Begin Opposes German Reparations
(January 7, 1952)
Following the war, Israel began to discuss the idea of seeking reparations from Germany for the crimes committed against the Jewish people. Menachem Begin objected to entering any negotiations with Germany in this speech to the Knesset in 1952. Nevertheless, on September 10, 1952, an agreement on reparations between Israel and West Germany was signed.
Honorable Knesset members. On 13 March 1951, the Foreign Minister, Mr. Sharett read out to us the note which he had sent to America, England, France and Russia, regarding what he called reparations from Germany.
During the debate, I attempted to share with the members of the Knesset the tremendous shock which I felt when I read the following sentence: "There can be no progress towards the restitution of Germany's honor as a nation within the family of nations, as long as the matter of reparations to the Jewish people is not arranged." These words are not open to interpretation. They are perfectly clear: they state that if the matter of the compensation of the Jews by Germany is taken care of, then, in the opinion of the Government of Israel, the restitution o f Germany's honor as a nation within the family of nations would indeed be possible.
My dear opponents, at that time you made noise, you erupted like a volcano, you disturbed and you accused me of accusing him of being prepared to enter into negotiations with Germany. The venerable Rabbi Nurock made the Foreign Minister swear that he would not commit the "national crime" of contact with the Germans. And behold, the government is about to go to Nazi Bonn. Mr. Ben-Gurion, sir, you were the one who reproached a Member of the Knesset for having gone to Berlin, and you said: “You went to Nazi Berlin?” Bonn isn’t Nazi? Doesn’t the theory that West Germany is good and East Germany is bad, lead to the theory that West Germany is democratic while East Germany is Nazi?
Perhaps you will say that the government of Adenauer is a new German government, not a Nazi one. You must know who this Adenauer is. I ask you: In which concentration camp was he when Hitler ruled Germany, into which prison was he thrown as a result of the bloody regime of the Nazis? I ask you: Who are Mr. Adenauer's assistants? You reply: About half the people in Adenauer's Foreign Ministry are members of the Nazi Party. With them you will hold discussions – with the "specialists" of Ribbentrop, with the "specialists" of Weizsaecker, with the assassins who laid the groundwork for the destruction of millions of our brethren by telling the world that information about the persecution of the Jews was nothing more than "atrocities propaganda."
You may say that with this government, which is prepared to give back part of the property, we can negotiate because it is not responsible for the murder. I will remind you of facts. Sixteen million Germans voted for Hitler before he came to power. There were twelve million communists and socialists in Germany. Where did they disappear to? There were twelve million soldiers in the Germany army, millions in the Gestapo, in the SA and in the SS. Millions. From a Jewish point of view, there is not a single German who is not a Nazi, nor is there a single German who is not a murderer. And from them you are going to get money?
You have an argument: If we don't go to them to get this property, then it will remain in the hands of the thief. Indeed, the figures have already been published. You hope for a maximum of three hundred million dollars in German Nazi goods. You estimated the stolen Jewish property at six billion dollars, which means that you are going to get 5 percent of the stolen Jewish property, while leaving 95 percent of the stolen Jewish property in the hands of the murderous thief. The difference lies in the fact that if you don't go to Bonn, the property remains "stolen" and Israel's claim still stands; but if you do go to Bonn, and sign an agreement with Nazi Germany – by virtue of your agreement, of your signatures, you will announce in the name of the entire Jewish people, in the name of the millions of murdered, that it is proper that 95 percent of the Jewish property remain in the hands of the murderer, the thief. Who appointed you to do this? Who gave you the right to do it?
Those who are no longer here gave you the authority to speak for them?
From whom are you going to claim the property? Let me present a simple example: Shimon sets fire to the house of Ruben's father and Ruben's father dies in the fire. What can Ruben do? He might forego the house since his father burned to death in it. Or he might go to court, declare himself a litigant and demand that he be compensated for the cost of the house, on the basis of the court decision. But in which barbaric tribe would you find him turning directly to the murderer and demanding compensation for the house from him? Whereas you, bereaved children orphaned of your parents, you go directly to the murderer. Not to demand the "ransom" as you put it but rather to get, as it were, the value of the house which was burned down, with your fathers in it. In what barbaric tribe would you find such an abomination. What are you trying to make of the Jewish people, a people which has been civilized and has taught others to be civilized for some four thousand years.
