Stones in the plenum: 60 years after the Reparations Agreement
On Sept. 10, 1952, 60 years ago, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharet signed the Reparations Agreement in Luxembourg. The State of Israel, as the representative of the Jewish people, received three million West German marks (East Germany refused to pay its part), then about $1.5 billion and the equivalent of about $13 billion today, for the horrors inflicted upon those who survived the Holocaust. The reparations were granted to the state as the representative of the Holocaust victims and the executor of helping in survivors' recovery.Thus ended one of the most difficult processes yet endured by the young Israeli democracy, which had briefly questioned it's ability to absorb Holocaust survivors. It was a heart wrenching controversy.The idea that postwar Germany should pay reparations to Jews, victims of the Nazis, arose while World War II was still happening. World Zionist Organization President Chaim Weizmann filed the claim for reparations to the Allies in 1945. Weizmann claimed, of course, that he was requesting for a people, not a country, but sought to start a dialogue about the possibility.Following the founding of the state, when the request was again made to the Allies still controlling Germany, the answer was of course negative. The Allies said they could not add compensation to Germany's already heavy financial burden.Even following the declaration of West and East Germany as independent and separate states, Israel had no intention to negotiate directly with either of them. The boycott against Germany was all-encompassing. On our parents' passports it was written that they could travel to "all countries except Germany."The idea of compensation and reparations from Germany dropped off the agenda, until Israel's dire economic situation began to threaten its ability to survive. Large waves of immigration left the treasury empty and Israel could not repay its debts.In Feb. 1950, the government decided to begin direct talks with West Germany to negotiate personal compensation for Holocaust survivors. In September, a committee for national compensation was established. Within a short time the government had gone from complete denial of contact with Germany to representation by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with "the other Germany" and complete willingness for direct dialogue.Ben-Gurion's main arguments were that Israel desperately needed economic assistance and that there is no justification for giving Germany an exemption from paying compensation. He pointed to the Germans' cardinal biblical sin: "Hast thou killed, and also taken possessions?" (Kings I, 21:19) as proof. The young Germany needed international legitimacy. No country could grant it thus as much as poor little Israel. The convergence of interests was clear.At the end of 1951, Menachem Begin was a defeated leader. His Herut party, a precursor of the right-wing Likud, had lost six seats in the July 1951 elections; he led a party with only eight Knesset seats. Following the election he announced that he was abandoning political life. He probably would have done so if the subject of reparations had not popped up on the national agenda.The issue infuriated Begin, since almost all of his family perished in the Holocaust. He viewed it as an incredible act of acceptance for Germany, which he still viewed as being Nazi-controlled. Leading up to the Knesset discussion in Jan. 1952, he was filled with a renewed vigor; he sent extreme messages to the nation, saying things he had never said before.The hearing took place at Froumine House, better known as the Old Knesset, in Jerusalem and lasted for three days. Knesset members from the coalition and Holocaust survivors were allowed to vote. Mapam, the United Workers Party, and Herut strongly opposed it. The General Zionists, a centrist Zionist movement, opposed it much less.But on the second day of the discussions, a storm erupted: A demonstration 10,000 strong, organized by the Herut party, took place in Zion Square in Jerusalem. Begin delivered the speech of his life, though some may consider it the speech he would like to forget.He mentioned the Altalena affair, a naval conflict in 1948 between the newly formed IDF and the Irgun, a Jewish paramilitary group that refused to join the unified forces. Begin said that unlike his order to refrain from firing back at those who bombarded the Altalena, he would now give the command to attack.
He called Ben-Gurion "the little dictator and big maniac;" he called Adenauer a "murderer" and pledged to sacrifice his life to prevent negotiations with the Germans, all of whom are Nazis. Begin continued: "I say to Mr. Ben-Gurion, there will be no negotiations with Germany. For this, we are all willing to sacrifice our lives. It is unacceptable under any circumstances. Every victim will sacrifice his life to foil this plot ... it will be a life or death battle ... we will never pay taxes to a government that negotiates with the Germans."Begin continued sharply: "German or Jewish money – both cannot exist. Taxes will only come by force; [public] services will only come by force ... we will ban anyone who seeks peace with Germany. The government that enters negotiations with Germany is criminal. Ben-Gurion is a criminal. [Moshe] Sharet is a criminal. This thing will never happen, against our bodies, soul and blood."At 5:30 p.m., Begin began a march from Zion Square to the Knesset, and continued his speech at the Knesset podium in a similar vein. He called Ben-Gurion a fascist and a hooligan. He would not leave the podium. Some of the demonstrators threw stones from the street into the Knesset plenum. One of them broke a window and injured MK Hanan Rubin of Mapam, the pre-cursor of Labor. Two-hundred demonstrators and 140 policemen were wounded.The results of the speech were that Begin was removed from the Knesset for a few months. The results of the vote were in favor of the negotiations: 61 were for and 50 against (the exact same results of a much later controversy, the Oslo Accords).The agreement signed in September recognized Israel as the official representative of the Jewish people. Israel used the money to pay off debts, build infrastructure throughout the country and absorb immigrants. Survivors received monthly allowances to ease their plight in life and help them deal with daily struggles.
So what about Menachem Begin? He gave up the civil disobedience he called for on that winter evening in Zion Square. When he was elected prime minister, 25 years later, he left the agreement in place, as well as the diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, which had never really changed, in his opinion.