As a massive stroke ended Ariel Sharon’s tenure as Israel’s prime minister, commentators around the world were predicting negative consequences for the long-stalled Israeli/Palestinian peace process.
Love him or hate him–and there are few people who don’t have strong feelings about Sharon–it is almost universally agreed to that during the past five years he has matured into an elder statesman. To the surprise of many, Sharon’s powerful commitment to the “Land of Israel” as envisioned by Zionism’s founding fathers had apparently been tempered by the realization that sacrifices and hard choices were necessary to guarantee the survival of the state he helped build and, from the perspective of Israelis if not most Palestinians, defended for the past half-century.
Yet the pessimism over the future of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians is unwarranted. This is because for all his singularity as a political figure, Sharon’s core beliefs and goals represent the mainstream of Zionist and Israeli thought and policy during the past century. He was the “bulldozer” and the architect of Israel’s settlement policies; he famously urged Israelis to “move, run, grab more hills, expand the territory” based on his belief–one long shared by Zionist and Israeli leaders–that “everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don’t grab will be in their hands.”
But Sharon succeeded in pushing Israel’s political system to the right and deep into the occupied Palestinian territories–much of which, in a sad irony, constitute the heart of biblical Israel–precisely because his instincts and policies matched those of the majority of Israelis, who have always lived suspended between the desire to become a modern “normal” country on the one hand, and the deep-seated wish to reforge the biblical links with the land of their ancestors that sustained them through two millennia of exile that culminated tragically in the Holocaust.
Sharon’s biography is in fact the gold standard of Israeli identity and the idea of the “new Jew” on which it was founded. He was born in Palestine, which made him a sabra?the hard-and-prickly-on-the-outside-but-soft-on-the-inside fruit adopted by modern Israel as a national symbol of its people. He was a farmer, a settler, and a soldier–a combination that for the founding fathers of Israel, particularly David Ben Gurion, was essential for Zionism to succeed in a hostile land (Sharon joined the Haganah, or pre-state Jewish defense force, in 1942 at the age of 14).
He forged a deep and in many ways mystical (and according to one Sharon observer, “erotic”) attachment to the land, a goal of Zionist educational policies since the early days of its settlement efforts. Indeed, the deep resonance of the farmer-settler-soldier paradigm in Israeli consciousness explains why he moved so easily from the army to a series of cabinet posts in charge of Israeli agriculture, housing, and settlements.
The new Jew was also supposed to be a tough Jew. This was not just a response to the Holocaust, although the magnitude of the calamity reinforced this ideal. Rather, from the beginning of the second “aliya,” the wave of Zionist Jewish settlement that started at the turn of the twentieth century, the largely East European and often socialist Jews who became Zionism’s pioneers sought both to work and defend the land on which they settled. This put them into conflict with the Palestinian Arab population–not just with those who lived or worked the land before it was sold to Jews, but also with those who during the first aliya, beginning in the 1880s, had worked as both farmers and guards for the early Jewish settlements.
What Israeli novelist David Grossman has described as Sharon’s combination of “primal urges, of violence, of combat, cunning and brillian[ce]…. brave[ry] and corrupt[ion]” are precisely the combination of qualities, however unpleasant some of them are, that were necessary to build a Jewish state in an overwhelmingly Arab country. Grossman also described another quality in Sharon–unbridled leadership–that has deep roots in Israeli political culture.
Much of Sharon’s popularity today is rooted in his position as a father figure to Israelis; their faith in him became so strong that they followed him even without knowing the course he was charting. Yet here he was only filling the shoes of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and the father of the modern Israeli state, whose duty it was strongly and unhesitatingly to shape a young nation and lead it into an uncertain future.
Sharon also embodied another powerful dynamic within Zionism: its function as a secular religion. Many if not most Zionist pioneers grew up in a religiously Jewish environment and had a deep knowledge of the ancient history of the land of Israel when they arrived in Palestine. Even as many of them rebelled against the traditional Judaism of their parents, their hunger to build a new society that would redeem not just the land, but the religion and its people, clearly fulfilled a deeply felt spiritual need within the immigrants that traditional religious observance could no longer meet. Like the earlier Zionist founders of Israel, Sharon was not a publicly religious person or a traditionally observant Jew, but his profound attachment to the land allowed him to speak for millions of religious Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
This is not surprising, for Zionism is a quintessentially modern movement in its combination of a modern secular nationalism and a deep religious and historical attachment to the territory it claims as its own. It fulfills the most important requirement defined by the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich as the basis of religious belief: for an idea or goal to be of “ultimate concern” to whoever shares it.
