'We Are Living by the Sword': The Regrets of an Israel Founder's Son
y name is Yaakov Sharett. I am 92 years old. I happen to be my father’s son for which I am not responsible. So this is how it is.”
Yaakov chuckles and looks up from under a woolly hat towards a photograph of his father - proud in collar and tie - on his study wall in Tel Aviv. Moshe Sharett was a founding father of Israel, its first foreign minister and its second prime minister from 1954-55.
But I hadn’t come to talk about Yaakov’s father. I had come with photographs of a well which was once located in an Arab village called Abu Yahiya, situated in the Negev region in what is now southern Israel.
Researching a book, I had recently found the well and learned something of the history of Abu Yahiya village. I had heard how the Palestinians who once lived there were expelled in the war of 1948, which led to the creation of Israel.
I had also heard that Zionist frontiersmen, who set up an outpost near the village before the 1948 war, used to draw water from the Arabs’ well. Among them was a young Jewish soldier called Yaakov Sharett. So I had come to see Yaakov in the hope he might share his memories of the well, the villagers and the events of 1948.
In 1946, two years before the Arab-Israeli war, Yaakov and a group of comrades moved to the area of Abu Yahiya to help spearhead one of the Zionists most breathtaking land grabs.
As a young soldier, Sharett was appointed mukhtar – or chief - of one of 11 Jewish outposts established by stealth in the Negev. The purpose was to secure a Jewish foothold to ensure Israel could seize the strategic area when war came.
Draft partition plans had designated the Negev, where Arabs vastly outnumbered Jews, as part of an Arab state, but Jewish strategists were determined to take it as theirs.
The so-called “11 points” operation was a huge success, and during the war the Arabs were virtually all driven out, and the Negev was declared part of Israel.
For the daring frontiersmen involved, it was a badge of honour to have taken part and Yaakov Sharett seemed excited by his memories at first.
“We set off, with wire and posts and tracked through Wadi Beersheva,” he says. I flick open a laptop showing photographs of the Arab well, now an Israeli tourist spot.
“Yes,” says Yaakov, amazed. “I know it. I knew Abu Yahiya. A nice man. A tall, lean Bedouin with a sympathetic face. He sold me water. It was delicious.”
What happened to the villagers, I wonder? He pauses. “When war came, the Arabs fled - expelled. I somehow don’t remember,” he says, pausing again.
“I returned afterwards and the area was quite empty. Empty! Except,” and he peers at the photo of the well again.
“You know, this nice man was somehow still there afterwards. He asked for my help. He was in a very bad way - very sick, and barely able to walk, all alone. Everyone else was gone.”
But Yaakov offered no help. “I said nothing. I feel very bad about it. Because he was my friend,” he says.
Yaakov looks up clearly pained. “I regret it all very much. What can I say?”
And as what was to be our short interview ran on, it became clear that Yaakov Sharett regretted not only the Negev venture, but the entire Zionist project as well.
From Ukraine to Palestine
Panning out across the history, Yaakov seemed at times more like a man confessing than giving an interview.
After the 1948 war and the establishment of Israel, Yaakov studied Russian in the US and was then posted as a diplomat to the Israeli embassy in Moscow, only to be expelled from Russia accused of being a “Zionist propagandist and a CIA spy”.
On return to Israel, he worked as a journalist and on retirement devoted his later years to establishing the Moshe Sharett Heritage Society, dedicated to publishing Sharett's papers and diaries – one section in English. The Sharett diaries have been highly acclaimed, described by one critic as “among the best political diaries ever published”.
Often referring in our interview to his father’s central role in establishing Israel, Yaakov’s thoughts had evidently been brought into focus by the years he’d spent editing Moshe Sharett’s writings. Haaretz, the centre-left Israeli newspaper, commenting on the eight-volume Hebrew edition of the diaries, said it was “difficult to overstate their importance to the study of Israeli history”.
This week, publication of the abridged English edition, also translated by Yaakov – My Struggle for Peace (1953-1956) - will be celebrated at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. “It is the apex of my life’s work,” says Yaakov.
This work had also made the pain of his conclusions all the deeper as he now disavowed the validity of much of his father’s “life’s work” – and, I learn, his grandfather’s too.
His grandfather, Jacob Shertok - the original family name - was one of the first Zionists to set foot in Palestine, leaving his home in Kherson, Ukraine, in 1882 after Russian pogroms.
“He had this dream of tilling the land. The big Zionist idea was going back to the land and leaving the superficial activities of Jews who had become remote from land,” he says.
