a woman."

The letters to Rivka were written as if to a lover. However, to Zippora, his future wife, he wrote as if to his sister or to his mother, and she was, he said, "so very, very distant, misted in clouds of distance and time."

His Hebrew is admirable and his letters are a testament not only to an elite that has lost much of its influence, but also to a literary medium that electronic mail has almost rendered extinct. Tamar Gidron, Yaakov Sharett and Rena Sharett have edited these letters very intelligently, with useful notes, appendixes and a praiseworthy index.