Ruth Dayan, Veteran Peace Activist, Dies at 103

'I have no regrets when I think back. I don’t think about the little things, but the bigger picture'

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ruth Dayan.Credit: Ni Kafri
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Ruth Dayan, a social and peace activist died on Friday at age 103, a month before of her 104th birthday. Dayan was the first wife of former IDF chief of staff and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and the mother of filmmaker Assaf (Assi) Dayan, former Knesset member and deputy mayor of Tel Aviv Yael Dayan and sculptor Ehud (Udi) Dayan.

She will be buried on Sunday in the cemetery of Moshav Nahalal, where she, in her own words, spent the happiest years of her life. The funeral will be broadcast live on YouTube, starting at 12 noon in Israel (5 A.M. EST).

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Dayan was born as Ruth Schwartz in 1917 in Haifa, a few months before the Balfour Declaration was issued. Her parents came to pre-state Israel during the Second Aliyah period. Her mother Rachel was a teacher, born in the fBessarabia region in Eastern Europe, and her father Tzvi was a lawyer from Bukovina in Eastern Europe. Her younger sister Reuma later married Ezer Weizman, who became commander of the Israeli Air Force, defense minister and president.

When she was two-years-old, Dayan was taken to England where her father was studying. The family returned to then British Mandate Palestine 10 years later and settled in Jerusalem, where the family was considered to be among the city’s “aristocracy” and part of the “elites.” Dayan went to high school at the Hebrew Gymnasium (Gymnasia Rehavia) in the Rehavia neighborhood. She later said that even as a child she was taught the importance of good neighborly relations with the Arab residents. “I grew up next to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. My mother, who was a preschool teacher, taught at a mixed preschool – Arabs and Jews,” she said.

In 1934, when she was 17, Dayan left Jerusalem and went to Nahalal with the HaMahanot HaOlim Zionist youth movement with the intention of becoming a farmer. She wrote that she was determined in her decision: “I came here with the feeling that I was entering a monastery. I plan to stop busying myself with boys and wasting time on them. From now on it is over. I will dedicate myself to work and studies to be a good farmer,” she wrote. “Dealing with boys just confuses me.”

Ruth and Moshe Dayan in 1955.Credit: Photos by Tali Shani, Assaf Kutin/GPO, Alex Levac, Nir Keidar, and Pinn Hans/GPO

She met Moshe Dayan – the son of farmers – at Nahalal, the first moshav. “He was a very good-looking boy,” she said. “I fell in love with him at first sight, without even knowing his name at all.” In doing so, she ignored the warnings of her friends, who told her to ignore “those moshavniks,” and especially their explicit warning to keep away from the Dayan boys.

The first meeting between Moshe, the modest farmer from Nahalal, and Ruth’s parents, the aristocrats from Jerusalem, Rachel remembered years later: “Moshe came to Jerusalem. We sat and talked. Ruth asked: ‘What do you think? He’s a good-looking boy, right?’ That was before the injury where he lost his eye. What could I say? Yes, good-looking.”

They married in 1935. “I married a farmer who didn’t have the money to even buy the wedding ring, so I asked my mother to buy it,” Ruth said much later. Members of the nearby Bedouin tribe also participated in the wedding, as part of making peace with Dayan, after one of them injured him by hitting him in the head with a club. She didn’t finish her agriculture studies at the girls’ school in Nahalal because she preferred to milk the Dayan family’s cows, and not those belonging to the school.

Ruth described her first years together with Moshe as a “mixture of romance and conversations about the Land of Israel.” She was especially taken with the ideological discussions about kibbutzim versus moshavim. “At 4 in the morning we would get up together to milk, and then he would go to the fields,” she said. Years later she said she missed those days, but recognized that this reality had completely changed. “Today no one milks by hand any more and kibbutzim are not kibbutzim,” she concluded.

Moshe Dayan and wife, Ruth, in car outside theater at intermission on December 9, 1970 at Lunt-Fontaine Theater in New York. Credit: Ed Ford / AP

The couple was among the founders of the community of Shimron, built on a hill near Nahalal, where Dayan received his first security job as a policeman. “We tried to build a new community on the hill across from us, during Sukkot of 1935,” she said. Ruth worked as a shepherd in the community where she “milked 70 goats every morning.”

While Ruth worked on the farm, Moshe went deeper into his security activities and was a member of elite field units (Plugot Sadeh) founded by Yitzhak Sadeh, later the first commander of the Palmach and first IDF chief of staff. He later joined Charles Orde Wingate’s Special Night Squads. Their eldest daughter Yael was born in 1939, after they returned to Nahalal. A few months later, Moshe was arrested by the British and was one of the 43 members of the Haganah pre-state underground forces imprisoned by the British at the time. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, like most of the others, and until his release in 1941 Ruth regularly visited and wrote to him.

