The Great Debate Around German Reparations

S2
E5
28mins
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp

Begin and Ben Gurion had some epics battles, but one of the biggest ones happened in 1952, as these two Israeli giants battled about whether to take German reparations after the Holocaust. In this episode, Noam looks all the way back at this crazy story, and leaves us asking, who was right?

Subscribe to this podcast

Episode Transcript

In 2014, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece published in the Business section of the Atlantic called “The Case for Reparations.” In 15,000 elegant, painful words, he outlined his argument for the reparations owed to the Black community in America. 

The piece — though controversial — ignited a public conversation that continues to this day. Coates was even invited to testify about the question of reparations in front of the House Judiciary Committee in the summer of 2019, where he said “The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. …This body has a chance… to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. …The question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.”

But Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t Israeli or even Jewish. So why are we talking about him in an episode of Unpacking Israeli History?

Savvy listeners are probably aware of the connections — and tensions — between the Jewish and Black communities in America – even though of course, there is plenty of overlap, with plenty of Black Jewish individuals. Michael Scott summarized it most crudely — and humorously and ridiculously — in the Office episode “Diversity Day:” “Come on, Olympics of suffering right here. Slavery versus the Holocaust.” The gormless office manager probably wasn’t thinking too hard about the parallels between both communities’ struggle for reparations — but back in 2014, Coates sure was. 

He wrote in his essay: “We” — meaning Black Americans — “are not the first to be summoned to such a challenge.” 

Any guesses for which nation was the first to architect a model for reparations in the wake of a genocide?

You guessed it: Israel. Coates condenses the debate that consumed Israeli society for years into 13 tidy paragraphs. 

In 1952, Germany agreed to give Israel billions of dollars. 

Should Israel have agreed to take this money? And why is this great debate of 1952 between Ben Gurion and Begin perhaps the most iconic and fundamental to Jewish identity today?

So let’s tell the story. The winter of 1951 was a bitter one. Israel was bursting at the seams with immigrants from all over the world — death camp survivors with tattooed limbs and hollow eyes; once-prosperous Iraqis fleeing a home that had so viciously turned against them; small children born in European DP camps — squalling and malnourished, but proof that the Nazis, despite their best efforts, had failed. We’ve talked in previous episodes about the difficulties of housing and feeding a nation of recently-arrived immigrants. But it might be impossible to overstate the precarity of the young country’s economic situation. A drought in 1950 was followed by record-breaking rains in 1951 that made life in the ma’abarot — immigrant transit camps — a misery. The developing state enjoyed the support of diaspora communities, but it wasn’t enough to keep everyone housed and fed. As Daniel Gordis puts it in his biography of Menachem Begin: “Without a significant source of new money, there was no guarantee that the country could survive.”

But Prime Minister David Ben Gurion had a plan — one that went well beyond imposing tzena, or austerity measures. One more effective — and far more controversial — than tasking the food company Osem to come up with a cheap, calorie-dense substitute for rice, which many families couldn’t afford.

(Nerd corner: In case you’ve ever wondered about the origins of so-called Israeli couscous, jokingly called “Ben Gurion’s rice,” well, you now have your answer: poverty.) 

No, Ben Gurion’s plan involved taking help from Germany, who seven years earlier were governed by the Nazis, who many perceived as Amalek, the very embodiment of evil in Jewish history? The greatest enemy the Jewish people had ever faced. One they had barely escaped. One that wiped out centuries of art, literature, Torah study, and culture in just a few short years. One that claimed six million lives — including the families of many of Israel’s first politicians.

Ben Gurion was not the first to float the idea of seeking reparations. In 1941 — four years before the Holocaust ended and the scale of the tragedy became clear — Nachum Goldmann, the president of the World Jewish Congress, said to the Pan American Conference of Jewish leaders: “Who can doubt that we Jews have every right to international help for European Jewry after the war? If reparations are to be paid, we are the first to have a claim on them.”

In 1944, the WJC turned this vague statement into a concrete list of demands. These were hard to compile. Who can put a price on a life? On six million lives? And how should the price be paid, and to whom?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 

Because in 1951, when Ben Gurion raised the idea of reparations, Israeli society nearly ripped itself apart at the seams. To common people and politicians alike, the prospect of taking reparations at all was hideous — like spitting on the graves of six million Jews.