“They thought that, little by little, more Jews would immigrate until they became a majority, and could demand a state, which they then called a ‘homeland’ to avoid controversy.”
I wonder what Yaakov’s grandfather thought would happen to the Arabs, who then comprised about 97 percent of the population, with Jews around 2 to 3 percent.
“I think he thought the more Jews that came, the more they’d bring prosperity and the Arabs would be happy. They didn’t realise people don’t live only on money. We would have to be the dominant power, but the Arabs would get used to it,” he says.
Adding with a wistful smile: “Well, either they believed it or they wanted to believe it. My grandfather’s generation were dreamers. If they had been realists, they would not have come to Palestine in the first place. It was never possible for a minority to replace a majority that had lived on this land for hundreds of years. It could never work,” he says.
Four years later, Jacob wished he hadn’t come, returning to Russia, not because of Palestinian hostility - Jewish numbers were still tiny - but because he couldn’t make a living here.
Many of the very early settlers in Palestine found working on the land far harder than they had ever imagined, often returning to Russia in despair. But in 1902, after more pogroms, Jacob Sharett returned, this time with a family including Moshe, aged eight.
Palestinians were still - for the most part - welcoming to Jews as the threat of Zionism remained unclear. A member of the prosperous Husseini family, who was headed abroad, even offered Yaakov’s grandfather his house to rent in the village of Ein Siniya, now in the occupied West Bank.
For two years, grandfather Shertok lived there like an Arab grandee while his children attended a Palestinian kindergarten. “My father herded sheep, learned Arabic and generally lived like an Arab,” says Yaakov.
Psychology of the minority
But the Zionist plan was to live like Jews so before long, the family had moved to the fast-growing Jewish hub of Tel Aviv and Moshe was soon honing every skill - including studying Ottoman law in Istanbul - in order to further the Zionist project.
Thanks to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine and ushered in British colonial rule, plans for a full-blown Jewish state now seemed possible, and over the next two decades, Moshe Sharett helped design it, becoming a key figure in the Jewish Agency, the state’s government-in-waiting.
Central to the project was the creation of a Jewish majority and ownership of as much of the land as possible, to which end Sharett worked closely with his ally David Ben-Gurion. Immigration rose fast, and land was bought, usually from absentee Arab landlords.
The pace of change provoked the Palestinian revolt of 1936, brutally crushed by the British. In the light of that revolt, did the future prime minister ever question whether the Jewish state could work?
“No,” says Yaakov. The leadership were “still full of justifying their ideas of Zionism. You must remember that they all thought in terms of being Jewish and how they had been subjugated by majorities in the countries in which they had lived.
“My father said this: ‘Wherever there is a minority, every member has a stick and rucksack in his cupboard'. Psychologically, he realises a bad day will come and he will have to leave. So the priority was always to create a majority and shake off the psychology of the minority for ever.
“My father and the rest still thought that most Arabs would sell their national honour for the food we would give them. It was a nice dream, but at the cost of others. And anyone who did not agree was a traitor.”
As a young teenager, in the early 1940s, Yaakov didn’t question his father’s outlook. Quite the contrary.
“I must say,” he continues, “when I was in the Zionist Youth Movement, we went around the Arab villages on foot and you saw an Arab village and learned its Hebrew name as in the Bible and you felt the time has not divided between you and it. I have never been religious, but this is what you felt.”
By 1939, World War Two had broken out and many young Jews had joined the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, serving in Europe. The Jewish Brigade was an idea of Yaakov’s father, and as soon as he was old enough, Yaakov volunteered, joining up in 1944, aged 17. But a few months later – in April 1945 – the war was over and Yaakov was too late to see any service.
Back in Palestine, those young Jewish soldiers who had served in Europe were amongst those now being recruited to fight in what many knew was coming next: a new war in Palestine to establish a state of Israel. Yaakov - who had clearly not yet started to see that Zionism “was at the cost of others” - readily agreed to play his part.
Now aged 19, Yaakov was picked to play the role of a Jewish mukhtar, or village head, at a quasi-military outpost in the Negev, a barren terrain barely settled by Jews.
“I didn’t think a lot about politics back then. To build this settlement was literally our dream,” he says.
His wife, Rena, has joined us, perching on a stool, and nods in agreement. Rena Sharett was another eager Zionist who claimed the Negev in 1946.
Before 1948, the Negev constituted the British administrative district of Beersheva and the district of Gaza, which together made up half the land of Palestine. Touching the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, the terrain had vital access to water.
So not surprisingly, the Zionists, who had to date succeeded in purchasing just 6 percent of Palestinian land, were determined to seize it.
