Noah Efron
He has a face made for radio

In death as in life, Yael Dayan is an inconvenient Israeli

Dayan spent her life making the country a more decent place, which may be why the world press stayed silent on her passing
File - Yael Dayan at her home in Tel Aviv on February 2, 2019. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
File - Yael Dayan at her home in Tel Aviv on February 2, 2019. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

This is just a theory. Maybe just a conspiracy theory. You can be the judge.

Yael Dayan died last week and no major world newspaper ran an obituary or even mentioned her. Not the New York Times, not the New York Post, not the LA Times, not the Globe, not the Times of London or the Telegraph or the Guardian, not Le Monde or Le Figaro, not Die Zeit or Die Welt.

I was sure all of these papers would have a story about Yael Dayan. Yael Dayan was the daughter of the most renowned and revered general Israel ever had, who oversaw, first as IDF chief of staff and then as minister of defense, three wars that gave shape, for better and for worse, to everything that has followed: the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 Six Day War, and the October 1973 Yom Kippur War.

But Yael Dayan was far more than just her father’s daughter. She wrote an international bestselling novel when she was just 19, and several more bestsellers over the course of her long career as a writer. After she went into politics – she got into the Knesset with the Labor Party in 1992, the election that made Yitzhak Rabin prime minister for the second time, and the Knesset that eventually approved the Oslo Peace Accords – Yael Dayan tirelessly worked for peace with Palestinians. She was the first Zionist MK to meet with Yassir Arafat after she booked herself a ticket via Europe to Tunis in 1993, an act that made Rabin plenty mad, but that she did, as she said at the time, because “without peace, there is no life, not for us, and not for them.”

Yael Dayan was also the politician who probably did more than anyone else in Israel’s history (and Jewish history, if you want to think about things expansively) to move the country toward women having the same opportunities and rights as men. The first thing she did after she was elected was to persuade Rabin to reestablish a Knesset committee on the status of women and appoint her as chair. The committee had existed for six months in an earlier Knesset and accomplished nothing, but under Dayan, it wrote and passed law after law that reshaped the country.

Dayan passed a law setting out “principles that will ensure full equality between women and men, in the spirit of the principles of the declaration of independence,” which law is at the foundation of, now, more than a quarter of a century of legislation and litigation stripping away gender inequalities in marriage, at school, in the army, in banks, and at work. Yael Dayan pushed through the first laws in Israel against sexual harassment, and a law ensuring the rights of single mothers. She changed the laws about what counted as evidence of rape and how the police gathered this evidence. The first victims’ rights law in Israel, Yael Dayan wrote it.

In 1993, Yael Dayan launched a new “subcommittee for the prevention of discrimination on the basis of sexual preference,” through which she organized the Knesset’s first day-long conference on Gay rights, at the end of which, in a speech demanding an end to all the discrimination, explicit and tacit, against queer people, she summoned in support of her demand a claim that King David and Jonathan, the son of Saul, were lovers, citing the passage in II Samuel where David calls Jonathan “most dear to me,” and says, “Your love for me was wondrous, better than the love of women.” Yael Dayan was screamed down with calls of chutzpah, chutzpah, which cries were followed by promises to topple the government. When the Queer community organized that year its first Pride Gathering in a small Tel Aviv park, Yael Dayan addressed a screaming, cheering crowd of thousands. Referring to a banner hanging from a synagogue at the edge of the green, she said, “Up there, there’s a sign saying, [Be ready for] the coming of the Messiah. We’ll work on the coming of the Messiah. Our messiah will come not from heaven, but from our recognizing human rights.”

After she left the Knesset, Yael Dayan became deputy mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and eventually the chair of the city council. Her demand in joining the mayor’s coalition was that a committee be created, with her as chair, to somehow help the tens of thousands of refugees and migrant workers from Eritrea and Sudan who had come to live, in harsh poverty, near the bus station in south Tel Aviv. What Yael Dayan accomplished through that committee is astonishing: getting the city to set up nursery schools and to get refugee kids into grade schools and high schools, and setting up shelters, and allocating city money to NGOs to hook the people up with jobs, and much more.

Former Labor MK Yael Dayan participates in a protest against the deportation of asylum seekers at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

When Yael Dayan’s younger brother, an actor and brilliant screenwriter and film director named Assi Dayan, died a decade before her, almost to the day, there were stories and tributes everywhere. The Times gave him a thousand words, accompanied by lovely photos. When Yael Dayan’s mother, Ruth Dayan, who, according to a 1,300-word Times obituary “built an Israeli fashion brand,” died in 2021 at the age of 103, there were stories and tributes everywhere. Assi and Ruth Dayan were remarkable figures, but their impact on Israel and the world was nothing compared to that of their sister and daughter, Yael Dayan.

So why has Yael Dayan’s death gone unremarked, maybe unnoticed, in the world?

My theory is that Yael Dayan’s life and work say something profound about Israel that doesn’t fit with a new, near-consensus view of the country. My theory is that Yael Dayan’s life and work describe an arc of change in Israel that is at odds with a rigid and bleak view of the country that has lately become a near orthodoxy.

Moshe Dayan was a hero who, when eulogizing a young man murdered by Gazans who captured him in the field of his kibbutz and dragged his corpse back with them over the border, famously said:

We are a generation that settles the land and without the steel helmet and the cannon’s maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house…Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us and are waiting for the moment when their hands may claim our blood. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken. This is the fate of our generation. This is our life’s choice – to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.

Yael Dayan was an activist who rejected her father’s fate and life’s choice and sought peace. She spent her life making the country a better place for women, queer folks, refugees, Palestinians, everyone. Yael Dayan’s life describes a country growing more alive, with the passing of decades and generations, to human rights.

Milan Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, tells how, when a minister or writer in the Soviet Bloc fell out of favor, “The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and of course, from all photographs.” My theory – and if you think it is just a conspiracy theory, I hope you are right – is that something worse explains why Yael Dayan has vanished from the pages of the world press. It is that Yael Dayan’s life says something profoundly true about the nature of Israel that is incompatible with the harsh, largely false, picture of Israel that is now on its way to being part of the style sheets of many of the papers written and read in the capitals of America and Europe.

About the Author
Noah Efron is a member of Tel Aviv-Jaffa's City Council, representing the green party, Hayarok Bamerkaz. Efron hosts TLV1's 'The Promised Podcast', which is generally considered the greatest contribution to Jewish culture since Maimonides. He is also chair of the Graduate Program on Science, Technology & Society at Bar Ilan University. He's written lots about the complicated intertwine of science, technology, religion and politics. His biggest regret is that he is not NORA Ephron.
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