You built the foundation for the negotiations with Germany upon the message of Mr. Sharett.
But there is yet another foundation of the bridge which Mr. Sharett crossed from Jewish Jerusalem to Nazi Bonn, i.e., the statement of Mr. Adenauer himself. You deserve to have this statement read to you in the original, in the language of the doers of evil, through whose services Mr. Adenauer is negotiating with you, but as long as the fateful decision is not yet taken-fateful not only for me but for all of us, not only for years but for generations-the honor of this House is dear to me and I will therefore read the statement in Hebrew. This is what Herr Adenauer says: I declare that the vast majority of the German people had no part in these crimes. He also stated that the German government is prepared to work together with the representatives of the Jewish people and the Government of Israel to solve the problem of making amends, or in his contaminated language, wieder gutmachen [For the material aspect of the problem], in order to ease the way for a spiritual cleaning of the slate of the guilt for untold suffering.
A member of the Knesset has accused both Mr. Sharett, and yourself, Mr. Ben-Gurion, of having this statement in your possession before Mr. Adenauer revealed it to his Nazi advisors. If this is true, woe unto us! You read it; you accepted, as a basis of the negotiations with the Germans, the suggestion that the majority of the German people were revolted by these crimes and took no part in them. You accepted, as a basis of the negotiations, a statement according to which this money would be given to you zur ueelischen Reinigung eines unendlichen Leidens [For the spiritual cleansing of unending suffering]. If you didn't read it, how could Mr. Sharett consider it as a basis for negotiation? And if you did read and approve it-then let the Jewish people know upon what sort of base the bridge between Hebrew Jerusalem and the Nazi Bonn government was erected. Adenauer's note has been read by millions of Germans, millions of Americans, millions of Frenchmen; it has penetrated the hearts of the non-Jews. All the nations of the world knew that that was the basis upon which we were to receive the money, as a "payment for unending suffering." How they will bemoan us, how they will despise us! What have you made of us? Your demurrers will be written in Hebrew-who will read them? The nations will see only one thing: you sat down at the table with the murderers of your people, you acknowledged that they are capable of signing an agreement, that they are capable of keeping an agreement, that they are a nation, a nation among the family of nations.
The non-Jews not only hated us, not only murdered us, not only burned us, not only envied us – primarily they despised us. And in this generation which we refer to as the last of slavery/the first approaching redemption – in the generation in which we achieved respectability, in which we went from slavery to freedom-you would deprive us, for a few million filthy dollars, for some tainted goods, of the little honor which we have managed to achieve. You will probably establish a firm called "Ger-Pal"-short for "Germany-Palestine" – to distribute German goods in France, in England, in America; you will become Nazi agents for the distribution of Nazi goods. How they will despise us when a Jew, the emissary of the Government of Israel, standing in his shop in Argentina, will call out: come and buy, this is good stuff, "Made in Germany." By doing this you are destroying the very foundation under our feet, you are jeopardizing our honor and our independence. How they will despise us!
And what is the international background to all this? Our talented Ambassador in America has referred to "Germany in renewal." Certainly, Germany is in renewal. Five million from this one and 25 million from that one. Its industry is flourishing. Nineteen million tons of steel per annum – these are the achievements of "Germany in renewal." Churchill devoted half his book to a description of the blindness and stupidity which led to the rearmament of Germany and to World War IL Today, he himself stands at the head of the parade on behalf of German rearmament. Out of blindness, out of terrible fear, they are returning to the teutonic wolfpack the very teeth and claws which had been removed. Are we going to be party to this? We are going to say that they are a nation, that they are capable of negotiation, that they will keep an agreement which America or England will sign?
Mr. Ben-Gurion, Sir! If instead of talking about the bankruptcy of American Zionists you would summon the Jews of America to propagandize among the American people regarding the danger to America itself inherent in the rearming of this wolfpack-then the situation might be different. Were this great Jewry to rise up and say: Germany shall not be rearmed-the situation might have been different. Then it might have still been possible to prevent this tragedy. But you became friends with the assimilated Jews and as for them, their wealth was always in inverse proportion to their courage and their loyalty to Zion. One of the leaders of the assimilated Jews has said: If the Government has decided to rearm Germany, well its none of our business." These are your partners.
