Doomed to Fight

Though delivered 55 years ago, Moshe Dayan's eulogy for Roi Rotberg continues to articulate Israel's situation in its dispute with the Arabs

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

The April 1956 eulogy delivered by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan at the funeral of Roi Rotberg, the security coordinator of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, expressed the spirit of the times more aptly than any other text or speech prepared at the time. It continues today to articulate succinctly Israel's positions in its dispute with the Arabs.

In his short, eloquent speech (238 words in total ), Dayan displayed exceptional understanding regarding the suffering and hostility of the Palestinians, and concluded that violent struggle for control of the land is the "fate of our generation." We have no choice but to fight, declared Dayan. "This is our life choice," he said, "to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down."

Dayan, giving the eulogy. "Without the steel helmet and the cannon's fire we will not be able to build a home," he concluded.Credit: Moshe Fuchs for Bamahane/Courtesy of IDF archives

Under our circumstances in 2011 - in the era of Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa'ar - Dayan's text reads as though it is a subversive document. The legendary chief of staff, the person who exemplified the IDF's spirit of aggressive activism, expressed sensitivity toward the emotions of the enemy who dwelled across the border: "Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we deplore their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate," declared Dayan.

Today, Dayan would be accused of post-Zionism, of sympathizing with terror, of violating the "Nakba Law." But in those days, memories of the 1948 War of Independence were still fresh, and evidence of deserted Arab houses and ruined Arab villages was manifest; so it would have been futile to try to conceal or blur this palpable history for the purpose of inculcating a nationalist, Zionist message, as Netanyahu, Lieberman and Sa'ar try to do today.

Though he understood the Palestinians' suffering, Dayan did not conclude that their demands had to be met. On the contrary: He called on Israelis of his generation to continue the fight, and not pull back.

"We are a generation that settles the land, and without the steel helmet and the cannon's fire we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home," concluded the first-born child of Kibbutz Degania, who grew up in the Jezreel Valley fields around Moshav Nahalal. "Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken."

With these words Dayan expressed an Israeli ideology of force. The late sociologist Baruch Kimmerling described the Rotberg eulogy as an unparalleled exemplification of Israeli militarism. In 1993, Kimmerling wrote that several codes essential to deciphering the truth about Israeli society could be identified in the eulogy. There were some voices that contradicted these militarist codes, Kimmerling argued, but on the whole the chords struck in Dayan's speech were those that fashioned the character of the society.

Kimmerling summarized Dayan's message this way: We are a state of immigrant-settlers, whose very existence in the region is not guaranteed or self-evident. The "Arabs," an indiscriminate category, hate "us" (and justifiably so, from their point of view ). This situation is a necessity that cannot be changed; it is our "fate" and we have no control over it, and the only thing we can do is guarantee our "existence." Such existence is protected exclusively by means of the fist and the sword. All other societal-wide goals are subsumed within this dominant objective of protecting our survival. We are forced to remain a mobilized, enlisted society. We must accept as a self-evident reality the sacrifice of human life (in addition to costs presumably paid in other spheres ), which we make in order to guarantee our continued existence.

The state funerals of terror victims and soldiers are not only burial ceremonies. They also serve as platforms to deliver political messages - particularly as an answer to the eternal question "What are we fighting for?" The Athenian statesman Pericles inaugurated this tradition 2,500 years ago with his words eulogizing casualties of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles underscored the liberal openness of Athens, in contrast to the aggressive militarism of its rival Sparta, and he designated the principle of equality before the law as a fundamental pillar of democracy.

During the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln defined the North's aims in his 1863 Gettysburg Address. His short, 272-word speech came to be considered a keystone of American democracy. Lincoln's message in the address was utterly lucid: We are fighting for the rebirth of freedom, of liberty bestowed to us by the founding fathers, based on the principle of "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Schoolchildren in America memorize and recite the speech; its final line was inscribed in the constitution of France's Fifth Republic.

Lincoln was not only a gifted orator. He was also a politician who was vying for election to a second term, and was wary of defeat: The Union's war effort that he commanded had taken a devastating toll, its conclusion was not on the horizon, and his competitors in the presidential race seemed to be gaining ground (in an era that preceded public opinion polls ). The Gettysburg Address was designed to bolster morale and confer moral legitimacy to Lincoln's campaign. Also, the fortunes of war were turning at this stage. The following year, Lincoln was reelected at a time when the Confederacy was on the brink of collapse.