However, given that about 250,000 Arabs lived in the Negev, in 247 villages, compared to about 500 Jews in three small outposts, a recent Anglo-American partition plan had divided mandate Palestine between Jews and Arabs, apportioning the Negev region as part of a future Palestinian state.
A British ban on new settlement had also hindered Zionist attempts to alter the status quo. Arabs had always opposed any plan that envisaged the Palestinians as “an indigenous majority living on their ancestral soil, being converted overnight into a minority under alien rule,” as the Palestinian historian, Walid Khalidi, summarised it.
In late 1946, however, with a new United Nations partition plan in the making, the Zionist leaders saw it was now or never for the Negev.
Now or never
So the “11 points” plan was launched. Not only would the new settlements boost the Jewish presence there, they would serve as military bases when war broke out, as it inevitably would.
Everything had to be done in secret due to the British ban and it was decided to erect the outposts on the night of 5 October, just after Yom Kippur. “The British would never expect the Jews to do such a thing the night after Yom Kippur,” says Yaakov.
“I remember when we found our piece of land on the top of a barren hill. It was still dark, but we managed to bang in the posts and soon, we were inside our fence. At first light, trucks came with pre-fabricated barracks. It was quite a feat. We worked like devils. Ha! I will never forget it.”
Looking out from inside their fence, the settlers at first didn’t see any Arabs, but then made out the tents of Abu Yahiya’s village, and a few “dirty huts”, as Yaakov described them.
Soon, they were asking the Arabs for water. “I collected our water for our settlement from that well every day in my truck, that’s how I became friends with Abu Yahiya,” he says.
With his smattering of Arabic, he chatted to others too: “They loved to talk. On it went when I had work to do,” he laughs. “I don’t think they were happy with us there exactly, but they were at peace with us. There was no enmity.”
Another local Arab chief watched out for their security in return for a small payment. “It was a kind of agreement we had with him. He’d act as guard and every month, he’d come up to our fence and sit there quite still – he looked like just a small bundle of clothes,” Yaakov says, smiling broadly.
“He was waiting for payment and I shook his hand and got him to sign some sort of receipt with his thumb which I gave to the authorities in Tel Aviv and they gave me money for the next time. That was my only real responsibility as mukhtar,” says Yaakov, adding that everyone knew he only got this role as chief because he was his father’s son.
Moshe Sharett, by now a leading political figure, was known as a moderate, and as such was viewed with suspicion by some military hardliners.
The new Negev desert outposts were planned in large part as centres for gathering intelligence about the Arabs, and Yaakov believes it was probably because of his father he too was distrusted and excluded by those sent to the outpost to lay military plans
“Instead I was really used just as a jack of all trades” - driving, collecting water, buying fuel in Gaza or Beersheba. He sounds nostalgic for the freedom of that arid landscape, though the settlers were always back inside their fence at night.
He came to know other Arab villages, too, like Burayr “which was always hostile, I don’t know why,” but most were friendly, particularly a village called Huj. “I used to drive through Huj often and knew it well.”
During the 1948 war, the residents of Huj reached an agreement in writing with Jewish authorities that they be allowed to stay, but they were driven out like all the other 247 villages of this area, mostly to Gaza. The Palestinians called the expulsions their Nakba – or catastrophe.
I asked Yaacov what he recalled of the Arab exodus in May 1948, but he was absent at the time as Rena’s brother was killed in fighting further east so the couple had left to join her family.
I told Yaacov I’d met survivors of the Abu Yahiya clan, who recounted being driven by Jewish soldiers into Wadi Beersheba where the men were separated from the women and some were shot, then the rest were expelled.
What is the Nakba? Day of catastrophe for Palestinians, explained
“Somehow I don’t remember that,” says Yaakov. But plumbing his memory, he suddenly recalls other atrocities including events at Burayr, the hostile village, where in May 1948 there was a massacre, with between 70 to 100 villagers killed, according to survivors and Palestinian historians.
“One of our boys helped take Burayr. I remember he said when he got there the Arabs had already mostly fled and he opened the door of a house and saw an old man there so he shot him. He enjoyed shooting him,” he says.
By the time Beersheba was taken in October 1948, Yaakov had returned to his nearby outpost, now given the Hebrew name, Hatzerim.
“I learned our boys had led the army to the town,” he says. “We knew the area very well and could guide them through the wadis [riverbeds]”.
After Beersheba fell, Yaakov drove his comrades down in a truck to take a look: “It was empty, totally empty.” The entire population of about 5,000 had been expelled and driven in trucks to Gaza.
