“Blessed is the true Judge.”
This traditional blessing recited upon hearing sad news, beautiful in its simplicity and expression of faith, has never been more appropriate as one recalls the tumultuous life and turbulent times of Ariel Sharon, one of Israel’s greatest and most complicated leaders ever. Eulogies generally tend to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative, and so it is with the hail of tributes recalling the exceptional achievements of a life devoted almost entirely, if not always successfully, to protecting the security of the Jewish people. But death neither confers sainthood on people nor should it lend itself, among decent people, to an obsessive focus on shortcomings or misdeeds.
Ariel Sharon, to say the least, was a man of many contradictions:
- He was a fiercely proud Jew, yet estranged from most Jewish traditions. By his own admission, he regretted being “robbed” of his heritage, never having been raised with Torah or Mitzvot as functional part of his life, but still showed appropriate respect to those steeped in Jewish life (once, at an intimate dinner in our presence, he questioned our use of “milk” after a meat meal. He had never seen pareve milk before) ;
- He was a daring and creative general who won and lost battles and wars. In 1956, he was roundly condemned for ignoring orders and sending his troops into an unnecessary battle at the Mitla Pass in Sinai. That cost the lives of 38 soldiers, and in the eyes of his superiors, forfeited Sharon the opportunity to ever become Israel’s Chief of Staff. In 1967, his unit overwhelmed the Egyptian defenses in Sinai in a classic battle, and in 1973, he became most famous for leading his men across the Suez Canal, a move that his superiors had approved but not on the time frame that Sharon adopted. That maneuver clinched Israel’s victory after a devastating start to the Yom Kippur War.
- He was the primary builder of settlements in a variety of positions he held from 1977 to 2005, and the primary destroyers of settlements – in 1981 and 2005.
- He formed the Likud – in 1973 – and then disassembled it in 2005.
- Sharon defied orders many times, and then lambasted those who would defy his orders. He disobeyed orders on numerous occasions as a commander, then as a young Member of Knesset urged soldiers to flout orders to dismantle the new settlements begun near Elon Moreh in 1974 – and then, as Prime Minister, declared that refusing his orders to destroy settlements would lead to civil war and the end of Israel.
- He was a legendary fighter against Arab terror who then gave terrorists the greatest gift imaginable – their own territory and, effectively, immunity from conquest.
- He was an icon of Israel’s right-wing who then became its enemy.
- He was the bane of Israel’s left-wing who then became its darling, a “role model” of those whose “values” shift from right to left – the only type of transformation they deem worthy.
- He urged Jews (me, for one) to protest against Oslo in every forum possible as the land of Israel belonged to all Jews, not just those who live in Israel, and then told Jews, essentially, to keep their mouths shut and butt out when he decided to abandon Gush Katif and Northern Shomron.
As I said, he was complicated.
Certainly, he was a leader unafraid to make decisions and carry them out despite, frequently, the human cost involved and the contrary advice he had been given. “Daring” in victory is often a synonym for “reckless” in defeat, and Sharon experienced both. “Courage” and “foolhardiness” are also, often, two sides of the same coin, and determined more by the results than the process. And thus Sharon was courageous and daring, or reckless and foolhardy, in both war and peace. Ultimately, his victories on the battlefield did not bring peace, and his diplomatic foray into “peace” has brought only more war.
The great mystery of Ariel Sharon is how and why he abandoned his support of Jewish settlement and ordered the expulsion of more than 8000 Jews, wantonly destroying families and lives in the process. It is an insoluble enigma, made even more troublesome by the fact that just months before he announced this policy, he had ridiculed it – and won election accordingly – when it was the policy of his opponent, Amram Mitzna, in the 2003 election. How does – how can – a politician run a campaign advocating one position and assailing that of his opponent – and then embrace the defeated opponent’s policies when in office? Perhaps that is in the very definition of the word “politician,” but it remains inexplicable, not to mention immoral.
