The storming of the Capitol Building by the supporters of the defeated president, Donald Trump, was a shocking event to behold. The citadel of American democracy was being desecrated, an insurrection on live television before an incredulous audience. One American journalist called it ‘the bonfire of the insanities’. And the outgoing president happily fanned the flames with poisonous, incendiary tweets.
This attempt to subvert the rule of law brings back memories of a march on the Knesset in January 1952 by the supporters of Menahem Begin to protest any negotiations between Israel and West Germany to secure reparations for the crimes of the Shoah.
The desire to file for reparations had been raised by Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett in 1951. The World Jewish Congress’s Nahum Goldmann had also been quietly inquiring with Konrad Adenauer’s government as to what was possible. Behind all attempts was the figure of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
Menahem Begin came out of temporary retirement to lead the assault on Ben-Gurion’s plans —’the abomination of abominations in Israel’. Begin had lost his parents and brother in Brest- Litovsk and spoke about the horrors of the Shoah often. Ben-Gurion too had lost members of his family, but hardly mentioned his loss. It was said that Begin looked to the victims while Ben-Gurion looked to the survivors — one to the unimaginable Jewish past, the other to the bright Zionist future.
While Chancellor Adenauer had been imprisoned under Hitler and suffered, many members of his Foreign Office had been members of the Nazi party. After all, what had happened to the millions who had willingly voted for Hitler? Many now occupied positions of influence in post-war West Germany.
On 7 January 1952, a Knesset debate began in which Ben-Gurion hoped to secure an approval to open negotiations. Many in Israel were strongly opposed to any truck with the Germans from Mapam and the Communists on the Left to Begin’s Herut on the Right.
Menahem Begin set the tone of this raw debate. His emotional rhetoric fired up a crowd of 10,000 in Tel Aviv’s Moghrabi Square in which he warned Ben-Gurion that he would be judged ‘for his crimes by the people’. He exhorted the crowd to refuse to pay taxes. And if Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party should ‘rule by spears’, he said, then Herut would confront them. He concluded by asking the crowd to wear yellow stars and ‘to remember what Amalek did to you’.
Begin then left for a windswept Zion Square in Jerusalem, followed by many who had just heard him speak. Speaking to an even larger crowd from the balcony of the Tel Aviv hotel in Jerusalem, he began to incite his audience.
He compared the present situation to the civil war in ancient Israel which had broken out between the tribe of Benjamin and the tribe of Levi, resulting in the virtual extermination of the Benjaminites at the battle of Gilbeah.
The Israeli press reported Begin as saying that ‘the police have grenades which contain gas made in Germany — the same gas which was used to kill your fathers and mothers’.
Begin returned to the Knesset debate, but a large mob followed him and broke through the barbed wire, surrounding the building. Parked cars at the Knesset were vandalised and overturned, police were attacked and rocks thrown at the debating chamber. A bemused, nonchalant Ben-Gurion remained calm inside, defiantly stubborn while the hubbub outside could be heard. The press further reported that 92 policemen and 36 civilians had been injured. The army was called in to protect the Knesset and disperse the irate protesters.
In the Knesset, an emotional Begin made an impassioned speech, beseeching an indifferent Ben-Gurion to change his mind and to hold a referendum on the issue. After stating that he did not order the crowd to storm the Knesset, he told Ben-Gurion:
I know that you will drag us to concentration camps. You imprisoned hundreds today and you will imprison thousands. No matter — where they will go, where they will sit, we will sit with them. If needs be, we shall be killed with them. And there will be no reparations from Germany!
The session was suspended when Begin called Ben-Gurion a hooligan and shaking his fist at the Knesset members told them ‘if I don’t speak no one will speak’. Begin eventually apologised and withdrew his words.
After the session resumed, the Knesset voted 61 to 50 to endorse Ben-Gurion’s policy. A fortnight later, the Knesset voted to suspend Menahem Begin for three months for unparliamentary conduct. The reparations agreement was signed a few months later.
In the Knesset, Ben-Gurion repeatedly refused to refer to Begin by name. Menahem Begin was forced to choose his political path — that of the rabblerouser or the polished parliamentarian. On the eve of the Six Day war, he joined the coalition government with distinctly mellowed views towards Ben-Gurion.
For Menahem Begin, the reparations debâcle became a turning point towards a deeper belief in parliamentary democracy and a desire to attain public respect.
Jewish Chronicle 7 January 2021