January 20, 2019

Ariel Sharon, a bio of a life beyond all expectations

Perhaps the most irrational act esteemed journalist David Landau has ever attempted in his literary career is trying to write a clear-eyed evenhanded biography of Ariel Sharon in “Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon” (Knopf: $37.50).  Sharon’s larger-than-life almost mythic persona seems to cut into the souls of Jews everywhere, forcing them to grapple with their own commitment to Israel and their ancient heritage no matter how far they may have drifted spiritually, intellectually, or geographically.  Sharon compels Jews to look at themselves and figure out what they really feel; he refuses to be ignored.  Even during the years he lay unconscious from the massive stroke he suffered in early 2006, his presence was still felt.  Some prayed for his recovery, thinking perhaps only he could bring some sort of sustained security to Israel – a path he seemed to be embarking on before falling ill.  Others were still stung by the shame they believe he brought forth – the excessive force in Lebanon, the building of more and more settlements, the seemingly eternal mistrust of the Arabs.  There is still little consensus about Sharon, other than this: He was passionately devoted to Israel’s survival; to the survival of the Jews.  Sharon’s death on Jan. 11, at 85, makes Landau’s intuitive biography all the more compelling.

Author Landau is a left-leaning Orthodox Jew who spent years writing for the Jerusalem Post and then serving as editor of Ha’aretz.  He has done a superb job here in attempting to chisel away the myths that surround Sharon and to isolate his essence without theatrics or ideological fanfare.  He allows the research to lead him, and his steadiness and fairness prove a good match for Sharon’s impetuousness; ironically it feels as if they each possess strengths the other lacks.  The result is a complex and compelling portrait of Sharon that forces the reader to reevaluate his or her preconceived notions.

Sharon’s rough-edged intensity seems to have been part of his genetic inheritance.  His paternal grandfather, Mordechai Scheinerman, came to Palestine in 1910 from Brest Litovsk, in White Russia, and was an early convert to Zionism.  Scheinerman found the heat and mosquitoes intolerable and returned home, only to be forced to flee again to Tbilisi, Georgia, where he made certain his son Samuil, Ariel Sharon’s father, was indoctrinated with a sense of mission regarding the Jewish dream of attaining their own homeland.  Samuil fled to Palestine in 1921 after convincing his girlfriend Vera Schneeroff, a fourth year medical student from Belarus, to marry him and go with him.  The couple settled in the cooperative village of Kfar Malal, near Tel Aviv, where, Landau writes, they had immediate difficulties with their neighbors.  Sharon concedes that they were both tough and loners by nature, and possessed an iron-clad individualist ethos that clashed with the collective ethos of that era.  Sharon’s father was a trained and innovative agronomist who experimented with introducing new crops to the area, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes and avocados.  Sharon’s mother was an incessant reader and frustrated by the lack of intellectual opportunity available to her at that time.  She insisted Ariel attend high school in Tel Aviv, even though most of the local boys did not.  She also insisted her children take violin lessons, attend recitals and read the Russian classics.

But this was Palestine, a world different from the one they had left behind, and Sharon’s childhood memories are infiltrated with an almost visceral love of the land.  He remembers feeling energized working in the fields after school.  One senses that he drew strength from the stark sensual beauty that surrounded him.  Or, at the very least, the land served as a tranquilizer of sorts for the racing thoughts that were most likely already spinning about in his head.  Thoughts that told him this paradise was temporary, and that like all paradises it would have to be fought for.  Sharon was probably already gearing up for the fight.  His parents, particularly his mother, had always warned him never to trust the Arabs, and she slept anxiously even in her nineties with a revolver tucked under her pillow.  She would call him in later years and warn him to always keep his guard up when dealing with them and rely on his own resilience.  There seems to have been a certain sort of sadness that shrouded his family; the sadness that comes from being ousted.  A sadness that turned into anger and a raging sense of purpose in young Ariel.  By 14, he had taken an oath of allegiance to the Haganah, the underground army of the Jewish state in the making.  He was quickly recognized for his leadership abilities and fearlessness.

Sharon’s military prowess is legendary.  But there were rumors about his overzealousness, which Landau explores.  Rumors that he stretched the truth or ignored it entirely.  Rumors that he was capable of stepping too far out of bounds.  David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan both were taken with Sharon’s brashness but afraid that he could do something so rash that the results could be catastrophic. 

