His Sometime Sister

Few people know that Ariel Sharon has a sister who immigrated to the United States in the 1950s. Sharon takes care to hide this melancholy family episode, which began with the sister's departure, continued with her ostracism and ended in a serious rift

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was this week asked about a chapter in his family's history that he has always been at pains to conceal. In an interview on Channel 10, Rafi Reshef asked him about his sister Dita (Yehudit) and her sorry relations with the family. Sharon tried to create the impression that he is on good terms with his sister, even though she left the country together with her husband in the 1950s and has lived in the United States ever since.

The truth is rather different: Dita Mandel (nee Scheinerman) broke off all relations with her family after she was effectively denied her inheritance in Kfar Malal (the farming community near Kfar Sava where the family lived). Everything went to Ariel Sharon and his sons. Of the large family holdings, Dita received only $25,000, and she never forgot and never forgave. She did not come to Israel for the funeral of her mother, Vera, in May 1988, nor for the funeral of her sister-in-law, Lili Sharon, in March 2000.

Yehudit was born in Kfar Malal in 1926, two years before her brother. Yosef Margalit, a neighbor who studied with her until ninth grade, remembers her as a solitary girl. "She was the class beauty, but wasn't involved in social life," he recalls. "She used to go off by herself, sit at home, distant, under the strict supervision of her parents." In 1941 she was part of the fourth graduating class of the Aharonovich School for Children of Workers in the Sharon District, following which she attended Geula School in Tel Aviv - the same course her brother followed two years later.

She met her husband, Dr. Shmuel Mandel, shortly after graduating. Her father was then hospitalized in Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, and Yehudit would visit him every day. It was at the hospital that she met Mandel, who was then a resident in the surgical ward. He had come to Palestine from Poland with the army of General Wladislaw Anders and stayed on to work at the hospital. Subsequently, he was one of five physicians who were sent to Rome to assist with the illegal immigration operation. At Beilinson he was known for his Polish manners and customs.

"He was a fine-looking man who kissed the hands of the girls and brought them floral wreaths," says Rivka Hatsubi, who was a student at the nurses school in Beilinson at the time.

Dita and Shmuel were married in a modest ceremony held at her parents' home in Kfar Malal and then went to the United States. "After that she disappeared and became a mystery in Kfar Malal," recalls Bilha Zalmanson, the widow of Oded Zalmanson, a friend of Sharon's from Kfal Malal.

In the U.S., Dita studied interior design and her husband specialized in pediatrics. They returned to Palestine a few years later and lived in Ramat Gan. He worked as a pediatrician, but was unable to find a position suitable to his talents. Over the fierce objections of the family, Yehudit and her husband returned to the United States. They have no children.

Vera Scheinerman always hoped that her daughter would come back to Israel. According to the neighbors, Vera went to Ramat Gan every few weeks to clean the couple's apartment and ready it for their anticipated return. The apartment was sold only after it became clear beyond a doubt that they had no intention of coming back. Vera came to deeply resent her son-in-law for taking away her daughter, as she put it. She mentioned her rarely, though always with much grief. Female neighbors in Kfar Malal who brought up the subject of Dita were met with silence.

The neighbors also relate that Shmuel, the father, a devoted Zionist, who died in 1956, found it difficult to accept the fact that his first-born daughter had chosen to live in the United States. According to these neighbors, Shmuel Scheinerman mentioned in his will the great torment he endured when his daughter decided to leave the country. A nurse at Beilinson Hospital says that he blamed himself for what happened, noting that if he had not been hospitalized there, Dita would never have met the doctor.

The final rift between Dita and the family occurred in the mid-1970s. She wanted to build a house on the family land in Kfar Malal and return to Israel to be near her mother. Vera asked the Israel Lands Administration whether it would be possible to split the farming property into two so that both Ariel and Dita could receive a share. The ILA informed her that this was impossible, and Vera decided to leave everything to her son; she told Dita that she would not be able to build a home there. Dita was offended to the depths of her soul, says a person who is close to the family. She didn't believe that her plan was impossible under the law and thought she was being duped. Ultimately she severed relations with the entire family and rejected her mother's attempts to meet with her in the United States.

The family tried to hide the rift. In an interview with the daily Yedioth Ahronoth in 1982, Vera said that her daughter came to Israel "every two years." But in her will, Vera reiterated the terms for dividing the property that had so hurt her daughter. The will, which was signed on July 15, 1987, about 10 months before Vera died, states, "After a thorough examination I discovered that it was impossible to divide the farm into two, either from the legal or farming standpoint, and therefore, in order to maintain, operate and preserve the farm as a working farm, I decided to leave it in its entirety to one of my grandsons, Arik's firstborn, and my daughter will be compensated suitably. This was a difficult decision - I love my children, Dita and Arik, equally - but it is the only possible appropriate decision I found." The will goes on to specify the plots of land that Omri Sharon will inherit.

Vera left the entire contents of the house "and all the monies, securities, rights and benefits accruing to me" to Ariel Sharon. Dita received only $25,000 from the estate, which was valued at about $500,000. "I did not intend to express my feelings for my daughter by means of this sum of money - my love for her cannot be measured in money - but I expressed in it my desire to have her share in my estate," Vera wrote in the will. "I decided on the amount of money to be paid to my daughter, Yehudit Mandel, by taking into consideration the fact that my son, Ariel Sharon, has been helping me, since January 1984, to maintain the farm and is bearing alone all my living expenses and the expenses of the household help, and has spent large sums of money to this end ... I enjoin my son Arik and my daughter Dita and their families to live in understanding, friendship, love, fraternity and peace all the days of their lives."

The will was probated in Tel Aviv District Court in October 1989. Contrary to the usual procedure in such cases, the court file contains no confirmation that the details of the will were made known to Dita in New York; her address and ID card number are also absent. The file contains only a brief letter signed by Omri Sharon informing Dita that she is entitled to receive $25,000 from the estate. However, the letter does not cite Dita's address, ID number or anything else to indicate that it was in fact sent to her.

Since then relations between Dita and the rest of the family have been nonexistent. Sharon plays down his sister's existence; she is not mentioned in his official CVs and her story is absent from the biographies that have been written about him. In Sharon's autobiography, "Warrior," written with David Chanoff, she is mentioned twice in connection with his childhood. His parents, he writes, loved both him and his sister but it was not their way to show their love, certainly not by means of physical affection. "They did not wear their heart on their sleeve." He also describes how at first he and his sister shared one room until, when he was a few years old, his father built a third room so that Dita could have a bit of privacy.

Not even Sharon's friends and aides know much about his sister. In 1973, when he announced his retirement from the army, he said at a reception held at his home, "My group was my close family: my wife Lili, my mother, my sons Omri and Gilad." Not a word about his sister. In his autobiography Sharon vented some of his pain when he attacked doctors who prefer to immigrate to the United States. Few people knew the reason for the criticism. Many doctors, he wrote, think they cannot express themselves here because the country is too small and the world is like an open oyster today. Professionally, he added, they can reach places where the challenges and opportunities ar greater. As a result, we often hear the sad tune that someone is an Israeli but doesn't live here anymore, that he lives in New York. That is sad because we know that the next generation will no longer be Israeli.