After he was released, Moshe joined the elite Palmach strike force, which was originally established to help the British in defending the Jewish community of pre-state Israel against both an expected attack from Arab states and the local Arab population. One of the missions he went on was intended to allow the British free use of the coastal road all the way to Beirut. During the operation in Lebanon in June 1941, a Vichy French sniper shot and hit Dayan’s binoculars and his left eye was severely damaged. The black eye patch he wore ever since became his “symbol.” “He was totally depressed and was sure that a man without an eye couldn’t do anything,” Ruth said.

After Israel’s War of Independence, the family moved from Nahalal to Jerusalem, after Moshe was appointed the commander of Jerusalem. “I’m originally a Jerusalemite, so I felt I had returned home. But I missed the farm.” As a temporary solution, she moved chickens and geese to their large yard. Yael called their home “Kibbutz Dayan,” and said it was a social meeting place and an open house.

Ruth remembered quite well the defense meetings her husband conducted with the commander of the Arab Legion in Jerusalem, Abdullah Tal, at the crossing between Jordan and Israel in the city – meetings in which she accompanied her husband. “He told me that it was a wonderful thing he had an enemy like my husband,” Ruth said.

In 1949, she worked as an agricultural instructor in moshavim for new immigrants around Jerusalem. In 1954, she went to work for the Labor Ministry and managed their training department, which worked with the new immigrants in the transit camps. Her meetings with the new immigrants exposed Ruth to the handwork crafts they brought with them from their previous countries, and this was how the idea was born that formed the basis for the Maskit fashion and decorative arts house – a resourceful social project for new immigrants and preserving Jewish ethnic handicrafts, which became the first elite fashion house in Israel.

At the heart of Maskit, which Dayan founded and ran, was the sale of the handicrafts made by new immigrant women, such as embroidery, knitting and weaving. This is how, in a period in which women often did not work outside the home, Dayan enabled them to make a living off their handwork. She opened similar initiatives for Druze and Arab women. Maskit’s products were sold all over the globe, and it became a flagship brand for Israel, and a synonym for excellent fashion.

Dayan cooperated in a project with fashion designer Fini Leitersdorf, and this gave birth to an “original Israeli style with an emphasis on excellence and the finish,” Dayan said years later. “I’m sorry but you can’t find it any more. Fashion is to wear and throw away.”

Yael and Moshe Dayan after the Six-Day War in 1967.Credit: Photos by Tali Shani, Assaf Kutin/GPO, Alex Levac, Nir Keidar, and Pinn Hans/GPO

Before the Six Day War in 1967, Moshe was appointed defense minister. Ruth Dayan did not see the occupation of as “the Greater Land of Israel,” but as an expansion of her field of operation for the good of another people. This is how she began to do business in rugs from Gaza and increased her activities to bring the sides together and foster coexistence between Arabs and Jews.

Dayan would often make visits to Arab towns, sometimes along with people such as journalist Uri Avnery, who was a rival of Moshe Dayan. Ruth and Avnery even founded a party together, the Left Camp of Israel, known by its Hebrew acronym Sheli, meaning Peace for Israel. The party supported a Palestinian state years before such a position was acceptable to the Israeli public. Avnery described Ruth as an “eternal youth who will never grow up.”

In 1972, Ruth divorced Moshe after 37 years of marriage, and she was never in a relationship since then. She denied that Moshe’s cheating on her was the reason for the divorce. “I knew about his affairs,” she said. “I knew he has a weakness for women and I learned to live with it.” She wrote about her husband’s misdeeds in her autobiographical novel: “Or Did I Dream the Dream? The Story of Ruth Dayan” published in 1973.

Instead, Ruth said she divorced him because they did not see eye to eye on her activism on behalf of coexistence with the Arabs. The straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as she was concerned, was when he commented on her request to visit to Palestinian women prisoners in Nablus.

Dayan lived a long life and was a source of inspiration for many, women and men alike. Her motto for life was to love everyone for what they are. “My life was always to make things better for people,” she said. “I was a partner in history. It is impossible to say that I was a housewife who sat on the sidelines. I had years of joy, sadness, pain – all of it was together. I have no regrets when I think back. I don’t think about the little things, but the bigger picture,” she said.

Moshe Dayan, who remarried in 1975 to Rachel Korem, died in 1981 from cancer. Assi Dayan, who called his mother “Big Mama,” died in 2014, and Udi died in 2017. Ruth Dayan was survived by her daughter Yael, grandchildren – including journalist Lior Dayan – and great-grandchildren.

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