Sharon reminisced about some of his military experiences in 2005, recalling in particular the war that broke out after Israel declared its independence.  Syria, Iraq and Egypt attacked immediately, and Britain fled, leaving the Jews on their own.  Sharon was irrevocably moved by the sight of newly arrived Holocaust survivors coming to assist his own troops in the upcoming battle.  He remembers that this event took place near, “an olive grove near ancient Hulda.  My platoon and I lie sprawled in the afternoon heat under the shade of the trees.  Thoughts before the battle.  We blend into the scrubby soil, as though we were an integral part of it.  Feelings of rootedness, of homeland, of belonging, of ownership.  Suddenly, a line of trucks pulls up nearby.  New recruits, foreign looking, pale, in sleeveless pullovers, gray trousers, striped shirts.  A mélange of languages.  Names like Herschel and Jazek are bandied about, Yanem, Jonzi, Peter.  They so don’t blend with the olive tree, the rocks, the yellow earth.  They came to us from the death camps of Europe….The stripped off, white-skinned bodies, tried to find uniforms that fit, struggled with buckles and belts helped by young commanders they have only just met.  All are quiet.  Acquiescent.  Not one of them shouts, give us a chance to breathe a little air after the terrible years we have been through.  As they know this is another battle, the last battle, for Jewish survival…” 

Landau chronicles Sharon’s transition from military leader to Prime Minister and confesses to his own skepticism regarding his transformation into a mature statesman.  He wonders “But was it all political strategy, or was it substance, too?…Was the change in his image all slick campaigning or did it reflect changes taking place ‘inside him’ in his understanding of what was required of Israel’s leader?  Was his sole concern achieving popularity-first in the election, then in the job of Prime Minister, and finally in the history books?  Or did his newfound moderation express a genuine embrace of pragmatic positions not only because they were popular but because he was coming to believe in them?” 

Landau seems to come to believe in the sincerity of his transformation.  He watched Sharon, to the delight of the peacenik movement, withdraw from Gaza, which he did shortly after speaking these prophetic words to a Likud caucus in the Knesset.  Prime Minister Sharon declared, “I am going to make every effort to reach a political settlement of the conflict…I also happen to think that the idea that we can continue to hold three and a half million Palestinians under occupation — you can bridle at the words, but that what it is, occupation — that it is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, bad for our economy.  We need to free ourselves from control of over three and a half million Palestinians whose numbers are rising all the time.  We have to reach a political settlement.” 

Landau explains how unimaginable this speech would have been just years before, but still seems to harbor serious reservations about Sharon.   The reader senses Landau feels that Sharon’s intrinsic stubbornness, his late-life wisdom, and his perennial mistrust of the Palestinians ultimately allowed him to miss valuable opportunities for negotiation and peace when they were present.

But others with a similar political bent to Landau’s have drawn different conclusions.  Ari Shavit wrote in The New Yorker in 2006 about spending time with Sharon on his ranch in the western Negev in 1999.  He recalled feeling hostile towards Sharon before they met because of Lebanon; a war he feels brought shame and disrespect to Israel.  But after spending time with Sharon, he came away impressed.  He liked the way Sharon called himself a Jew and not an Israeli, as he would have expected.  He was impressed by his humbleness, his lack of self-consciousness, his intuition about all matters.  He was surprised by his sense of humor, his graciousness, his stories about his parents’ Russian background. By the time Shavit met with Sharon, his beloved wife Lily had passed and Sharon was enveloped by the love and companionship of his two sons, to whom he seemed incredibly close.  Sharon took great joy in speaking about the olive trees on his farm and the history of the olive tree’s longevity in that area.  Although Shavit doesn’t say so, it seems as if the olive trees represented for Sharon the strength and resilience of the Jews in their quest to secure their homeland forever.  Shavit came away from the meeting awed by Sharon and all he had accomplished. 

But other Jews can’t speak of him without seeing the Jewish bogeyman.   Tony Judt wrote in 2002 that Sharon was directly responsible for not finding credible Palestinian partners with whom to broker a peace deal.  He blamed Sharon for the ongoing carnage.  Judt claimed, “This is the distinctive achievement of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s dark Id.  Notorious among soldiers for his strategic incompetence – his tactical success with bold tank advances was never matched by any grasp of the bigger picture – Sharon has proven as bad as many of us feared.  He has repeated (or in the case of the expulsion of Arafat, tried to repeat) all the mistakes of the 1982 occupation of Lebanon, down to the very rhetoric.  Sharon’s obsession with Arafat brings to mind Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javer, his life and career insanely given over to the destruction of Jean Valjean, at the price of all measure and reason, including his own (the literary comparison flatters Sharon and Arafat alike.)”

Ariel Sharon’s contribution to the Israeli state, as a leader and a military hero, are enormous.  But Landau has found a way to make his life comprehensible and thought-provoking, as Israel still struggles to find a path towards peace and stability and internal solidity.

Elaine Margolin is a book reviewer for the Jewish Journal and other publications.