Moshe Sharett: The dapper diplomat

Moshe, born Shertok, chose the Hebrew name of Sharett, from the root “to serve”; he chose well.

moshe sharett 224 (photo credit: )
moshe sharett 224
(photo credit: )
These few snapshots run the gamut from family joy to great tragedy; they illustrate the human face of the founder of Israel’s foreign service and diplomacy.
Hanukka, early 1960s
Our upstairs neighbor, Koby Sharett, invites us to join the family in candle lighting. His father, former prime minister, former foreign minister, now chairman of the WZO and Jewish Agency, recites the blessings and lights the candles. Then conducting with his hands, as though to an orchestra, he leads us in harmoniously singing the traditional songs.
The Sharett family had music in its genes: Moshe Sharett’s younger brother, Yehuda, was a composer, violinist and educator.
An ear for music is, in my opinion, the basis for learning languages. Moshe Sharett knew the music of many, including Yiddish, Russian, Arabic, Turkish, French, English and an impeccable, literary Hebrew.
He was pedantic in his devotion to Hebrew. As Israel’s first minister of foreign affairs, he not only wrote comments, questions and instructions on the many reports his diplomats sent him, but corrected their Hebrew as well.
The Sharett home, Balfour Street, Jerusalem, early 1950s
The foreign minister and his diminutive wife, Tzipora, are entertaining the immensely talented Yiddish actress Molly Picon and her husband, Yankel Kalich, himself an actor and playwright. Picon was an American-born legend, having played on the Yiddish stage and in films in the US and in Europe, and eventually had star roles on Broadway and in Hollywood and on TV.
At Sharett’s request, with her husband at the grand piano in the minister’s official residence, she sang Yiddish comic favorites, ending in a pronounced (and affected) Lower East Side accent in English: “Busy, busy, busy, busy/ All the day I’m in a whoil./ Busy busy till I’m dizzy/ Heaven help da woikin’ goil!” Sharett was delighted and totally at home with Yiddish culture as he was with reborn Hebrew literature and of course European classics in all the languages he commanded. He projected ease, a natural poise, whether he was meeting the great power figures of the world or making cultural figures and artistic icons welcome in his home.
Sharett with overseas contributors: tea and sympathy?
The shape of Israel today (under the 1949 armistice agreements) is like... usually we would say “a Coca-Cola bottle.”
Not Moshe Sharett. He had an another view of shape, and perhaps shapeliness.
“The shape of Israel today is like that of a beautiful woman,” he said. Using his hands, he sketched female curves in the air. Sharett liked people in general, and appreciated women in particular. The choice of words was no accident.
On an El Al plane to New York
The minister sat near the front in the half-empty plane. I was young, brash and bored. Also I had just read Chesterton’s mystery story about the criminal who was “invisible” because he had worn a uniform. (A postman’s in this case. No pun intended.) I wanted to find out if I would also become invisible: I convinced the steward to let me pull on his blue El Al jacket and uniform cap.
The visor of the cap covering my hair, I went from passenger to passenger, bearing a tray of hard candy, with a solicitous, polite, “Bevakashah! [Please]” The minister stared at me, face-toface, eyeball-to-eyeball. I was afraid he had recognized me.
No reaction.
I gave the jacket back, returned the cap, victorious! (Afterthought number one: Was I really victorious? Perhaps it was Sharett the diplomat, seeing and pretending not to see. Or was it worth his while to give it any thought? Afterthought number two: Imagine these things happening today: a minister in the cabin section, no bodyguard; and the airline attendant switching jackets with a passenger.)
A historical note
In 1953, David Ben-Gurion – claiming exhaustion after 18 draining years (from 1935, when he became chairman of the World Zionist Organization- Jewish Agency) – resigned.
Moshe Sharett became the second prime minister, and Pinhas Lavon minister of defense.
Nonetheless, the chiefs of the Defense Ministry, the army, and the secret services continued to make the pilgrimage to B-G’s place of retirement at Kibbutz Sde Boker. B-G was still the decision-maker, or at least chief adviser. Prime Minister Sharett was often by-passed; he was often not consulted about major military or intelligence operations.
The consummate diplomat had pushed a policy of negotiation in order to achieve peace with our neighbors. B-G’s basic thesis was that peace could only come from Israel’s superior strength.
Sharett was sandwiched between B-G’s “retirement” and his return to the Defense Ministry in 1955. When B-G became prime minister again, he fired Sharett; quite obviously, he could not have a foreign minister who did not share his basic strategy.
The gentleman diplomat was replaced by the “toughest man in the cabinet,” Golda Meir.
Leaving the ministry he had built, diplomats he and his hand-picked director-general, Walter Eytan, had trained, undoubtedly broke his heart.
The symbol of Israeli diplomacy had been sandwiched and consumed.
Labor Party Convention held to decide between prime minister Eshkol and challenger Ben-Gurion, 1964
White-faced, in a wheelchair, Moshe Sharett, in the terminal stages of cancer, made a diminutive, shrunken figure on the large stage of Habimah Hall.
He speaks seated. His last public appearance. The microphone carries the softer timbre, the underlying honesty and pain, the physical weakness, the approaching death, the moral strength.
His very presence is also a settling of accounts with B-G. His appearance, obviously a dying man summoning all his waning strength, had an immense impact. He backs Eshkol; so does the convention. The democratic precedent of orderly transition of power is set for the first time in Israel. A precedent now taken for granted.
Moshe, born Shertok, had chosen the Hebrew name of Sharett, from the root “to serve.” He chose well.
Avraham Avi-hai was a senior civil servant in the offices of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, an academic and world chairman of Keren Hayesod- UIA. His novel A Tale of Two Avrahams is available on [email protected]