I express my condolences on the passing of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Many experts are reviewing his life and his career as a general and politician. He was certainly a complicated man. As a general he was definitely a hero in Israel’s wars. He was an iconic figure in the minds and culture of Israeli society. His political life was paradoxical. He was immersed in controversy for sending troops into Lebanon which ultimately brought down the Begin government. He was accused by the Israeli Kahan commission when he was defense minister in the Begin government of knowingly not preventing the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shitilla refugee camps by Christian Lebanese philangists militias during Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon back in the 80s. Then he achieved the miraculous political comeback to be Israel’s prime minister. In that position he was also embroiled in controversy by visiting the Temple Mount which some claim triggered the 2nd Palestinian Intifada. Yet, at the same time he was the man who withdrew Israeli settlers from Gaza hoping that such a politically explosive decision would lead to peace. We will never know if that move would have enabled him to begin further negotiations to end the conflict with the Palestinians. There is a school of thought which asks, could a man like Sharon who had the stature and strength to make the bold decisions have led Israel to final negotiations? In other words this position argues that only a man like Sharon could have pulled off such a peace negotiation without fear of what a coalition government would do or say. Unfortunately we will never know the answer to this question.
Ariel Sharon represents a symbol of Jewish identity in the modern age. He belongs to a generation of warrior politicians who fought for the Zionist ideology of a free Jewish people and who changed the way the world and Jews themselves thought about the image of the Jew. An Israeli member of the congregation told me today that he served in one of Sharon’s units. “He was tough and fearless.” Once again Sharon showed that Jews possessed the strength and fortitude to defend Israel and that Jews were no longer going to be history’s perennial victims. He demonstrated that he could get the job done and that through force he would instill respect and fear in the hearts of Israel’s adversaries. Living in America and seeing through the lens of history, it is hard for young American Jews to understand Sharon in a broader cultural context. Jews today must be proficient at being warriors, politicians and scholars. It is all part of the makeup of Israeli identity which has impacted how Jews throughout the world see themselves.
The question is whether his model of warrior statesman fits into today’s model of the Israeli leader? I’ll leave the answer to that question to experts in the area. Yet, in reference to Jewish identity there is something that is both inspiring and frightening about him because he was capable of carrying out brutal military missions and politically controversial and risky tactics as well as pursuing the noblest goals of peace and security for Israel. Ariel Sharon did what was necessary to preserve the state and the Jewish people. Jews throughout the world saw in him the fighting spirit that they wish they had to protect them and fight for them in lands where Jews did not enjoy the fruits of peace and freedom in their host countries.
As of now I pray that his soul rests in peace. And if this warrior-political leader held in his heart the vision for making peace with Israel’s neighbors before his untimely and debilitating stroke then I pray that his hope for peace will be fulfilled soon.