The contradictions of Zionist and Israeli identity embodied by Sharon grow from the Zionist vision of transforming the Jewish people from a pariah and outsider people, perpetually adrift in host countries without a homeland of their own, into a “normal” nation. In this regard, Zionism has succeeded grandly. Israel is as normal–for good and ill–as a nation can be. It is a country of continued immigration; a vibrant culture; a large and productive economy but with a increasing levels of inequality and poverty; a democracy that regularly denies the rights of a significant share of the people whose lives it controls–in other words, a country that, like most every other, has yet to live up to the great ideals and potential of its founding vision.
The problem with this Zionist ideal is that Judaism was never intended to be a normal religion. As described in the Hebrew Bible, the foundational idea of “chosenness” by God and the God-given right to the Land of Israel were part of a contract with God that stipulated that Israel be “a light unto the nations,” distinguished from the others by acceptance of hundreds of divinely sanctioned laws and the moral-ethical system they represented.
For progressive-minded Jews and Israelis, this put a higher moral burden on Israel than other countries. For many traditional Jews (and many conservative Christians as well), it is the contract between God and the people of Israel that granted them the land that can never be broken, even for peace. For people at both ends of the spectrum, the middle ground charted lately by Sharon is unacceptable, but for the majority of Israelis, it is a welcome relief.
The paradox of Ariel Sharon’s life, beliefs, and policies was perhaps most ingeniously captured by the liberal Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi’s 1997 mockumentary titled “How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon.” I was living in Israel when this film came out, and I’ll never forget the intense reaction among liberal Israelis to Mograbi’s narrative of his odyssey from Israeli “refusenik” (he refused to serve in the Lebanon war launched by Sharon) to grudging Sharon admirer, shown at a right-wing rally at the end of the film. Liberal Israelis publicly condemned the film, even as they privately shared Mograbi’s ambivalent admiration for Sharon.
Progressive Israelis condemned Sharon because the 1990s, and the Oslo peace process that arose and fell during that decade, was the age of post-Zionism. This was supposed to be a time when Israelis became mature and confident enough in their identity and place in the world to criticize and move beyond their founding myths and the powerful nationalist impulses that defined their identity for a century. Pundits predicted that Israelis increasingly would embrace the post-nationalist, cosmopolitan identity associated with the country’s liberal, Ashkenazi (European-Jewish) elite, and help to build the “New Middle East” championed by Labor Party leader Shimon Peres and his fellow-members of the peace camp.
But even liberal Israelis had a deep, abiding fear that peace was neither possible, nor worth the price of relinquishing control over the most sacred parts of their ancestral homeland. This is why they remained politically passive and stood by as the population of Israel’s settlements doubled during the Oslo years.
It was in fact the promise of the Oslo peace process that made it a threat to so many Israelis and Diaspora Jews. Like the majority of religious and/or patriotic people around the world, they had no desire to cast aside the love of their country or God in favor of yet another empty promise of secular progress and happiness. Indeed, it was precisely the image of the new Jew, “never forgetting” and refusing to bow down to anyone, that attracted so many Jews to Israel after the 1967 war. No one symbolized that Jew better than Ariel Sharon, a man whose embodiment of the new spirit of Judaism after the Holocaust led him to be termed “King of Israel” by his supporters.
None of the men who will compete to replace Sharon can capture the qualities that made so many Israelis, and even some Arab leaders, trust him as the right man to lead Israel. That is why secular Israelis are praying in the streets while the country’s most famous “mystical rabbis” pray at his bedside.
But the reality is that Sharon’s view of Israel’s present and future differ little from most of the country’s political leaders, or from that of most Israelis. For that reason, his passing from the political scene will likely be far less traumatic than feared by many, much to the dismay of those on the left and far right who want to see a radical change in the country’s policies toward land, peace, and the future of Israel’s Jewish identity.
This piece first appeared at beliefnet.com.