Among these politicians was Menachem Begin, roused from his self-imposed political exile to lead the charge against Ben Gurion. The two had long disliked each other, nearly bringing the country to a civil war when it was only a month old. (And if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, go listen to our episode on the Altalena affair.) By the 50s, their rivalry became so intense that Ben Gurion refused to address Begin by name during Knesset meetings, calling him only “the man sitting next to MK Bader.”

The man sitting next to MK Bader was born in 1913 in what is now Belarus, into a family of passionate Zionists. (Nerd corner alert: his older brother was named Herzl! Love it.) 

Anyway, like basically every year in history, 1913 was a dangerous time to be Jewish. The young Begin saw his share of misery — fleeing his home during World War I; watching his father set up a Jewish defense league in the wake of pogroms; surviving torture in an NKVD prison thanks to his “anti-Communist” (AKA Zionist) organizing. But though he made it to Palestine in 1942, the rest of his family was not so lucky. For years, Begin wondered and worried about them, learning only in 1948 that they, along with 500 of their neighbors, had been pushed unceremoniously into a river and shot by the SS.

It was their memory that lured Begin back to politics. And his line was clear. In a 1952 op-ed, Begin warned that taking reparations would lead to “eternal shame on the Knesset.” At a rally a few days later, he encouraged a crowd of 10,000 to surround the Knesset and make their anger known. They took his words to heart, setting cars on fire and pelting the building with rocks — one of which hit an MK, a member of the Knesset, in the head.

Although Begin averted civil war in 1948 when he gave the order not to fire back on the Haganah off the shores of Tel Aviv (for real, listen to the Altalena episode), with regard to the German reparations, Begin declared: “Today, I give the order: Yes, this will be a war of life or death.”

Why this reaction to the reparations? 

Begin continued with his speech, which hinged on three main points.

The first might be the hardest for us to understand from our comfortable post in 2021. He said: “From a Jewish standpoint there is not a single German who is not a Nazi, and there is no single German who is not a murderer.”

Seems extreme. After all, Israel has a good relationship with Germany today. At least 10,000 Israelis moved to Berlin in the 20-aughts — a prospect that would have been unthinkable to their grandparents.

But remember, it’s 1952. The Holocaust only ended less than seven years before.

Could you forgive your parents’ murderer after seven years?

What if he also murdered your siblings? Your neighbors? Your friends? And six million more people who you don’t know, and who don’t know you, but who were nonetheless corralled into boxcars or made to dig their own graves or forcibly separated from their children because — they, like you, were born Jewish.

Could you forgive a murderer who tried their hardest to get you too?

The Holocaust was everywhere, and it was personal. The toll was unthinkable: Mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses, children, neighbors, friends, that one guy from shul who you really didn’t like. Scholars, poets, writers, artists, scientists, activists, rabble rousers, the local no-goodnik: those architects of a now-vanished culture. Everyone in early Israel — from the Algerians pressed into forced labor in Vichy camps to the Auschwitz survivors to the kids who owed their lives to the Kindertransport — was acutely conscious of the fact that very little separated them from the six million. Only luck. Chance. Fate, for the religiously inclined.

And to so many of them, every German wore the same face. Here’s the thing. If you don’t understand this, you can’t understand Menachem Begin. Begin’s worldview was not just animated, it was driven by the rabid European antisemitism that tore his family’s life apart. 

Ben-Gurion, with a different upbringing than Begin, took this charge lightly. The West Germany of 1952 was a “different Germany” than the one that had started the war, he said. He even accused the Israeli public — at least, those who couldn’t or wouldn’t differentiate between the current German government and the Third Reich — of being racist.

But it’s 1952, not 2021. Being called a racist was not exactly the mark of Cain it is today. And the survivors were much more concerned with their collective dignity than accusations of racism by the man who was working so hard to sell them out. 

Which brings us to Begin’s second point: the dignity of the Jewish people.

“In this generation that we have been privileged to gain back our dignity, in which we emerged from slavery to freedom – you are ready, for few millions of contaminated dollars and for impure goods, to deprive us of dignity that we have earned.”

But again, Ben-Gurion remained unabashed. His position was that taking German money would only improve the young nation’s dignity. What dignity was there in a crippled economy, a state that could barely feed and house its citizens? Would the Jewish people maintain their dignity if their state collapsed?

What’s more, he and his camp insisted that the payments were not reparations. Not restitution. Not “blood money.” Not pitzuyim, the Hebrew word for “compensation.” No, they were merely shilumim — payments. A vague word that obfuscates the source or purpose of the money changing hands.

