90. The Reparations

The ‘Austerity measures’ did not prove viable beyond a certain limit. On the one hand, the Jewish diaspora continued to remit aid to Israel, but on the other, the hordes of Jewish immigrants continued to reach Israel ceaselessly.

With the kind of news coming in from Germany, an alternate plan had been on Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s mind for the past few months.

The Germans themselves had started to consider the period of Hitler’s rule as a dark hour of their history. Moreover, the Germans also had guilt in their minds about the horrible atrocities committed under the racial hatred against the non-German races, especially against the Jews in Nazi Germany. Even at the highest levels of the German government, this gilt had started to get expressed. Realization of this situation made Ben-Gurion think, and a plan began to take shape in his mind. After receiving a letter to this effect from the then Chancellor of West Germany Konrad Adenauer, Ben-Gurion presented his plan without wasting much time. However, before this, his representatives had held year-long detailed discussions with Germany over the issue. Ben-Gurion’s plan proposed Germany to pay reparations to Israel for the terrible persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

The Chancellor of West Germany Konrad Adenauer

However, it had to be looked upon only as monetary compensation, a compromise worked out for the losses to properties of the Jews who had to face the atrocities and, of course, not as the cost for their lives. Ben-Gurion had made it clear to his people that nothing can compensate for the wounds inflicted on the hearts and the minds of the Jews saved from the atrocities and the relatives of those who perished unable to bear the mayhem.

In fact, way back after the end of World War II, when the four victorious Allied Nations took over Germany after its loss at war, the Jewish Agency had placed its demand before them for reparations. Moreover, the Agency had also requested for including their demand within the framework of the talks for peace treaties that were under deliberation among the victors and the losers. The Agency wanted to club its reparations demand with that made by the victorious Allied Nations to Germany. However, the request did not bear fruit, and the Allied powers asked the Jews to place their demand before Germany independently.

The Soviet Union and the pro-Soviet government of East Germany gave no response to this demand of the Jewish Agency. As a result, later, an independent Israel placed this demand before West Germany. Of course, well ahead, during the decade of the 1990s, sometime before the reunification of the two parts of Germany, East Germany accepted its responsibility and agreed to be a part of the reparations to be paid to the Jews.

Ben-Gurion presented the plan to recover the expense needed to rehabilitate some 500 thousand Jews who had emigrated from Europe. Considering $3,000 to be the per person expense, Ben-Gurion planned to recover about $1.5 billion in the form of the reparations from Germany.

Ben-Gurion’s opponents ridiculed and mocked at his idea. In addition to this, the idea also faced a huge emotional backlash.

One of the opponents of the plan, Menachem Begin posed a passionate question to the government. The opponents questioned the plan saying that throughout the history, the perpetual neglect faced by the Jews especially the racially-driven extreme oppression inflicted upon them in the European society and the Jewish lives lost to it – is a dark chapter for the Jews and an ever-bleeding wound on their minds and hearts. How can it be compensated with mere pieces of papers (money)? Is this the value of the blood spilled by our Jewish brethren?

Menachem Begin protesting against the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany in March 1952

Heated arguments and debates over the plan continued in the Knesset over three long days, day and night. To convince the ordinary people, the opponents held protests laced with emotional speeches at several city squares and junctions even as the parliamentary session continued. This inflamed the crowds in Tel Aviv, the protests against the plan intensified and turned violent. Between times, even the Knesset faced stone-pelting incidents. Tear gas was used to control the protestors. The police faced a real test as, on the one hand as they tried to quell the protestors, they were advised to exercise maximum restraint on the other.

Finally, after ayes and noes and hectic dissensions, the plan got passed with a thin majority and was later presented before the German government. Germany was asked to pay $1.5 billion in reparations. But as East Germany gave no response to the reparations demand, $0.845 billion was decided as the reparation amount at the negotiations with West Germany, which it was to pay in parts to Israel over the next fourteen years.

This amount was higher than even the combined total over the last four years of all the ways by which Israel had received funds viz., donations, grants, aids, private and government debt, etc. The money they had got so far by these means had helped Israel to win the War of Independence or 1948 Arab–Israeli War, to restructure its armed forces, to transform hundreds of moorlands into farmlands and to settle the immigrants there, to lay thousands of pipelines for irrigation scheme to take shape, to develop the port at Haifa and at other places.

Laying a water pipe to Jerusalem

Now, the new fund from reparations would help Israel in infrastructure building, widen the development of agriculture on a larger scale, evolve and advance farming in the Negev Desert, help businesses like transportation, shipbuilding, fisheries and others to progress, increase the provision of housing for the immigrants, etc.

The sequence of these events represented the time that had changed. The nation of Germany, where all possible efforts to completely wipe out the Jews had taken place, had to sign the Reparations Agreement with the Jew-nation of Israel now.(To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar

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