I had heard there was a lot of looting. “Yes,” he says. “We took things from several empty houses. We took what we could - furniture, radios, utensils. Not for ourselves, but to help the kibbutz. After all, Beersheva was empty and belonged to nobody now.”
What did he think of that? “Again, I must confess I didn’t think much at all at the time. We were proud of occupying Beersheva. Although I must say, we’d had so many friends there before.”
Yaakov says he couldn’t remember if he had looted himself: “I probably did. I was one of them. We were very happy. If you don’t take it, someone else will. You don’t feel you have to give it back. They were not coming back.”
What did you think about that? He pauses. “We didn’t think about it then. My father, in fact, said they will not come back. My father was a moral man. I don’t think he was a party to the orders to expel the Arabs. Ben-Gurion was. Sharett no. But he accepted it as a fact. I think he knew something was going wrong, but he didn’t fight it,” he says.
“After the war my father gave a lecture and said I don’t know why a man should live two years secluded in a village [a reference to his time growing up in Ein Siniya] to realise that Arabs are human beings. This kind of saying you won’t get from any other Jewish leader…this was my father.”
Then, as if confessing on behalf of his father too, Yaakov adds: “But I have to be frank, my father had some cruel things to say about the refugees. He was against their return; he agreed with Ben-Gurion on that.”
Far more cruel than Sharett was Moshe Dayan. Appointed after the war as chief of staff by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, Dayan had the task of keeping back the Negev refugees and many others “fenced in” behind the Gaza armistice lines.
In 1956, a Gaza refugee killed an Israeli settler, Roi Rotberg, and at his funeral, Dayan gave a famous eulogy urging Israelis to accept, once and for all, that the Arabs would never live in peace beside them, and he spelled out why: the Arabs had been expelled from their homes which were now lived in by Jews.
But Dayan urged the Jews to respond not by seeking compromise but by “looking squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of Arabs who live around us and be forever ready and armed, tough and hard”.
This speech made a profound impression on Yaakov Sharrett. “I said this was a fascist speech. He was telling people to live by the sword,” he says. Moshe Sharett, who was foreign minister at the time, had been urging compromise through diplomacy for which he was called “weak”.
But it wasn’t until 1967, when he started working as a journalist for the centrist Israeli paper, Maariv, that Yaakov lost his faith in Zionism.
‘They were the majority’
In the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel seized more land, this time in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, where military occupation was imposed on the Palestinians who hadn’t fled this time.
Touring the West Bank, Sharett stared at the stunned but defiant Arab faces and felt “uneasy” once again, particularly when he visited his old family village of Ein Siniya, which his father, now dead, had spoken of so affectionately. It was here that as a child, Moshe had herded sheep and “learned that Arabs were humans”, as Moshe Sharett would say in a later speech.
“The villagers were under the first shock of occupation. They knew the Jews were now the dominating power, but they showed no feelings of hatred. They were simple people. And I remember that several residents came and surrounded us and smiled and told me they remembered my family and the house in which our family lived. So we smiled at each other and I left. I didn’t go back. I didn’t like this occupation and I didn’t want to go there as a master,” he says.
“Have you heard of shooting and weeping?” he asks, with another wistful smile, explaining this was an expression to describe Israelis who, after fighting in the West Bank in 1967 showed shame, but accepted the results.
“But I wanted nothing more to do with this occupation. It was my way of non-identification with it. I was depressed by it, and ashamed.”
The faces of the Ein Sinya villagers revealed something else: “I saw in this defiance that they still had the psychology of the majority. My father used to say war always makes waves of refugees. But he didn’t see that usually those who flee are the minority. In 1948, they were the majority so they will never give up. This is our problem.
“But it took me years to realise what the Nakba was and that the Nakba didn’t start in 1967 but in 1948. We have to realise that.”
Rena chips in. “In 1948, it was a matter of them or us. Life and death. That was the difference,” she says.
“We two disagree on this,” says Yaakov. “My wife lost her brother in 1948. She views it differently.”
‘I would leave tomorrow’
In older age, Yaakov has gone back even further in time, looking into the problems with Zionism since the very beginning.
“Now at -years-old, I realise that the story started with the very idea of Zionism which was a utopian idea. It was meant to save Jewish lives but at the cost of a nation of occupants who inhabited Palestine at this time. The conflict was unavoidable from the beginning.”
I ask if he describes himself as an anti-Zionist. “I am not an anti-Zionist, but I am not a Zionist,” he says, turning to look at Rena, perhaps in case she disapproves – his wife holds less radical views.
