Jerusalem and Babylon

Sharon Was No Jewish Leader

A staunch proponent of aliyah, he had little understanding of what motivated Jews around the world.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Ariel Sharon’s personal life and public career were dominated by the jobs he failed to get and positions denied him, just as much as by the heights he succeeded in scaling. Promotion to general stymied for years due to his propensity to disobey orders and lie to his superiors, the repeated refusal to appoint him army chief of staff and the humiliating way in which he was banished from his cherished defense ministry fueled his undying ambition and were all mentioned in countless obituaries this week. Reading David Landau’s fascinating new biography of Sharon, I discovered yet another, long forgotten disappointment from exactly 30 years ago.

In January 1984, the disgraced minister without a portfolio, languishing in obscurity after the disaster of the first Lebanon War and Sabra and Chatila massacres had seemingly tainted him forever, sought a new challenge. Without relinquishing his ministerial title of course, he would become the head of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah department, at the time a powerful sinecure which had just fallen vacant, and devote himself to drawing multitudes of Jews to the Promised Land. With the Jewish Agency today in tatters and the responsibilities of the once central aliyah department scattered and subcontracted, it’s almost inconceivable that politicians who at the time still harbored prime ministerial aspirations could have ever coveted the job, but Sharon did. Whether he was seriously interested in gathering the exiles or simply desired to get on the Diaspora gravy train and line up heavy donors for his next political campaign is another matter; in any case, he didn’t get the job. The Labor Party still held considerable sway over the Agency in those days and many Jewish-American grandees were horrified by the idea of the man widely seen then as Israel’s principle warmonger muscling in on their territory. His appointment was voted down. But it’s still intriguing to speculate what might have happened had Sharon been allowed to get his hands on the aliyah apparatus.

Admirers of the now late leader, and right now there are many, some true believers, others begrudging, would probably say that Arik the bulldozer would have brought to the task the same energies put into his military campaigns, settlement drives in the territories from 1977 on and new housing projects throughout the country from 1990-1992 when he served as housing and construction minister. If only he had got the job -- millions of Jews, realizing the futility of their lives among the goyim, would have flocked to Zion. The Diaspora would have become an anachronism compared with the only place to be, the dynamic homeland. Well, they would be wrong. Sharon believed it was in his power but he couldn’t have done that – no Israeli can.

The warrior-farmer Sharon, despite his love of classical music, was probably the least cosmopolitan of all Israel’s prime ministers. He wasn’t the first “sabra” prime minister of course. Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, who all preceded him, were born here, but they all had wider, more worldly perspectives. Rabin’s education was acquired during his five years as ambassador in Washington, where he learned not only the political power structure, but also that of the Jewish community. Netanyahu’s entire adolesence and much of his twenties and thirties were spent in the United States, while Barak may have spent only a relatively short time at Stanford but always strived to be a man of the world. Sharon’s only prolonged absence from Israel was a year’s study at the Royal Military Academy in Camberley, Surrey in the late 1950s. It doesn’t seem to have shaped him in any fundamental way or given him an understanding of Jewish realities outside Israel.

The deeply secular Sharon would often say that he was “first of all Jewish” before being Israeli, and though this was often said to impress Haredi political partners, he probably meant it. His deep suspicion of “the Arabs,” which hadn’t diminished even after he began meeting Arab leaders once he became prime minister and after he had decided on unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, along with his firm belief that Jewish demographics along with military might were the key to Israel’s survival, made him a staunch proponent of aliyah. But he had little understanding of what motivated Jews around the world.

Two episodes from his time of prime minister demonstrate this. One was in 2004 when, following a rash of anti-Semitic incidents in France, he caused a diplomatic incident with the French government and offended many French Jews in a speech in which he said “I call upon our brothers in France. Move to Israel as soon as possible. Jewish life can be safe only here.” Sharon’s call went unheeded. Immigration from France is of course up in recent years, and jumped last year, largely due to the deepening economic malaise there, but it has hardly been the great exodus he envisaged.

Sharon saw Diaspora Jews as little more than a demographic reserve for Israel and had little if any interest in Jewish life around the world. This attitude was made clear in another speech in 2002 in which he said “we will bring a million olim over the next 10 years.” This boastful target had little to base itself upon. By then, almost a million “Russian” Jews had arrived in Israel but nearly the same number had emigrated from the disintegrated Former Soviet Union to North America, Germany and other countries. The overwhelming majority of Jews outside Israel were living in wealthy democratic countries – what was Sharon offering them? Why did he expect them to arrive?

Less than a quarter of Sharon’s target of a million Jewish immigrants in a decade arrived (and at least 100,000 veteran Israelis left) proving once again that whatever the level of Zionism and support of Israel among the Jews of the world, emigration is nearly always motivated by non-ideological factors. Sharon took them for granted. He believed that all it would take was a concerted campaign and they would come, but they haven’t. This cynical attitude toward the Diaspora is not different than that held by many Israelis, but Sharon took it to an extreme, as he did with most of his beliefs throughout his entire career.

The Education Ministry has already launched a program comparing Sharon to Moses but he was no leader of the entire Jewish people. A clear-eyed perspective on Sharon’s so-called legacy must be capable of taking into account his achievements as a commander spearheading the crucial crossing of the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War and as the only politician who effectively stood up to the religious right-wing, dismantling the Gaza and northern Samaria settlements, along with the ruthlessness of many of his other military endeavors, culminating in the Lebanese tragedy, the way he single-handedly tried to prevent any chance for a peace agreement by building a hundred settlements and his lack of true understanding or empathy for Jews choosing to live outside Israel.

An Israel capable of making peace with its neighbors, claiming its place within the democratic Western world and maintaining a healthy relationship with the communities of the Jewish Diaspora cannot be Sharon’s Israel.

Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during a Hanukkah ceremony at his Jerusalem office in December 2005, a few weeks before he went into a coma.Credit: AP