Begin was unimpressed by this kind of casuistry. Pitzuyim, shilumim — what did it matter what you called it? These were all different names for the same thing: blood money. He warned that by taking the money: “You will become Nazi agents; distributors of Nazi merchandise.”

He wasn’t alone in this view. Other MKs suggested that taking German money would make all the surviving Jews into members of the Judenrat — the Jewish councils who administered life in the ghettos. They were put in horrific positions, made to comply with impossible demands. It’s impossible for any of us to judge them. We weren’t there.

But in 1952, Israel was full of people who were there. So the epithet got thrown around a lot. 

Ben Gurion was undeterred. His biographer, Anita Shapira, calls him “an inveterate pragmatist [who] saw Germany for what it was — a rising power in Europe — and felt that “beggars like the Israelis could not be choosers.”

The historical record is silent on how he felt about being compared — subtly by some, explicitly by others — to the Judenrat. We can only imagine that it hurt him. But it must have hurt a lot less than the prospect of leaving his nation to starve.

And there were other reasons to take the money. Why shouldn’t Germany pay?, some argued. Why should they be allowed to act like a normal nation, just like any other, when they had just committed the most choreographed genocide the world had ever seen? Why should they murder six million and inherit their property? Jewish homes, art, jewels, even their gold teeth: the Nazis systemized the theft, breaking each human body into component parts, extracting what was valuable and grinding up the rest. They used the Jews for forced labor. For grotesque medical experiments. For sex. For the sadistic pleasure they derived from torture.

Why should they be allowed to get away with it scot-free?

But Begin wasn’t swayed by this argument. Finally, he appealed directly to the Prime Minister:

“as one Jew to another, a son of an orphan People, as a son of a bereaved nation… I am trying to provide you with a way out. As an opponent I would not have done so, but as a Jew, I will. Go to our nation and conduct a referendum. Not only because I suggest conducting a popular poll on this issue; not because I think that this matter is even worthy of a vote…The actual vote was already cast in Treblinka and Auschwitz where Jews voted in deadly tortures: do not get in touch, do not enter negotiations with the Germans. Go to the people.”

But here’s an ugly truth about “going to the people,” especially the survivors. They didn’t really fit with Ben Gurion’s ideal of what a Jew should be. After all, for many in the Zionist world, the aim of Zionism was to create a “new Jew.” The great Zionist thinker, Micha Yosef Berditchevksy would announce, “Ananchu hador haacharon shel hayehudim vihadro harishon she haivrim.” We are the last of the Jews and the first of the Hebrews.” “Ivrim anachnu vi’et libeinu na’avod.” We are Hebrews, and it is ourselves, who we will worship.” I.e. We will take matters into our own hands!

Not the diaspora sheep led to slaughter. Not the stateless beggar, orphaned among nations, whispering prayers towards the east but unwilling to make them come true. No, the new Jew was strong and tanned and burly. He and she worked the fields. He and she would have fought back against dispossession and genocide. He and she wouldn’t allow themselves to lose their dignity.

The new Jew was a rebuttal to thousands of years of Diaspora blues. Just having a land enabled them to protect themselves.

Begin — though an Israeli — did not need to subscribe to this myth of the “new Jew.” He had nothing in his past to be ashamed of. His father had been a fighter. So had his mentor Jabotinsky. And he himself oversaw what his biographer Daniel Gordis calls “a militant Jewish organization” back in Europe. Moreover, Begin was unwilling to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Diaspora Jewry had done more in the past two thousand years than cower and snivel. They had produced the Talmud! Rabbinic responsa. Art. Poetry. A diversity of customs. He was no less a Zionist than Ben Gurion — no less a fervent advocate for kibbutz galuyot, or the ingathering of exiles. But stepping on to Israeli soil didn’t — shouldn’t! — erase all the accomplishments that came before.

And unlike Ben Gurion, he had a more charitable understanding of where Holocaust survivors were coming from. Begin spoke of survivors in the highest terms. He called the dead “martyrs” who died for “Kiddush Hashem” (the sanctification of God’s name). And he argued persuasively for the dignity of those still living. “Go to the people,” he said, gesturing to the riots raging outside of the Knesset. 

Go to the people. This was another of Begin’s important questions. Who gets to decide about whether to seek reparations?

After all, Ben Gurion was not a Holocaust survivor. He was born in Europe, true. But he arrived in Palestine in 1906. So who was he to tell the Israeli public that it was time to sit down with the Germans?