On the wall beside the picture of his father are photographs of their children and grandchildren; two of Yaakov’s granddaughters have emigrated to the United States. “I am not afraid to say I am happy they are there and not here,” he says.
I ask if he has “a rucksack and stick” packed ready to go and join them? After all, with his views, Yaakov himself is now in a minority – a small minority - living amid a majority of right-wing Jews here in Israel.
And not only is he ideologically “fenced in” but also physically too. He talks of how he can barely move around Israel nowadays. He refuses to go to Jerusalem which he says has been taken over by ultra-orthodox religious Jews.
“This is one of the most terrible disasters. When we were young, we thought religion was going to vanish.” He says he never wishes to return to his beloved Negev because it was long ago settled by new generations of Jews “who have no empathy with Arabs”.
He can still “breathe” in Tel Aviv, and enjoys speeding around on a scooter, but even here, feels that he lives inside a “bubble”. He chuckles again.
“I call it the Haaretz bubble,” and he explains he is referring to a group of left-wingers who read the liberal Haaretz newspaper. “But this clan has no connection with each other except this daily paper that more or less expresses our opinion. It is the last stronghold. And I feel very bad about it…. It’s true I do not feel at home here.”
Yaakov says he is always thinking about leaving. If other members of his family would join him, he would.
“Look. When you make me think about it, I would leave tomorrow. Thousands are already leaving, most have two passports. We have the worst government we have ever had with Bibi Netanyahu,” he says.
"We are living by the sword, as Dayan said we should…as if we must be forced to make Israel into a kind of citadel against the invaders, but I don’t think it is possible to live by the sword for ever.”
I ask how he sees the future for the Palestinians?
“What can I say? I feel very bad about it. And I am not afraid to say that the treatment of the Palestinians today is Nazi treatment. We don’t have gas chambers, of course, but the mentality is the same. It is racial hatred. They are treated as subhuman,” he says.
Yaakov is well-aware that he - a Jew - will be accused of “antisemitism” for saying such things, but says he believes Israel is “a criminal state”.
“I know they will call me a self-hating Jew for saying that. But I cannot automatically support my country, right or wrong. And Israel must not be immune from criticism. Seeing the difference between antisemitism and criticism of Israel is crucial. To be honest, I am amazed how in 2019 the world outside accepts Israeli propaganda. I really don’t know why they do,” he says.
“And remember that the very aim of Zionism was to release Jews from the curse of antisemitism by giving them their own state. But today, the Jewish state by its own criminal behaviour is one of the most serious causes for this curse.”
What is his prediction for the Jewish state? “I will tell you what my prediction is. I am not afraid to say it. When the time comes, it might come tomorrow, there will be a conflagration, maybe with Hezbollah … a big catastrophe of some sort that will destroy thousands of Jewish homes.
"And we will bomb Beirut but having Lebanese lose their homes won’t help the Jew who loses his home and family, so people will see no reason to stay here anymore. All rational Israelis will then have to leave.
“It doesn’t have to be Hezbollah. The catastrophe might be the strong domination of our own rightists. All the laws enacted by the Knesset now are fascist laws. I have no solution. Israel will become a pariah state,” he says.
Surely, America and the Europeans would never treat Israel as pariah state, I suggest, but Yaakov doesn’t agree: “Their support is mostly shame over the Holocaust. But these feelings of guilt will dwindle in the next generations,” he says.
I ask Yaakov what his father would say if he had heard all this? Rena says she hadn’t even heard Yaakov speak like this before. His eyes dart under his woolly hat.
“I think my father would have to agree with me somewhat. He remained a Zionist to the end, but I think he realised something was wrong. Sometimes, I say he was too moral to be at peace with what is going on here,” he says.
“But he is disappointing because he didn’t arrive at the conclusion his son did. I don’t blame him for that. He absorbed Zionism in his mother’s milk. If he had lived to my age - I am 92, he died at 71 - perhaps he would have seen things like me. I don’t know.”
I get up to leave and pick up my laptop, thereby lighting up the picture of Abu Yahiya’s well again. Our interview has been haunted not only by Moshe Sharett but also by the image of that “tall lean Bedouin with the sympathetic face” last seen by Yaakov, stricken and alone.
“I must say, the picture of that nice man does sometimes come into my mind,” says Yaakov, who then takes me down to the street. Grabbing his scooter, he waves goodbye cheerily and kicks off into the traffic of Tel Aviv.
[My Struggle for Peace, the Diary of Moshe Sharett 1953-1956 is published by Indiana University Press. Sarah Helm is a former Middle East correspondent and diplomatic editor of The Independent. Her books include A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, and If This Is a Woman, Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.]