In October, 1992, Ariel Sharon was Israel’s Housing Minister. I had arrived in Oxford four years earlier and we had built up our Oxford University L’Chaim Society to the point where we were ready to open a large Jewish student center in Oxford’s ancient center at Carfax. We wanted a prestigious dignitary for the opening and, with a great deal of effort and a few trips to Los Angeles, we secured President Ronald Reagan to do the opening. All was set for a huge lecture we were sponsoring at the Oxford Union, followed by Reagan opening our Jewish student center down the block, when I received a call about two weeks before the big event that President Reagan had to pull out at the last minute.
We scrambled for a replacement and through a mutual friend I was able to book Ariel Sharon.
From the time I was a boy he was a hero to me. I distinctly remember watching the developments of the Yom Kippur War as a boy of almost seven years old and how Sharon helped to save the State of Israel in its most critical hour with his daring crossing of the Suez Canal where in short order he encircled and cut off the Egyptian Third Army. The Jewish state was on the verge of destruction. The gutsy Sharon, ignoring orders from his superiors, had turned the tide and the pressure was now on Egypt to save its army from starvation.
In the interim Sharon had become highly controversial and toxic to many of our Oxford constituents, after facing accusations that he had failed to stop the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in the Lebanon War. But after he sued Time magazine in the American courts after it reported that Sharon had told the Phalangists that they should take revenge for Bachir Gemayel’s assassination, he experienced a political and public rehabilitation after the jury found the article false and defamatory (Time ultimately won the suit because Sharon could not prove that the magazine had acted out of malice).
Now, as we prepared to launch our student center, Sharon was virtually alone among Israel’s top leaders who was warning against the Peace conference Prime Minister Shamir was attending in Madrid and that was summoned by President George Bush 41.
His opposition brought the world’s media to our event. There were countless TV cameras and reporters. More than anything, there was security. Huge numbers of guys with noodles coming out of their ears.
It was Friday afternoon, a few hours before Shabbat. Sharon arrived and came into my office. He could not be more gracious. He told me he believed fully in impacting Jewish students on campus and was honored to open a Jewish student center at so prestigious a University. He thanked me for all we did on campus to fight for Israel’s reputation. I gave him the low-down on what to expect. There was a large demonstration against him, mostly Palestinian students brought in from around the country. But they were joined by some Israeli students as well. He seemed blasé about it, as if he were used to it.
He gathered his notes and we walked the one block to the Union. It was a circus. Police everywhere. Reporters trying to get comment. Students trying to get near him. We turned the corner and there was the protest. It was very different to the protests I had encountered with the other leading Israelis we hosted regularly. With Netanyahu there was the loud chanting of “Netanyahu you should know, we support the PLO.” Yitzchak Shamir had received similar treatment. At our Cambridge University branch a group of students tried to have Shimon Peres arrested for crimes against humanity.
With Sharon it was a silent protest. Absolutely quiet. Many of the students were wearing white T-shirts with fake blood. They all pointed at Sharon in silence. There were many banners in red ink, “Murderer,” “Killer,” and so forth. Sharon was walking very calmly, clasping the hand of his wife Lilly the entire time. He was imperturbable. He walked over to the protesters and got within inches of them, much to the consternation of the army of security protecting him. He read their signs and banners. I was on his left, Lilly on his right. He asked the protestors to come in and hear his speech and ask him any question they wish. “Why stay outside and protest. If you have a good point to make, do it inside. Refute me. But come in.” Amazingly, a large number of the protestors took up the invitation, which presented a problem for us because the Union debating hall was filled to absolute capacity.
We walked in and, in front of the large collection of microphones from media outlets from around the world, I introduced Sharon. He began his speech. “When I was a child growing up in an agricultural environment in Israel, the Arabs were our friends and neighbors. There was no animosity between us. If you would have told me then that we would today have this massive war between us I would not have believed you.” Beginning on this conciliatory note, he then gave his version of what had gone wrong between the Israelis and the Arabs and the repeated wars of annihilation that had been launched against the Jewish state.
He asked not to be interrupted. There was no need to as he was prepared to take the questions of his most ardent critics. He finished a solid speech and kept his word. A Palestinian woman, crouched in front of him, asked one of the first questions. She spoke of her family losing their home to the Israelis. She spoke of Israel as an occupying power and of Sharon as the living personification of Israeli aggression. Sharon listened sympathetically and responded with his version of Israel’s history. He said, “I live on a farm in Israel. I am inviting you to visit me there. You will be my guest. You will see that I’m not the person you think I am and you’ll see that you misjudge Israel.”
The rest of the questions went along the same lines. The questions were tough, many even insulting, but Sharon could not be riled. He responded with utter calm, displaying none of the “bulldozer” qualities that so many had expected. Questions went much longer that we had prepared for, at Sharon’s insistence. When it was over, I gave him as a gift, in front of all the students and media, a bottle of Vodka that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had given to me a week earlier in New York specifically for the event and into which the Rebbe had poured wine over which he had made the Sabbath blessing. Sharon, who enjoyed a close friendship with the Rebbe, cherished the gift.
We walked back to our Jewish student center amidst even greater mayhem. The place was absolutely packed. We put up the mezuzos. We officially opened our center. We ate a festive lunch with all of our students. Dignitaries gave speeches. Sharon then agreed to do a number of one-on-one interviews with leading media outlets, including Arab journalists and networks.
I asked Sharon to stay for Shabbat dinner. The sun was setting. It was nearly time. He did not stay.
Tonight, upon hearing of Sharon’s death, one of my students who now lives in Washington, DC, wrote me and email and reminded me of Sharon’s response when I asked him to eat Shabbat dinner with us: “He politely declined and quietly left. When asked why he felt the need to leave so soon he sheepishly admitted that he didn’t want a Jewish organization violating the Sabbath” by having him drive once Shabbat had begun.