Like Pericles and Lincoln before him, Dayan also had a political goal in mind when he delivered the Rotberg eulogy. In the spring of 1956, tensions on the Israel-Gaza Strip border were on the rise. Palestinian fedayeen insurgents, based in Egypt-controlled Gaza, carried out terror attacks in Israel, and the IDF responded with reprisal raids and heavy shelling against targets in Gaza. The United Nations tried to mediate and bring calm; UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold visited the region as part of shuttle diplomacy talks with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The similarity between events of those days on the Gaza border, and Israel's criticism of the 2009 UN Goldstone report, is uncanny. Dayan, who supported preemptive war against Egypt, was worried that Israel's government would accept the mediator's proposals, and restrain the IDF. For that reason, he interpolated in his eulogy words of warning about "the day when we will heed the ambassadors of malevolent hypocrisy, who call upon us to lay down our arms." Tensions and violence in Gaza escalated in mid-March 1956, just as the Gaza border witnessed escalation this spring.

Ben-Gurion, who was wary about interfering with Hammarskjold's diplomatic errand, demanded that coverage of Dayan's eulogy be censored. Ben-Gurion was unable to stop Israel Radio from broadcasting the critical line about "ambassadors of malevolent hypocrisy," but the morning newspapers did not print those words.

Mordechai Bar-On, who headed Dayan's office at the time and later published two books about military events in this period, well remembers the Rotberg speech, and its background: "At the start of April, events on the border became heated; there was no proper fence on the border, and shepherds would climb over the wire which marked the border, and cross into our territory. There was shelling in Gaza, and fedayeen activity; and after all of that calmed down Dayan traveled to visit Israeli communities that had been severely damaged, and he stopped at Nahal Oz. There he met Roi Rotberg, who was the security coordinator, a civilian in regional defense who had a rank of first lieutenant in the army. His wife was pregnant; she was a striking, friendly person."

Recalling the events of 65 years ago, Bar-On continues: "We visited their [the Rotberg couple's] room on the kibbutz, and we discussed Israel's circumstances. As it turned out, the kibbutz was undertaking preparations for a wedding of four couples. By kibbutz standards of the time, this was a grandiose event. They set up a stage and put up decorations; the atmosphere was festive and happy. Dayan was very impressed by Roi and his wife."

Bar-On continues: "We went home, and the next day [April 29], the event transpired: Palestinian shepherds crossed the border, and started to shoot in the direction of the kibbutz fields. Roi rode out on a horse to expel them; they killed him, and dragged his body across the border wire so as to show that he had trespassed; they abused his body [the murderers removed Rotberg's eyes; the poet Avot Yeshurun, who was working at Nahal Oz as a volunteer, referred in verse to this gruesome occurrence]."

Bar-On recalls that Dayan was shaken by news of the murder. Dayan was unnerved by the fact "that he had met the victim, and also by the political circumstances of Hammarskjold's diplomacy and the prospect that [Israel's] Foreign Ministry would accept his proposals. The incident showed that Egypt's assurances about its taking steps to calm the border could not be trusted. Then Dayan decided to take part in the funeral."

Bar-On continues: "He wrote the speech by himself. He sat in a room half an hour or 45 minutes, and wrote. I wrote speeches for many chiefs of staff, but Dayan was better at it than I. During the funeral, Dayan read from these written remarks."

The poetic language, the pithy formulation of a complex political and social message, Dayan's premier military rank and the circumstances of the event - all of these transformed the eulogy into a keystone Israeli text, and bestowed mythic proportions to the Rotberg murder. Today, the war over the "Gaza envelope" continues, and Nahal Oz remains a frontier outpost, even in an age when tanks replace a horseback-riding security coordinator, and Grad missiles take the place of fedayeen bullets. So too the argument about the war's objectives, a debate Dayan eloquently summarized, persists; and so his eulogy remains germane in our day.

Only one thing has changed: In the era of privatization, the old socialist kibbutz structure is moribund, and there are those who make a living out of eulogy writing. The web page of Dr. Yaakov Maor offers for sale "do-it-yourself eulogies": "If you can't find the right words, or if you lack the time to write a eulogy, at least remove this worry from your heart," the site declares. "Within a few minutes, your problems writing the eulogy will be over." For NIS 90, you can purchase from Maor a prepared packet of eulogies delivered for slain IDF soldiers, which includes phrases from the Gettysburg Address and the Rotberg eulogy.



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