But Ben Gurion’s stance was clear. If reparations were going to be paid to anyone, let it be the world’s only Jewish state.

So despite Begin’s insistence that this debate was a matter of life and death — one whose outcome had already been decided in the death camps — the Knesset put it to a vote. And surprisingly, Ben Gurion’s camp won. By a narrow margin, it was true. But the pragmatists had the votes: 60 in favor. 51 against.

The schism in the Knesset echoed the one playing out in West Germany. The West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, may have announced in 1951 that West Germany was ready to open negotiations, but his people weren’t exactly thrilled. According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Only 5 percent of West Germans surveyed reported feeling guilty about the Holocaust, and only 29 percent believed that Jews were owed restitution.”

But Adenauer was determined to restore West Germany’s standing among the nations of the world. When negotiations opened at the Hague in 1952, Adenauer proposed a sum of 4 billion German marks, or $1.5 billion today. But remember — at the time, there were two Germanys. And East Germany, a puppet of the USSR, never acknowledged the negotiations, and certainly didn’t come to the table. So Israel dropped the demand down to $1 billion, levied against West Germany alone.

It took six months, but the two nations came to an agreement. It was awkward at times. The Israeli negotiating team, most of whom could speak German, refused to. And when the reparations agreement itself was signed, they refused to shake hands — perhaps a concession to the dignity of the murdered. 

And, the truth is, I get it. Growing up in the 90’s and the early aughts, I would argue that most people in my Jewish community in Baltimore still felt uncomfortable buying German cars. Whether that was right or wrong, let’s not cast aspersions, but the “Begin-ian” instinct was very much present.

So how do you calculate the cost of a genocide? Or, as the Herut newspaper put it in a particularly scathing headline in 1951, “How much will we get for a burned child?” 

The Israeli negotiating team did not try to put a price on life. Instead, they framed their calculations around the cost of absorbing European immigrants. 500,000 European olim had made their way to Palestine, and then Israel, before, during, and after the war — and Israel struggled mightily to house and feed them all. 

So the German government offered 3 billion marks ($7 billion in today’s money) worth of goods, payable over a 12-year period, which helped to build up the fragile economy. During this time, 12-14% of Israeli imports came from Germany. 

Indeed, the German government is still paying — for forced labor, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to the tune of $5 billion. And in 2018, the government vowed to increase funding for Holocaust survivors — too many of whom live in poverty today — by $88 millon. 

The Germans have a typically German name for these payments: Wiedergutmachung, which translates to “making good again.” Though both Ben Gurion and Begin are gone, the Israeli government continues to honor the semantic distinction between pitzuyim, compensation, and the purposely vague shilumim, payments. Because they can’t “make good again” everything they stole from us — the mothers and the fathers and the culture and the alternate history in which we didn’t inherit a legacy of trauma.

But they tried to overcome the sins of the past. Because like Begin, they understood that there is no way to get rid of the past, to pretend it doesn’t exist, to smooth it over. Everything that happened in the past — expulsions. Diaspora. Wandering. Exile. Genocide. — deserves to be remembered. To be honored. The Germans honor it by paying off their debt, slowly. Ceremonially. Understanding that there is no paying off a debt of this magnitude.

So that was the story of German reparations, and here are your five fast facts:

  1. In 1951, Israel was bursting at the seams with immigrants coming from all over the world, and the state was simply running out of money.
  2. David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin were bitterly opposed about whether German reparations should be considered as a possible solution. Ben Gurion, thinking practically, said that the West Germany of the 1950s was a different one than the one that perpetrated the evils of the Holocaust. Begin was dumbfounded, and gave three reasons why it was preposterous: A. 1944, 1952, doesn’t matter. Germans were evil, and we shouldn’t even be talking to them at all. And B. Jewish dignity wouldn’t allow for it. Allow Germany to do anything to get back into the good graces of the Jews? Ridiculous. And C. He said, simply, ask the Israelis. Ask the survivors. They will refuse.
  3. Ben Gurion took it to a vote in the Knesset, and surprisingly, he won, with a slim majority. So, reparations were a go.
  4. While ultimately, Israel and Germany were able to come to an agreement, there was serious tension in the negotiation, mirroring the tension among Israeli society.
  5. The German government is still paying these reparations today, while understanding that there is no paying off a debt of this magnitude.

