At the end of a series of meetings with Yaakov “Kobi” Sharett, after a total of about ten hours of interviews, with some chutzpah I asked him the obvious question. I wanted to know if he was sure that what he was saying, was said with a clear, considered mind. Sharett, who recently entered his 95th year, smiled and nodded, yes.
Yaakov Sharett, the son of Israel’s first foreign minister and second prime minister, Moshe Sharett, feels no need to mince his words. He is sharp, incisive and precise – and wants to send to the readers a message that is hard to digest.
The son of the man who signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 is ending his days as an anti-Zionist who opposes aliyah and encourages emigration from Israel, predicts dark days for the country. He even supports the Iranian nuclear program.
“The State of Israel and the Zionist enterprise were born in sin. That’s the way it is,” said this man, who served in the pre-state Palmach, volunteered for the Jewish Brigade in the British Army during World War II, cofounded a kibbutz in the Negev, and served in the Shin Bet security Service and Nativ, the government’s liaison bureau for immigration from Eastern Europe. “This original sin pursues and will pursue us and hang over us. We justify it, and it has become an existential fear, which expresses itself in all sorts of ways. There is a storm beneath the surface of the water,” he says.
“I'm 94 years old,” added Sharett (the interview took place before his 95th birthday). “I reached my age in peace. Financially, my situation is reasonable. But I fear for the future and fate of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Speaking from a penthouse in central Tel Aviv (prime real estate), you don’t appear to be suffering.
“I describe myself as a collaborator against my will. I’m a forced collaborator with a criminal country. I’m here, I have nowhere to go. Because of my age I can’t go anywhere. And that bothers me. Every day. This recognition won’t leave me. The recognition that in the end Israel is a country occupying and abusing another people.”
The ‘Get thee out of thine country’ gene
Some of Sharetts – the family consists of Yaakov and his wife Rina, with their three children, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren – already moved abroad, to New York.
His grandfather, Yaakov Shertok – for whom he was named, and whose surname was later Hebraicized to “Sharett” – was among the founders of the Bilu “Palestine pioneers” movement. He reached Israel in 1882, after a series of pogroms in Russia that came to be dubbed Sufot b’Negev: “Storms in the South.” But a few years later he went back, “yarad,” his grandson says, and had a family in the Diaspora. Moshe Sharett, Yaakov’s father was born in the city of Kherson on the Dnieper River, which is today in Russia, and back then was in Ukraine. Then, in 1906, in the wake of more pogroms, the grandfather and his family returned to Israel – this time permanently.
Your father made aliyah at age 12. Did he consider himself a Zionist?
“My father made aliyah because his father made aliyah. Not because he wanted to himself. It’s one of the differences between Sharett and the Second Aliyah band, which founded Mapei and the country. They, and Ben-Gurion at their head, were older than him and made aliyah of their own will. But Sharett was not one of them. He did not undergo any internal upheaval that turned him into a Zionist.”
When they arrived, the family went to live in the Arab village of Ein Senya north of Ramallah. Over the next two years Moshe learned Arabic. In 1908 they moved to Tel Aviv, where he studied, along with his sister Rivka, in the first class of the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium high school.
Later, one of his teachers at the school told about the young man who suddenly stood up and began speaking Arabic, so much so that “I didn’t believe he was a Jew.”
The Sharett siblings made friends at school who would became family, and would become known in the pre-state Jewish community, the “Yishuv,” as the “four in-laws.” These included Dov Hoz, one of the founders of the pre-state Haganah underground militia and one of the pioneers of flying in British Mandate Palestine; Eliyahu Golomb, the uncrowned commander of the Haganah; and Shaul Avigur – originally Meirov, a founder of the Haganah and the commander of the Mossad Le’aliyah Bet mission, to smuggle Jews into Palestine; later he would become the head of Nativ.
Moshe married Tzipora Meirov, Avigur’s sister. Hoz married Rivka, Sharett’s sister. Golomb married Ada, the younger sister of Moshe and Rivka. The Shertok family home, on Rothschild Boulevard served as the headquarters of the Haganah and the meetings of the group’s leadership – led by the “in-laws” – were held there. A famous phrase from the period attributed the rebirth of Israel to the acts of “the miracles and the in-laws” (it rhymes in Hebrew). Tzipora, Moshe Sharett’s wife and Yaakov’s mother, born in Kvutzat Kinneret, studied agriculture in England, specializing in dairy. Back in Israel, she managed the workers moshav in Nahalat Yehuda near Rishon Letzion.
After high school, Moshe Sharett went to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled the land that would be Israel, to study law – as did both Ben-Gurion and the future president Yitzhak Ben Zvi – but World War I, which broke out in 1914, cut the plan short. He returned to Palestine and became active in the “Ottomanization” (or Turkification) Movement – which said that only if the Jews in Israel would take on Ottoman citizenship would it be possible to prevent their expulsion.
