Sharon, Even in Death, Redefines the Meaning of 'Extremist'

What is it about Arik that extremists themselves - of the right and the left both - can't seem to stomach?

Around here, we tend to revere our extremists. At least the ones we agree with. I readily admit that I do.

One might also argue that when it comes to Israeli extremists, none was more revered – nor, in some ways, more extreme – than Ariel Sharon.

So what is it about Arik, even in death, that extremists themselves - of the right and the left both - can't seem to stomach?

What - after Sharon's heart finally gave out on Sunday - would almost immediately move an Orthodox Jewish member of Knesset to publicly thank God that Sharon had been taken from us in the first place?

It may have been something of the same motivation that prodded a breathtakingly mean-spirited article by one of MK Orit Strock's better-known neighbors in Hebron, since 1968 the Natanz of West Bank settler extremism.

Published in the Brooklyn-based Jewish Press under a color illustration of Sharon dying in a hospital bed, Hebron settler community spokesman Wilder rushed out the article so that it would be published before Sharon expired. Why before? He opened his piece by explaining that "It’s not considered nice to say bad things about dead people, especially immediately after their passing. So I’m writing this while he’s still alive. Barely."

In the article, which also appeared in the Jerusalem Post and the settler movement's Israel National News website, Wilder concluded with evident satisfaction that in death, Sharon now faces an unending, horrible purgatory, a permanent extension of his eight-year coma.

According to Wilder, when word reached him that Sharon was in his final days, he was saddened to realize that the tortures of the felled leader's hospitalization would not continue.

"When I heard the news I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or cry. Laugh, that finally, he’s leaving us. Or cry, because his ‘this world’ suffering is coming to an end. That’s how much I like Ariel Sharon. He had many positions, and many titles. I will remember him as a monster."

For extremists on the right, Sharon's mortal sin was his 2005 operation to evacuate and dismantle all 21 settlements in Gaza and four more in the West Bank. The unforgivable act was prefigured 23 years before by then-Defense Minister Sharon's razing of all of the Israeli settlements in the Sinai peninsula (including Strock's former home) under a peace treaty with Egypt.

For extremists on the left, the indictment is much longer, but it centers on the ill-fated, some would say catastrophic, operation Sharon launched barely a month after Israel's Sinai settler city-of-the-future Yamit was no more.

The First Lebanon War would prove to be an Israeli Vietnam. It led, lumbering and with tremendous human cost, toward the Sabra and Shatila massacre, for which an Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon bore "indirect responsibility."

What is noteworthy about some of the more extreme criticism of Sharon from leftists is that, in much the same ways as the bile from the right, it reduces one of Israel's more three-dimensional figures, to barely two, a cartoon of wickedness, villainy, mouth-dripping gluttony, and nothing, nothing but.

In so doing, it reduces Israel, and Israelis, to that as well. Writing in The Nation, author and journalist Max Blumenthal paints a Sharon - and an Israel – which face no apparent threats by Arab armies or terrorists (the only terrorist which threatens Israelis, is himself an Israeli Jew). The only motivation for Sharon's actions, and Israel's, is a bloodthirst for empire. Of a controversial Sharon-led anti-terrorism campaign in occupied Gaza in the early 1970s, Blumenthal writes "With the Gaza Strip now under Israeli control, Sharon orchestrated the razing of Palestinian citrus orchards to make way for Jewish colonization."

With a slap broad enough to whack leftist – but not leftist enough – Israelis, Blumenthal makes horrific Palestinian attacks on rush hour buses and Holocaust survivors at a Passover Seder, seem like symbolic anarchist graffiti, just desserts for a fat cat bourgeoisie. Blumenthal neatly mops up the blood running in Israeli downtowns in the first years of the last decade:

"…Palestinian suicide bombings were battering the cafes and nightclubs of Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem. Channeling the mood of Israel’s “peace camp,” which had called for Sharon’s ouster during the invasion of Lebanon, the liberal newspaper Haaretz demanded “a war about the morning’s coffee and croissant.”

The assumption here is that there are only three kinds of Israeli Jews: murderers, accomplices to murder, and dilettantes.

Just as for the Good Jews of pro-settlement extremism, there are only three kinds of Israelis: Good Jews, Malevolent Leftists, and Ariel Sharon.

Now, for the right at least, there are only two.

It bears noting that some of the most balanced, human, and appreciative considerations of Sharon, have come from observers like Gideon Levy ("Sharon realized the limits of military power") and Larry Derfner ("When Sharon was great"), often pilloried by the far-right and hailed by the far-left – in both cases, mistakenly – as anti-Zionists.

The story of Ariel Sharon, biblical in its scale and texture and valor, and in its troubling, brutal, severely flawed humanity, has much to teach the world about Israel, and Israelis about themselves.

It occurs to me, though, that one of the lessons of the extremists' exegeses in miss-the-point black and white, is that many of them don't live in Israel. What you can see from here, as Sharon was fond of saying, you can't always see from there. And that brings up another lesson:

The Nation magazine is in New York. It's abroad. For that matter, Wilder doesn't live in Israel, either. He lives abroad, too. In the West Bank.