Those are the facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it. As we’ve talked about many times in this episode, and in this podcast in general, two of Judaism’s greatest leaders, David Ben Gurion, and Menachem Begin, often didn’t see eye to eye. In fact, let me say it more strongly. Rabbi David Hartman, a fascinating thinker and philosopher of the 20th century, often wrote about the best part of Jewish thought coming not from where we agreed, but from where we disagreed. Rabbi Kook versus Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Maimonides versus Nachmanides. And I humbly suggest that we add Ben Gurion versus Begin to this list.

Who am I?, is the perennial existential question. Who am I as a Jew?, is the perennial Jewish existential question. Does the past control my future? Does the past influence my future? Or, should I sever my future from my past?

As I said, Begin was so angry about reparation, and he refused to concede. And I had to wonder, why is this what Begin chose to take such a strong stand on?

Like, think about another part of Israel history, that we briefly mentioned earlier in this episode. We’ll put the link to our episode about the Altalena in the show notes, of course, but the quick and dirty version is that a civil war was averted. How? Why? What happened? When Ben Gurion’s IDF shot at the Altalena, a cargo ship holding Begin’s Irgun weapons and fighters, well, Begin stood aside. He told his men not to fight back, and to stand down. He picked peace, and compromise, over war.

But three years later, during this battle about reparations, that’s not what he chose. Remember, Begin encouraged 10,000 people to surround the Knesset and make their anger known, and they did so, with violence, violence he encouraged! Why? What made this event different?

I don’t know the answer. I know, I told you I’d give you an enduring lesson, and I’m giving you questions instead. But this is what I ponder, and maybe you ponder too, when thinking about this debate, and what it means:

When do we sacrifice?

When core values collide, how do we determine the right course of action?

When do we follow pragmatism, and when is idealism not just the preferred approach but the ethical one?

As people, what is our North Star? 

Which principles are existential red lines that we dare not cross? 

And, when do we drive our decisions not by what is in our personal best interest but rather by what serves the interest of the greater good of our community and nation? 

When is survival and self-preservation the primary value, and when is self-transcendence in service of a larger cause ideal?

Maybe our enduring lesson is that we really need to think through these questions together.

—-

Thank you all for listening. If you haven’t yet, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And help us grow this podcast community, by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.

Now it’s time for our final segment, Israel Nerd Talk, where we highlight one of you, our amazing listeners. We get the best emails from you guys, and we want to share them with the world. This week, I want to highlight an awesome letter from Sam – and then a follow-up that really made me grin from ear to ear, from pure joy:

Hi Noam,

I’m not sure how I’ve found your podcast but I’ve listened to it since day one. I have found it very interesting and really appreciate the way you present the facts and talk about the nuance.

I was particularly moved by your most recent episode on the Altalena. My Saba, was a Holocaust survivor who came to Israel on the Altalena. He was one of the Irgun who stayed on the ship with Begin and only jumped off when it was about to explode. 

Anyways, I was familiar with the incident but I really appreciated the nuance you brought to it. Thank you for your podcast and I look forward to future episodes.

Sincerely,

Sam

Sam, it’s really an honor to hear about your grandfather, and his role in the Altalena. But wait, it gets better. Here’s what we got a few weeks later, literally, this morning!

Shavua Tov, as an update to my original comment, my wife gave birth to a baby Boy, our first in Israel. We named him after my Saba. My Saba is why I was a Zionist and why we made Aliyah two years ago.

Sam!! I have to wish you the most amazing mazal tov. These letters are freaking amazing. They are an incredible reminder of the really wonderful thing about modern Jewish history: that though it might feel far away, like something we’d read in a textbook, it’s actually right here. Real people, recently, lived these experiences. Sam’s grandfather lived through it, and now, his name and his legacy will continue through his new grandson, Sam’s baby boy! Thank you for sharing his story, Sam. And if you, listeners, if you also have thoughts, comments, suggestions, ruminations, whatever to share, don’t hesitate, be like Sam! Send us an email: podcasts@jewishunpacked.com.

Unpacking Israeli History is a production of Unpacked, a division of OpenDor Media. Check out jewishunpacked.com for everything Unpacked-related, and subscribe to our other podcasts. Follow Unpacked at all the social media places, like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – just look for @JewishUnpacked. And again, write to me at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com – your email might even get on the show.

This episode was produced by Rivky Stern. Our team for this episode includes Adi Elbaz, Baruch Goldberg, and Rob Pera. I’m your host, Noam Weissman. Thanks for listening, see you next week!

Enjoy this podcast with friends by hosting a podcast listening party.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on email