It is patently absurd to think that Sharon believed that the Expulsion would lead to peace – the whole point was to ignore the enemy rather than reconcile with it – but the very idea contradicted every instinct Sharon had previously indulged. One can speculate that it was designed to win over the left, rehabilitate his reputation, or avert prosecution for himself or his sons, or a genuine attempt to contract Israel’s borders to make them more defensible. But what did he learn in December 2003 that he did not already know in January 2003 when he denounced Mitzna’s plan as dangerous for Israel’s security – and then adopted it?
Certainly, the expulsion was bad enough, but especially execrable was the resultant vulnerability to Israel’s south, brought home vividly by two rockets from Gaza that landed today a short distance away from where Sharon’s burial was taking place. Additionally, the withdrawal by Israel from the Philadelphia corridor at the southern border of Gaza is what enabled Hamas to import the rockets and missiles with which it harasses Jewish life on the border. That, too, is Sharon’s legacy.
He had an important role in almost every major conflict that Israel has fought – from the War of Independence to the ongoing Gaza conflict. As a commander, he pushed himself and his men to remarkable achievements for which they developed a lifelong allegiance to him. He personally saved the life of MK Yaakov Katz (Ketzele) after he was almost cut in half by an Egyptian missile and left for dead. Sharon – again, disobeying orders – ordered a helicopter into the battle zone to rescue him and rush him for emergency treatment. His triumphs in battle are legendary, as are the moments when he overstepped (as in Lebanon) and sought to impose a diplomatic solution through force of arms. Let the carpers attack him for the events in Sabra and Shatila, and I will suffice with Menachem Begin’s initial response: “Christians kill Muslims, and they come to blame the Jews,” a succinct and quite accurate description of that part of the cycle of massacres that occurred in Lebanon during those years. Sharon thereafter was barred from serving as Defense Minister, which he never did again, although, ironically, he was elected to the higher office of prime minister.
The settlement of Judea, Samaria and Gaza had no greater champion that Ariel Sharon. It makes his betrayal that much more stunning, but facts are stubborn things: there would be no settlement movement, or at least Jews would not have been able to settle across the length and breadth of the heartland but for the efforts of Ariel Sharon. In whatever position he held – Minister of Agriculture, Defense, Housing, Construction, Trade, Infrastructure, etc. – each ministry somehow became responsible for Jewish settlement. That will also be part of his legacy, as is this: he proved that the Israeli secular right thrives in opposition, but cannot govern effectively or implement their values in leadership. That is a red warning light that should keep flashing.
It is inordinately difficult to take the measure of any person, but certainly of Ariel Sharon who both enraged and/or endeared himself to all segments of Israeli society, just never at the same time. His personality remained the same, and his willingness to take risks and bulldoze forward without much consultation with others was the unifying theme in his life. It was apparently FDR (some say Cordell Hull) who said in 1939 of the US ally but brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza that “Somoza may be an S.O.B. but he’s our S.O.B.” Is that our final analysis of Ariel Sharon, however indelicate it sounds? That he was always goring someone, but right-wingers loved him when he gored the Arabs and the Israeli left, and left-wingers loved him where he gored the right? I hope not. The fact that the Arab enemy is rejoicing in his death should tilt the scale in his favor.
In today’s Daf Yomi (Yoma 66b), the Talmud states that Rabbi Eliezer was asked: “Is so-and-so [worthy] of the World-to-Come?” And he answered, in effect, that we should not concern ourselves with such questions about other people. Ariel Sharon spent eight years in exile – suspended between life and death, between this world and the next. That alone should give us all pause for reflection.
In Jewish tradition, there is a famous figure known as Yochanan the High priest, “who served as High Priest for eighty years and at the end of his life became a Sadducee” (Berachot 29a). His life, too, was inexplicable. Did the end undo and vitiate all his earlier accomplishments? I would think not. Like all of us, Sharon will be judged in Heaven for the enormous good that he did in his life, and judged as well for the ignoble. Like few of us, his capacity for good and evil had an extremely large range, with an almost incomprehensible chasm between the two. For that, we need not judge him, but celebrate the good that he did, and try to ensure that the evil does not live on after him, nor is it repeated by his successors in the Likud. Judgment is appropriately left to G-d.
“Blessed is the true Judge.”