On Israel’s Memorial Day in 2005, I stood in my IDF uniform on Mt. Herzl watching a man who was about to expel 8,000 Jews from their homes speak in honor of Israel’s fallen. The Gaza pullout was only a few months away, but I was too preoccupied with finishing my army service to really think about the man on the podium. I just remember marveling at his sheer bulk and thinking that a man in such physical condition cannot be too healthy.
I was also probably in denial. I imagined a massive standoff in Gaza, with hundreds of thousands of Jews blocking the roads and forcing Sharon into a different and unfamiliar kind of retreat. I knew that in 1982 some 20% of the Israeli population had gathered in Tel Aviv to protest Sabra and Shatila, and I assumed that Israelis would care at least as much about their own people as they did about others’. I wore the orange bracelet while in uniform, and I quietly took the rebuke of stall owners of Machane Yehuda who told me that I should be ashamed to be wearing the green. I told myself that were I not to be discharged a few weeks before the expulsion, I would gladly sit in prison, even risk further jail time by speaking out to the press in my uniform, rather than lift a finger to participate in the pullout on any level.
But part of me wasn’t willing to think that it would actually happen, and by thinking that others would do the rising up, I joined those hundreds of thousands in their inaction. I’ll always bear a bit of regret for not having acted on my principles, of flying to America instead to see my family and friends as soon as my service was over.
And so, a few weeks later, from the television screens in airports and Greyhound bus terminals, I numbly watched the wrecking of Gush Katif, and saw American newscasters shaking their heads in disbelief and gushing words of consolation and support. They were reacting to the human side of the story, and I assumed that the political climate inside Israel was restraining its own reporters a bit more lest their empathy be interpreted as the wrong kind of bias.
Along with so many other Jews, I never thought I could forgive Sharon for something that seemed as criminally unstrategic, as inhuman and as un-Jewish as the military surrender and destruction of Gush Katif. I felt that notwithstanding the usual magnanimous and beguiling platitudes from foreign leaders–and more likely because of them–that nothing good would come of this, that pulling out of Gaza was giving our enemies a huge reward for decades of terrorism, and an incentive and free reign to escalate it forward as the Gaza battle front fell back, turning all of southern Israel into a target zone and war front.
Back in Israel some months later, when I was still hopping mad about Gush Katif, I had the fortune to sit next to an older religious man on the bus who helped put things into perspective. We shouldn’t nurture anger at the government, he said, nor at God, because the pullout was a sign that clearly we did not merit to hold on to that piece of land at this time. A few minutes of rebuke was enough to mollify my youthful indignation with the wisdom of a generation that saw military miracles and the violent blossoming of the Zionist rebirth.
Nonetheless, when I heard that Sharon went into a coma several months later, a moment of cynical vindictiveness flared in me before the empathy set in. I was left hoping that in his coma his neshama would realize the magnitude of his mistake, that the fallen lion would awaken and charge, Sharon-style, to undo the damage he had done.
And so, when I heard the news that Ariel Sharon finally died, I found myself disarmed at the wave of great loss that suddenly washed over me, at the pang of grief that our beloved lion has left us.
I still think Sharon made a terrible mistake in the end of his brilliant career, but it would take an incredibly cynical person to believe that a man physiologically incapable of retreat under fire could have played dice with his country’s future in order to draw media attention from a corruption scandal. The controversy over Sabra and Shatila notwithstanding, nothing he ever did suggested that he could have been that immoral, selfish and devoid of conscience when it came to the protection of his own troops and his own nation. In fact, everything suggested the opposite.
The bulldozer was still then a man with a heart, gilded by iron.
In life and in death, it is impossible to feel pareve about Sharon, and the outpouring of praise and condemnation of leaders around the world following his death attest to that. But even his harshest detractors within the government could never deny that Ariel Sharon displayed unmatched courage and competence on the battlefield. In a certain operation in the Sinai in the 1967 war, when ordered on the phone to retreat by his division commander, he reportedly replied, “If you had any genitals I would cut them off and feed them to you,” promptly hanging up. And Arik the Lion, roused no doubt by his own bravado, forged ahead to smash the Egyptians. This physical inability to be cowed commanded grudging respect from his superiors and naked admiration and trust from his men.
During the pullout we all bled as one body. I never lived in Gush Katif. I can neither judge nor imagine the feelings of those that saw their homes bulldozed, their lives uprooted and their buildings used for launching rockets against their own people. And from a strategic standpoint, the pullout seems to have been an unprecedented and unmitigated disaster. The predictability of the results were as clear as the summer skies over Neve Dekalim. Pre-pullout, the interior of Gaza was a manageable front line against Hamas, and when Israel left Gaza the front line became the entire nation.
The surrender of Gush Katif was a move that, on the surface at least, was inconceivably untactical, especially for a master of war like him. Sharon seemed to have made a colossal mistake, one that seems more impossible than improbable for the brilliant tactician, and one that tempts some to look for personal and sinister motives.
But there needs to be nothing personal or sinister about it–the history of the kings of Israel has great men appearing to do unbelievably stupid things and of sudden, inexplicable and disastrous changes of heart.
Perhaps Sharon was looking back to the courage of Begin and perhaps he wanted to be remembered as a man of peace as well as a man of war. Perhaps he was blinded by the myopia of optimism. Perhaps he was so used to being right on the battlefield that he felt vindicated in plowing his will through the Knesset. Perhaps the victory-obsessed warrior was lacking in a certain broadness of intellect, and perhaps he was personifying war-torn Israeli’s inability to let himself worry about the future beyond the current battle. Saddest of all is the prospect that, in the face of global pressure, the lion of the limited engagement finally learned how to retreat, for the first and the last time in his life.
To me it will always remain a mystery of Biblical admonition why the man that built Gush Katif and opened the West Bank to Jewish settlement would destroy such a beautiful and flowering piece of his own handiwork. But I cannot imagine that it was easy for him.
In the end we’ll never really know what went on in Ariel Sharon’s head during his last major act as Prime Minister. But regardless of why he did what he did in this last years, I hope that he will be remembered for his amazing courage and contribution towards enabling the Jewish people to dwell safely in their land.
Now that he has left us, I choose to remember the undemocratic bulldozer as a Jewish Churchill, perhaps less eloquent but perhaps even more courageous, as a man who believed that everything he was doing was for the ultimate good of his people and the world. Just as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s death plunged Jews into the lamentation of their “spiritual father”, so are the millions of Israelis who have worn the uniform of their country mourning the loss of “their commander.”
All of Am Israel felt the pain and the confusion when Sharon amputated one of its limbs. I cannot expect those who were expelled to overflow with gratitude at his many contributions, nor to forgive him for scars that may take generations to heal. But I ask the rest of us to remember him for the good.
Ariel Sharon’s departure has inspired Facebook religiosity around the world from the otherwise skeptical, Jewish and non. A Frenchman in Canada and a vocal critic of Orthodox Jewry wrote that he was a “leader of Biblical stature.” Perhaps the words of one Irishman, a professor of history and economics, a lover of the Jewish people and an otherwise avowed atheist, may best express how I think we should remember Ariel Sharon: “An inspiration to everyone who loves freedom and courage and all that is moral and right in this world. Rest in peace dear Arik, Lion of God.”
We will miss you.