The reparations, the forging of ties, and the controversy
The very night that the Israeli government presented the 34th Knesset in Jerusalem, the Jabotinsky Institute in Israel held an event marking the 50th anniversary of the establishment of relations between Israel and Germany. Moderator Yossi Ahimeir opened the event by reading a letter of greetings from the minister of foreign affairs. Yet at that moment of media-generated suspense, no one knew exactly who was being referred to until the name “Avigdor Lieberman,” the outgoing minister of foreign affairs, was noted. To be exact, the moderator announced, “Today we received a letter of greeting from Minister of Foreign Affairs Lieberman, dated April 27, 2015…”
In his letter, the former minister praised the Jabotinsky Institute for initiating the event, stating, “I have no doubt that the bilateral relations and cooperation that exists today will proceed and grow stronger in the years to come.”
The first speaker was historian Dr. Yaacov Toby, whose book on Israel and the Reparations The Destruction and the Reckoning will soon be published. According to Dr. Toby, the Herut Movement under the leadership of Menachem Begin was the most dominant in its opposition to the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany. On this issue, Begin saw no division whatsoever between emotion and reasoning. He asked proponents of the agreement: “Are these simply diplomatic relations with just another nation?”
Dr. Toby surveyed the articles that appeared in the editions of the Herut daily newspaper that covered the Knesset deliberations and other publications on the issue. One could have expected public support that spanned the political party spectrum, yet this was not the case. Public support in opposition to the Reparations Agreement dissipated within the process of normalization with Germany.
In the struggle to preserve the memory of the events of the Holocaust and the part played by the German people, the Herut Movement’s fight was an exceptional one – aggressive, uncompromising, vehement and indefatigable. The moral argument reflected the world of Zionist images and legends. Also the experience of Begin’s private Holocaust – his parents and brother were murdered by the Germans – was an inseparable part of this struggle to “Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites!”
Yet in 1965 at the onset of the establishment of diplomatic relationships between Israel and West Germany, the Herut Movement remained alone. Its energy was depleted. Normalization had triumphed over the apathy of the nation regarding this controversy.
The next speaker, Dr. Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, is the daughter of partisan and author Chaim Lazar who wrote the book The Massada of Warsaw on the Jewish Military Organization (ZZW) in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and partisan and journalist Chaya Lazar. Dr. Ozacky-Lazar shared entries from her father’s diary on the struggle against the Reparations Agreement. According to the diary, Begin had pangs of conscience over his having fled Poland in wake of the German Army occupation. The Herut Movement did not exert sufficient efforts or funding for Holocaust research, nor did it establish research institutes on the subject as did other movements.
Dr. Sarah Ozacky-Lazar even noted that at the start of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, not one member of the National Camp was summoned to testify. Only after pressure was brought to bear was Dr. David Wdowinsky, who had served as a doctor in the Warsaw Ghetto as well as a member of political leadership of the ZZW, summoned from the United States to testify as a witness.
Journalist and researcher Shlomo Nakdimon spoke on “The Reparations Conflict that Returned Begin to the Leadership of the Herut Movement.” The speaker cited Professor Arye Naor’s words that Begin “took a great deal from Jabotinsky and added more than a bit of his own.”
A solid blackout had been imposed on the process of contacts with representatives of West Germany. However, when Chancellor Konrad Adenauer announced that West Germany had no intention of erasing the Nazi crimes, the negotiations between West Germany and Israel came to light. This publicity ignited an impassioned public dispute that crossed political party lines. The possibility of face-to-face negotiations broke the emotional boundaries, considering that Jews would sit opposite Germans whose past was perhaps tainted with Nazi abominations. With these people commercial negotiations will be conducted, while Jewish blood still flows.”
Nakdimon surveyed the series of demonstrations which the Herut Movement spearheaded against the policy of reconciliation with West Germany, starting with the first demonstration on October 18, 1951 in Tel Aviv, and primarily that of January 7, 1952 in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. At the latter event, Menachem Begin delivered a fervent rebuke before thousands of protestors who subsequently marched to the Knesset building where they angrily hurled stones and other objects, smashing the windows of the building. The police used violence in blocking the demonstrators, and injuries ensued. The tumultuous atmosphere raged at the Knesset and the surrounding streets.
Until the political upheaval of 1977 which brought Begin’s Likud party to power, Begin was prevented from making contact with the German Embassy in Israel. However, in his position as prime minister, Begin received from Dr. Felix Shinnar, head of the Israel Mission to the Reparations Negotiations in Cologne, his book Bericht eines Beauftragten (The Yoke of Necessity and Emotions) which documents the stages of the negotiations, including a personal letter. In response Begin noted, “The dispute which took place during the course of the negotiations on German reparations belongs today to Jewish history.”
Yet in the end, the prime minister stressed that homage to the activities of Dr. Shinnar stood in isolation from the fundamental approaches regarding the subject, “approaches which will not change over the course of time.” Nakdimon asserts, “Begin never changed his stance of those days.”