Thursday, September 8, 2016

131 - Nahum Goldmann Appreciation of Moshe Sharett

            In this struggle [for a privileged position of the World Zionist Organization in relation to Israel and for legally establishing its right to work in Israel] I acquired the vital support of Moshe Sharett. Apart, perhaps, from Chaim Weizmann in the later years of our relationship, Sharett was my closest friend among all the Zionist leaders. Our friendship went far beyond our practical work together. I cannot call to mind any serious conflict with him, although we had occasional differences of opinion over tactical matters. His career is well known. It included all the positions of honor that Zionism and Israel had to bestow. After being in charge of the political section of the Zionist Executive for years, he became Israel’s first foreign minister and, later, its prime min­ister. Ben-Gurion finally forced him out of the government in a most brusque and ruthless manner. Sharett was an extraordinarily gifted man, especially remarkable for his phenomenal memory and talent for languages. He knew a number of languages perfectly, and was a brilliant creator of new terms in modern Hebrew.
            Sharett’s political talent was chiefly analytical. He never overlooked a single aspect of a problem and backed every demand he made with logical, meticulous argumentation. He was not so much the intuitive politician, exemplified by Chaim Weizmann, as a man who depended on systematic analytical reflection. At times he carried the principle of minutely substantiating every-thing to the point of exaggeration. I remember Weizmann saying to him: “When you’re asking something of the Colonial Office or the Foreign Office, limit yourself to two or three telling arguments and leave out the minor ones. Otherwise you run the risk that when you get through the man you’re talking to will forget the important arguments and remember only the minor ones.” But this was impossible for Sharett. He was afflicted with the vice of perfectionism, if I may put it that way. Everything had to be just right. Every document he drafted, every letter he wrote, was revised and polished to make sure that every word was in its right position and sparkling with just the right luster. He wasted too much time and energy on minute details, but his esthetic sense and desire for perfection required this often excessive expenditure of effort.
            As the first foreign minister of Israel, Sharett created the new Israeli diplomacy. It took courage as well as knowledge of human nature to train the young diplomats to think like statesmen. For centuries the Jews had expressed their reactions purely in the form of protest and criticism. Since the Diaspora never allowed them to create a political reality of their own, they had to content themselves with reacting passively or seeking escape in dreams, illusions, and wishful thinking. This explains their tendency to extremism bitter accusations, radical demands, and hypersensitivity, not to say persecution complexes, all of which are typical of powerless, oppressed peoples. With the establishment of a country of their own, all this has had to be fundamentally changed. The Jewish people had to be trained in realism, in accepting compromise (which in practical politics is often more important than theoretical demands), and in making the best of what cannot be helped.
            The first man to recognize that this takes more strength than is required for persistently trying to do the impossible was Chaim Weizmann; as a result, he was attacked for decades as a compromiser, a weakling, and even a traitor. Sharett, like me, was a pupil of Weizmann, and he too was often criticized for the same failings. It was also one of the reasons for the clash with Ben-Gurion that led to his sudden resignation. In most conflicts between Weizmann and Ben-Gurion, Sharett had taken Weizmann’s side and Ben-Gurion knew it. Sharett also rejected Ben-Gurion’s ideas on many points of foreign policy, although here he did not go as far as I did. Above all, he resisted the retaliation policy that Ben-Gurion pursued for years. It was easy for Ben-Gurion to override my opposition in these matters because I was not a member of the government, but he had to pay some attention to Sharett as foreign minister and leader of a group within the Israeli government. No doubt the decision to get rid of him before the Sinai campaign is explained by this opposition. It took Sharett a long time to get over this ruthless dismissal.
            In character Sharett was one of the most distinguished figures in Zionism and Israeli politics, a true aristocrat who owed his splendid career almost entirely to his own positive qualities – an extremely rare occurrence, Of course, like everybody else, he had to pay a price for his virtues. They prevented him from being a real fighter and from using the necessary ruthlessness to enforce his ideas. Goethe’s saying that the man of action has no conscience did not apply to Sharett. His scrupulousness merely diminished his effectiveness from time to time. To fight a political battle with irreproachable tactics is almost impossible, and Sharett was not a man to pound the table, to mobilize his supporters for defense and attack, or to consider his choice of means justified by his ends. On the other hand, these shortcomings lent him a moral position all his own. He became, especially in the last years of his life, Israel’s great ethical authority, and while he was not feared and held in awe like other leaders, he was revered and loved more than any.

            His attitude toward the Zionist organization and toward rela­tions between Israel and the Diaspora was similar to mine. He supported these ideas as long as he was an influential figure in the Israeli government, and after he resigned I tried to get him to return to a leading role in Zionism. Having become president of the WZO in 1956, I suggested more than once that he become my co-president. This he refused, but I did finally manage to persuade him to become chairman of the Zionist Executive, a position that gave him the opportunity to perform important services. His presence increased the prestige and authority of the organization, especially in Israel. Since he was also a tireless worker and took care of all the routine details in which I was not much interested, he was a much better chairman than I would ever have been and gave the Zionist movement new impetus. I had always hoped he would succeed me as president, and his unexpected death was an irreparable personal loss and a severe blow to the Zionist organization. He played a decisive part in whatever limited success was achieved in rebuilding the WZO after the founding of Israel.

SOURCE: The Autobiography of Nahum Goldmann (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1969), 319-22