When Menachem Begin was in opposition, he always used to make a reference in his stump speeches to the Dead Sea Works. It went like this: "They say that nothing can drown in the Dead Sea. The Mapai government has succeeded in proving that this is not so. It has invested millions – millions! – in the Dead Sea, and it has all sunk in the sea (here the crowd would burst out laughing). My dear citizens, if they were to give each and every one of you the money, you would receive thousands of dollars. But Mapai has taken your money and drowned it (and here the crowd would shout in anger).
One of Begin's first tours as prime minister was to the Dead Sea Works. The factory, which is still government owned, astounded him by its size and contribution to the country's exports. He immediately began singing the factory's praises. He never again cracked his joke about the Dead Sea Works. That's what happens when one gains power: you lose your sense of humor.
Begin is mentioned frequently in a new book "The Reparations' Argument", an assortment of documents and protocols from the beginning of the '50s when Israel's government decided to negotiate with Germany over payment to cover the expense of absorbing half-a-million Holocaust survivors in the country.
This decision was made in the face of fierce opposition, full of emotion, from both left and right. Begin supported the demand for individual compensation, but insisted that the state must not accept reparations from Germany. Germany must be expelled, for ever, from the family of nations. There should be no payment to blood accounts.
Begin was emotional. David Ben-Gurion was cold, cruel and focused on one issue: the building of the land. "There are two approaches", he told the Mapai central committee. "One is the ghetto Jew's approach and the other is of an independent people. I don't want to run after a German and spit in his face. I don't want to run after anybody. I want to sit here and build here. I'm not going to go to America to take part in a vigil against (German chancellor) Adenauer.
"I'm going to America on state business. A country spends its energy on ensuring its health, existence, and security. It does not spend time on spitting on somebody. There is a useless verse in the Bible: 'Wipe out the memory of Amalek'. If the Amalekites lived today and had universities, Jews would be studying in them.
"A state has national honor. It's a matter of national honor that we brought 50,000 Yeminites out of a dark and awful exile. The honor of shouting, shooting and demonstrating – I despise. When we lived in the ghetto, were wretched, we would spit on one another. But not in the other's presence, we would wait until we were at home and say we are spitting on him. I'm happy to give up this national honor. I ran away from this when I could at the age of 19 and no one is going to drag me back to it."
The reparations agreement was approved, and the country's infrastructure was kick-started a generation. Introducing the reparations agreement into today's argument over how much money those who lived in Europe during the Shoah should receive, or not receive, is cheap demagoguery.
Television reporter Orly Vilna'i read my article about the Shoah survivors' demonstration (or rather, about those people who speak in their name). She kindly sent me the documentary she made with Guy Meroz which, according to her, was responsible for setting off this wave of survivors' protest. The film is called "The payments' moral".
It opens with a pastoral picture of the two reporters in Berlin, accompanied by music from the "Wizard of Oz". "Why not me", sings Judy Garland, as the two visit a luxurious house of a Holocaust survivor who returned to Germany. The message is clear: Survivors who settled in Germany did well, survivors who moved to Israel ended up as suckers.
Why suckers, I asked. Are there no Holocaust survivors who built a villa in Israel? Is it really that bad here? Does living in a Jewish state no longer have any meaning? Is it only the size of one's villa that's important?
The answer depends on the individual; each to his or her own. But the genre of mistreatment, in both political and media circles, acts differently. It develops, each day, every night, the concept that the State of Israel only exists to deprive, steal and corrupt.
There are many pensioners living today in hardship. Their needs must be taken care of. But the focus on those pensioners who survived the Second Word War in Europe is really just a ploy by the Treasury. Within five years, they will no longer be around. It's much cheaper to deal with them than to concentrate on the real problem.