Woe unto us, for we see, five years after the end of the war, how the Nazi murderer has arisen, how he takes up his weapon. At the moment, he still speaks softly to the Americans and the French; soon, when he feels his strength, he will make his real voice heard.
Therefore, I will conclude my remarks with a number of appeals. First, to you Mr. Ben-Gurion, Sir. I turn to you not as an opponent-as such, there is an abyss between us, there is no bridge nor will there be a bridge, we are separated by a bloody abyss. I turn to you in the zero hour as one Jew to another, as the son of an orphaned nation, as the son of a bereaved nation: Stop! Do not go through with this. This is the abomination of abominations in Israel; there has never been anything comparable to it since we became a people. I am trying to give you a way out. As my adversary, I would not provide you with it; as a Jew, I do so: Go to the people, a referendum. Not because I suggest that you call for a popular vote on this issue; I don't think that it is even possible to vote upon it. The vote has already been taken – at Treblinka, Auschwitz, Ponary, there the Jews voted under the torture of death – not to have contact, not to negotiate with the Germans. Go to the people.
You don't have a majority in this matter in the Knesset. Members of your own party are opposed – and I am proud that Jews, even if they are my opponents, even though they hate me, are opposed to these unholy negotiations. Part of the Poalei-Mizrachi party is opposed, part of the Mizrachi is opposed, part of the Agudath Yisrael is opposed. In fact, you are in the minority. So what have you done? You used force, you frightened Mr. Pinkas into thinking that he would be removed from this chair and transferred to another ....
David Zvi Pinkas, Minister of Transport: Don't talk rubbish. Nobody frightens me. Not even Begin can frighten me, with all his heroics.
M. Begin: Go to the people. And if the people should say yes, possibly one cannot escape the conclusion that: "Surely the people is grass" [Isaiah 40], and maybe all the sacrifices were not worth it. But then you can say: The people is behind me, 51 percent of the nation is prepared to negotiate with them. But if the people says nay – you will not lose. For you are a democrat. You will bow your head before the wishes of the people. Why take it upon yourself to make the decision here. You do not have a majority. And this is the way out. In God's name, I ask you to take council with yourself, stop, place the matter before the entire nation-and may He have pity.
My second appeal is to those Members of Knesset elected by Arab constituencies. Far be it from me to deprive them of their formal right to vote. They have equal rights. I believe in equal rights, I believe in the actualization of the vision of the leader of Betar [Revisionist Party], our great teacher: "Here he will be satiated with plenty and with happiness, the Arab child, the child of Nazareth and my child, for my banner, the banner of purity and honesty, will purify both banks of my Jordan." You have the formal right to participate in this vote, but you should differentiate between the formal right and the moral right. This is our issue, the blood of our mothers, our brothers and our sisters is mixed up in it, let us decide in this matter ....
My third appeal is to the members of the religious parties. This was not the issue on which you fought the election. You contested the election in the name of the religion of Israel, the Torah of Israel. What connection is there between the Torah of Israel and negotiations with Amalek? For by this vote you will wipe off an entire verse which has been sanctified by the Torah: The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages [Ex. 17:16]. How can the Lord fight Amalek if you, the defenders of the religion, vote for peace with Amalek, for receiving money from Amalek?
Today is the Tenth of Tevet, a Commemoration Day for us all, both the memorial day for my father and the memorial day for the entire nation. (Noise in the Hall, shouts from the Mapam benches.) I stand here before you, members of the religious parties, as a believing Jew, son of a believer, and plead with you: Do not do this thing. Coalition, opposition, man's life is a passing thing, how much more so the life of a coalition. How come that you didn't see it? Last year you split away on the issue of enlisting girls into the army, but on this issue you are not prepared to say nay? Counsel with your consciences, with your belief. How will the Jewish youth believe in the religion of Israel when its spokesmen/representatives raise their hands in favor of negotiations with Germany?
So, at this last moment, take counsel, caucus, sit and discuss the matter, have pity upon this people, do not give your support to this abomination which is unparalleled in our history ever since the incident of the concubine on the hill [Judges 19].
And now Members of Knesset from all of the sides, I have come to the end of my speech. I know that this is a turning point in the history of our people. I also know what awaits me and my colleagues, and I say to them….
