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Diary translation sharpens focus on forgotten Israeli PM

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Yitzhak Navon with Moshe Sharett (Wikimedia Commons photo - Israeli GPO photographer - public domain)
My Struggle for Peace: The Diary of Moshe Sharett 1953-1956. 3 Volumes. edited and translated by Neil Caplan and Yaakov Sharett (University of Indiana Press)

The diary of Israel’s second prime minister, Moshe Sharett, appeared in Hebrew in 1978 in eight volumes. He began it in the fall of 1953 this way: “I am starting to write a diary, prompted by a sudden urge to record for posterity something of the tumultuous stream of events which makes up my life.” Sharett ceased writing in 1957, upon finding himself removed from the centre of governmental power by David Ben-Gurion. What he set down in the course of a few years provides a deep and detailed portrait of the new State of Israel.

The editorial and English-language translating team of Sharett’s son, Yaakov, and Montreal-based historian Neil Caplan, highlight Sharett’s uniqueness in their carefully edited three-volume version of the Hebrew diary.

The elder Sharett was born Moshe Shertok in southern Ukraine and was brought by his family to Ottoman Palestine in 1882. His first two years there were spent in the Arab village of Ein Sinya, near Nablus, a formative experience that contributed to his fluent Arabic and an unusual political outlook.

Unlike other major early Zionist figures, such as Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, he was not spurred by leftist or nationalist ideology to make aliyah. Nor was his thinking influenced by the various ideologies that youthful Polish- and Russian-born Zionists brought with them from their eastern European birthplaces.

Sharett’s diplomatic and intellectual skills contributed to an impressive range of pre-state and post-independence undertakings. These included the enlistment of Palestinian Jews in the British army during the Second World War, early Zionist efforts to gain acknowledgement from the United Nations, reparation negotiations with the postwar West German government, behind-the-scenes discussions with the United States and France aimed at gaining arms and a secret water-use deal with the Arab governments of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, which held until the Six-Day War.

Sharett records these pursuits alongside his increasing disagreement and discomfort with retaliatory actions taken by the Israel Defence Forces in response to the murder of Israelis along its borders. Here, Sharett confronted dominant trends in Israeli defence policy under the leadership of Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, which were pursued by young military officers like Ariel Sharon.

Sharett’s diary served as a refuge from these struggles, which he increasingly lost. He is an exacting reporter on the events of his day, as well as on their impact on him in his role as foreign minister and prime minister.

READ: THE RISE AND FALL OF A HALIFAX ARCHITECT

For North Americans, Sharett has faded from view, just as his kind of leadership and strategic approach has moved to the political margins. A fortunate meeting between Caplan and the younger Sharrett created a winning combination of access, translating prowess and scholarly and editorial skill to bring the diary into focus for English readers. To do this, they have supplemented the original diary with notes that cite private letters, minutes from cabinet meetings and public speeches, which further fill in the historical picture that Sharett meant to record.

The result is a gripping lesson in historical events, key figures and background context that offers a renewed sense of early Israeli political life.

As he began his diary, Sharett lamented that his inability to start sooner allowed images to vanish, voices “to become mute…. I doubt if I shall persevere and make an established custom of it.”

In an epilogue to the diary, Caplan signals its value as a record of “signposts of a worldview and policy options forever lost.” 

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