In the school where he had studied when he was young, he now taught Turkish, and later even enlisted in the Ottoman army. “My father said that they didn’t come to dispossess the Arabs, but to live with them. He believed there would be room for everyone,” said Yaakov. This approach, conciliatory, naïve or self-righteous – everyone can decide for themselves – pushed Sharett into being the eternal “number 2.” His son agrees that today they would be calling him scornfully a “leftist” and maybe even “hater of Israel.”
Over the next few decades, he worked his way into the heart of Zionist activity when he was chosen to be the head of the diplomatic department of the Jewish Agency. His resume includes the strategic planning of the “Tower and Stockade” enterprise; the building of the Tel Aviv port; the founding of the Jewish auxiliary police force (Notrim); and the jewel in the crown – the project for volunteering for the British army, peaking in the establishment of the Jewish Brigade during World War II.
When Israel was founded, Sharett was appointed foreign minister; later he would replace Ben-Gurion as prime minister for a short time.
It is hard to doubt your father’s Zionism and love of the land. Today he has great-grandchildren in New York. How would he feel if he knew about it?
“It’s impossible to discount yerida [leaving Israel] as a curse. There are almost no Israelis who don’t have relatives overseas. I’m happy that I have granddaughters, great-granddaughters and a great-grandson in New York.
"I’m not ashamed to say it. Sharett had a yored father too. My grandfather. If he hadn’t left Israel, I wouldn’t have been born, because after he made yerida he established a family. As opposed to the false mantra ‘I have no other country,’ the facts show that there are other countries. There is more than one land. Over a million Israelis live abroad. The ideological Zionist commitment evaporates the more the generations pass. People understand that there are better places where to raise children and live. Everywhere has problems, life itself is a problem, but Israel has existential problems.”
Nonetheless, don’t you have a feeling of missing out? Your father signed the Declaration of Independence, and you no longer see Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.
“The life of the Jewish people is a tragedy. Our people, at a very early stage, proved that it is not a dutiful people and doesn’t know how to sustain a state. So, for most of its time it did not have a national existence, but the existence of a persecuted and hated minority, that lives which lives without a higher organization and without its own government. It may be paying a price, but it withstood it.
"One of the genes in our national DNA is the ‘Get thee out of thine country’ (Lekh Lekha) gene that began back in the days of our father Abraham. Since the days of the Second Temple, most of the Jews haven’t lived in Israel. They established a magnificent community on the Tigris River and after that moved to Spain, where they created a wonderful culture for a thousand years, and from there they dispersed all over …”
And then came the pogroms and after that the Holocaust, and many realized that the “Jewish problem” was solvable only in a territorial way.
“Suddenly people say, ‘We know what needs to be done,’ for everyone, and are prepared to force their ideas on the public. Who put you [in charge]? The moment Zionism called for the Jews to immigrate to Israel, in order to establish here one home for the Jewish people, which will be a sovereign state, a conflict was created. The Zionist idea was to come to a place where there were people, members of another people, members of another religion, completely different.
"Have you seen anywhere in the world where the majority would agree to give in to a foreign invader, who says, ‘our forefathers were here,’ and demands to enter the land and take control? The conflict was inherent and Zionism denied this, ignored it… as the proportion of Jews to Arabs changed in favor of the Jews, the Arabs realized that they were losing the majority. Who would agree to such a thing?
“So violent conflict began, the riots of 1920, 1921, 1929, 1936–1939, and war and another war and another war. Many say that we ‘deserve’ the land because the Arabs could have accepted us as we were and then everything would have been alright. But they started the war, so they shouldn’t complain. I see in this whole transformation of the majority [Arab] to a minority and the minority [Jewish] into a majority as immoral.”
So you claim that your father was also immoral and so are you – your biography intertwined with that of the Zionist Movement and Israel in its seminal period.
“If Israel is not OK, I’m not OK either, as someone who pays taxes here. For a certain period there was great hope here that something new had been created. I was a part of that. But now, Zionism, from my point of view, has disappeared. All the promises we made disappeared. I am not comfortable with this. Our national agenda is blood, death and violence. This flag files to this day in our country as a vision. Israel lives on the sword and sharpens it. I am completely alienated from this.”
What went wrong on the way?
“The Jewish people had two great enemies, Hitler and Stalin, the hangmen of Jewish culture, who emptied and destroyed it – in Poland and the Soviet Union. Those who planned the state were directed first and foremost to the Jewish tribe. Hitler’s Holocaust and Stalin’s spiritual genocide completely changed the structure and the demographic makeup of Israel. Only after it turned out that those who were supposed to come no longer exist, other Jews came. I don’t discount them. From a Jewish perspective they are as Jewish as me and you, but their background is different. They were raised in Muslim countries and came from a background of religions, clans and admiration of the father. People like that then came into Israel, and that changed the situation and to this day is causing problems and upheavals.”