Moshe Shapira, Minister of the Interior: What is going on outside, is that the Jewish way? And you appeal to us!
M, Begin: I say, there shall be no negotiations with Germany. There shall be no negotiations with Germany! You have claimed that the fury is "staged" but I have here a list: Rabbi Maimon, Rabbi Mordechai Nurok, Prof. Klausner, David Shimoni, Asher Barash, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Dr. Dvoretsky, Yaakov Cohen, Abraham Sutzkever – That is staged fury? If it only were staged ....
In 1919 a tragedy occurred in a Jewish city, a small city but very significant in the Jewish world, a city called Pinsk. An anti-Semitic Polish general took 34 Jews whom he suspected of being Bolsheviks, stood them against a wall and murdered them. I was a youth then. I was taught a song about that murder. I do not remember all of the words but one sentence I do remember: "It is better that you not come to the Seder table." The world was different then and it was very much shaken by the murder of 34 Jews. Morgenthau came from America; a Committee of Investigation was sent from Britain; the Polish Government – half anti-Semitic and half not – set up a Parliamentary Committee of Investigation and behold on the basis of the decision of that Parliamentary Committee, the Polish Government offered to compensate the bereaved families for what had happened to their fathers and brothers. And the Polish Government was not directly responsible for the murder. General Lezansky did what he did of his own accord. The Polish Government disassociated itself from the murder and offered the families compensation. And then, according to the book in front of me, the Zionist Committee of the town came together, called all the families involved and told them: "If [you] take compensation [you] will be sinning against the memory of the saintly ones and [you] will be a disgrace; it will be said that the Jews sold the souls of the saintly ones for money." Then and there, a protocol was drawn up in which it was emphasized that they would not sell the spilled blood for money and that only by punishing the murderers for their evil doing could the sin be atoned for. The protocol was signed by the heads of the families and was sent to the War Ministry and that is how the matter ended.
Now what was understood by the Zionist Committee in the city of Pinsk cannot be understood by the government in the State of Israel? What was understood by the Zionist Committee in the city of Pinsk cannot be understood by the Hebrew Parliament? For if, after you yourselves sign a mutual agreement with the Germans, you would succeed in getting them to sign a statement such as: We the Germans who murdered six million Jews hereby give you three hundred million dollars over ten years, while agreeing that you shall continue to hate us as we are guilty of the murder of six million, and we do not ask you for atonement – even if you could get them to sign such a statement, even then the fact would remain that you are still accepting money directly from the murderers on the basis of a mutual agreement and based upon compromise. You demanded such and such, they refuse to give the entire sum and offer less, you agree. And agreement will be signed, in front of everyone, with the murderers – this can only be ransom.
I intended to warn you and I am doing so: Members of Knesset of all parties, this cannot pass. If there is any meaning to the term "Sanctification of God's Name," if there is any substance to the phrase "rather to die than transgress" – then this is where they apply .... This maybe my last speech in the Knesset and I can do no other than say very straightforward things which come straight from a heart drunk with blood-perhaps these words will enter your hearts. For three years we have sat with you in the Knesset, as a minority. You were the majority. You were an elected majority and we accepted that. We did not come to the Knesset from a rich home, from a life of pleasure. My colleagues and I came here in the aftermath of a war which lasted many years. We were ruthlessly persecuted, we were not left in peace, a price was set upon our heads, detectives were looking for us throughout the country we endangered ourselves 24 times a day. We succeeded, the oppressor withdrew, the state was established on a part of the divided homeland the time came for the elections. But there was one more event before the elections. Mr. Ben-Gurion will remember it. He gave the order to shoot at me with a cannon. I stood on the deck of a burning ship, I saw my comrades, my men, my disciples killed: they held machine guns, mortars, rifles, but I gave the order not to respond and they heeded me. In this Knesset, in the course of three years, how many decisions have you taken which have made our blood boil. After each such decision we went out covered in shame, greatly saddened that we had perhaps not succeeded in our mission. And after those decisions we went, my colleagues and I, to that youth whom you vilify while they risk their lives for their people and their country; they gave their lives, twelve of them were executed with the words of Hatikvah [the national anthem] on their lips to do the last – I went to this youth, accustomed to war, battle-wise, and I said to them: this is our parliament, this is our government. The majority will decide, let us go to the people and try to convince them. If we do not succeed – what more can we do? This is our people. After that I went to the Diaspora, I met with thousands of Jews – they are my witnesses, they will confirm what I say –and I said to them: This government is a different government, a Jewish government. Our government, my government – that is what I said to the Jews of America, Argentina, Mexico – no matter what its composition. That is how we have educated our youth. We accepted everything even though our souls were raging. We wanted to educate this nation to statehood, freedom, independence, to a normal life after two thousand years of exile. Don’t we have children too? Don't we have wives? Don’t we also deserve a quiet family life? Don't we also have the right to live as free citizens in this state? For we have certainly given our all for its establishment. We were given nothing: neither command nor army nor police nor government nor any office – nothing! We came to you with the request that with respect to rights you recognize those fighters as soldiers – and you refused; for two years you refused. The Prime Minister said that as long as this government is in office, it will not give a penny to them – leg-amputees, arm-amputees, invalids for life, bereaved families, poor, shattered. We also accepted that. We once more approached those young people and said: we will still get them to change their minds, we will convince them; never mind, it is our country.