Would you prefer to see Israel Ashkenazi, secular and liberal, like you are?
“I’m speaking frankly because I have nothing to hide. I’m 94 years old... The more homogenous society is, the healthier it is. The less so, there are problems. I’m disappointed in the fate of the Jewish people, which divided us into tribes. I’m also disappointed in the character of the state. When I see the prime minister with a kipah on his head, I don’t feel good. This is not the Israel I want to see. How did it happen that this new place, that was to have brought innovations, became the blackest place, controlled by the nationalist ultra-Orthodox? How is it that here of all places, there’s reactionism and zealotry, messianism, the desire to expand and control another people?”
A trap for the emissary
Yaakov Sharett was born in 1927 to a well-connected family of the cream of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. After him came Yael (the future author Yael Medini), in 1931, and Haim in 1933. He spent his first three years in Tel Aviv and after that, with his father’s career advancement, the family moved to Jerusalem. He studied in Jerusalem with the geographer David Benbenisti, the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz and the lexicographer Avraham Even Shoshan.
As a young man, Sharett went to study at Colombia University in the United States and Oxford in the U.K. His expertise was in what was called at the time “Sovietology,” for which he learned fluent Russian, his father’s mother tongue. His uncle, Shaul Avigur, enlisted him in 1960 in a secret unit he had established and led, called Nativ, whose members entered the Soviet Union under the cover of Israeli Embassy staff and helped Jews behind the Iron Curtain.
Sharett was appointed “first secretary” of the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, and crisscrossed the Soviet Union looking for Jews who showed an interest in Israel and Zionism. His stay there was stopped suddenly after a year, when he was expelled on charges of espionage. One day, while on a visit to Riga, he accepted a letter from a person who presented himself as Jewish and asked him to deliver it to relatives in Israel. This was apparently a trap, because later, as he describes it, “two hulks jumped me, picked me up off the ground, without considering that I had diplomatic immunity.” When he was questioned he was shown the letter that he had hidden in the pocket of his coat, and when they opened it, they found a picture of a missile.
“Yaakov Sharett expelled from the U.S.S.R.” the newspapers of the day reported. The Soviet news agency Tass reported that Sharett was “caught while spying, touring various parts of the Soviet Union to establish espionage ties and distributing Zionist anti-Soviet illegal literature.
After his return from Israel he worked for a time in the new Russian department that had been opened in Military Intelligence research. He later retired from intelligence work. “The Russian Aliyah disappointed me greatly,” he says today. “The people that I so much wanted to come here turned out to be right wing and nationalist – the result of years living half-assimilated and needing to hide their origin. Now they turned to the most fanatic and extreme side. I took part in bringing my enemies here. Avigdor Lieberman is a settler. Politically, he is my enemy,” he adds.
But it’s not the arrival of this or that individual that bothers Sharett. He opposes encouraging people to move to Israel. “Israel is the only country that works to increase its population. Whoever heard of such a thing. That emissaries persuade people to come and live in Israel? There aren’t enough people and traffic jams here?”
To compromise is not to capitulate
The next station in Sharett’s life was journalism. He wrote and edited for the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv for two decades, between 1963 and 1983. In the early 1970s he wrote for Ma’ariv from Tehran, where he moved following his wife, a choreographer and dancer who taught dance there. In the early 1980s he also wrote a column called “Man from Mars” in the weekly anti-establishment magazine Haolam Hazeh, where he expressed his critical look at Israelis, as if he were from another planet.
Sharett also wrote, edited and translated books. In 1988 his book “The State of Israel of the Altneuland house has passed away” the cover shows a death notice in Hebrew. Sharett wrote there that is was “a desperate cry of the moment after the last moment and warms of “an unprecedented existential crisis beyond the possibility of overcoming or preventing it.”
Other books he translated, “Silent Spring” and “The End of Nature” dealt with a crisis of another kind – the climate crisis, years before the issue appeared on the Israeli agenda.
Sharett celebrated his 94th birthday in July. “I’m an old man, aware of my age, and I know my years are numbered. I’m not afraid of death itself, but I am afraid of form death will take,” he says in conclusion, and reveals that he has made the decision to take his own life “if I reach the point where my life no longer justifies itself and that I’m a dead man walking, who has no meaning or contribution, but is only a burden on others and his family.” He has already informed his family of his decision. He will contribute his body to science. “I don’t need a grave. I don’t go to the graves of my family. I don’t think that a person’s memory, his soul, is associated with his bones or the place he is buried. I don’t want to take up space in a tiny country like ours. There’s no point at all. In any case, in one or two generations the headstones will be forgotten and abandoned. “
But before all this happens, he still wants the time to write his autobiography, some of whose chapter headings he revealed in this article. He’s already chosen the name for the book: “Forced Collaborator.”
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