That is how I trained those young people. That is what I learned from my "father" and mentor [Jabotinsky]. But there was another thing which I learned from him, which I also passed on: there are things in life which are dearer than life itself. There are things in life which are worse than death itself. And this is one of those things for which we will give our lives. We will leave our families, we shall bid our friends farewell but there will not be negotiations with Germany.
Nations worthy of that name took to the barricades for much smaller things. On this matter – we, a part of the last generation of slavery and the first generation of the redemption, who saw our fathers dragged into the gas chambers, who heard the clattering of the wheels of the death trains who before our very eyes saw the ancient father thrown into the river along with five hundred Jews from the glorious town of Bresk in Lithuania and the river turned red from blood, who before our very eyes saw the old mother murdered in the hospital, before whose very eyes there occurred all those events, unparalleled in history – should we hesitate to endanger our lives in order to prevent negotiations with the murderers of our fathers? We should hide our faces in shame if we did not rise up. We are prepared for everything, anything, just to prevent this shame from falling upon Israel. I hope that we will prevent it.
In Zion Square, before the 15,000 Jews who gathered there outraged, in the rain and cold, I said: Go, stand around the Knesset. Do not disturb the proceedings. All those lies, as though we intended to disrupt the debate-rubbish! I said: Go, surround the Knesset as, in the days of Rome, when a Roman Governor wanted to put a statue in the Temple, the Jews were alerted from all over the country and they surrounded the Temple and said: Over our dead bodies shall you pass. I said: let your silence scream out, for there shall be no negotiation with Germany. They attacked them with gas bombs made in Germany and that is when it occurred. [Stones were thrown into the Knesset chamber-N.L.]
And I say to you: Gentlemen, Woe unto me that I have come to this; happy am I that I was thus privileged! There are still youth in Israel. No, this youth does not desire war; it does not desire battle or death; this youth wants to live, it has the right to live. But the hour has come when all is in the balance. Shall we not fulfill this religious imperative. We shall!
This is my final appeal to the Knesset: prevent a holocaust. The voice of Satan is heard in the depths of Hell – consider what he has achieved in addition to the devastation which he wrought in his lifetime? Spill Jewish blood over German money! What for? The money will be used up, will eventually disappear, but the shame will remain.
I know that you have power. You have jails, concentration camps army, police, detectives, cannons, machine guns. Never mind. Over this issue all that power will be shattered like glass on a rock. For this just cause we will fight to the end. Physical power in such cases is of no value; it is vain deceit.
I warn, but I do not threaten. Whom should I threaten? I know that you will drag us away to a concentration camp. Today you arrested hundreds. Perhaps you will arrest thousands. It is nothing. They will go along, they will sit there and we will sit with them. If necessary – we will be killed together with them. But there will be no reparations from Germany. And may God help us all to prevent this holocaust for the sake of our future and our honor.
Will the Speaker be so kind as to put it in the record and to inform the proper authorities that, as of 4:00 p.m. today, I, a Member of the Knesset entitled to parliamentary immunity, hereby consider that immunity null and void.
Source: “Reparations from Germany,” Knesset Debate,. Sitting 38, (January 7, 1952)