Israeli General Moshe Dayan, Beyond the Eye Patch

An exhibition about the Dayans shows a family that shifted direction toward the world of art, and which in today’s Israel no longer embodies nationalist yearnings

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Moshe Dayan with a lion cub in his yard in Tzahala, circa 1970.
Moshe Dayan with a lion cub in his yard in Tzahala, circa 1970.Credit: From the exhibit
Tal Niv
Tal Niv
Tal Niv
Tal Niv

Avraham Soskin’s studio portraits always look as if they were taken today. Not a century ago. I gaze at the photo of Shmuel Dayan, his wife Devorah Zotolovsky and their son Moshe standing on a chair, and the modernist vitality of the shot and the subjects’ expressions, which announce “Here I am,” are as arresting as ever. Shmuel’s sculpted features remind me of my grandfather’s face. An attractive face. Features that jumped generations sideways and forward, through the family, and became genetic fact (Shmuel and my grandfather were second cousins). This is one of 70 photographs that curator Guy Raz has assembled for an exhibition at the Sturman Museum in Ein Harod, an exhibition about the Dayan family and Moshe Dayan (1915-1981) in particular.

There are photographs by well-known as well as anonymous photographers; as the exhibit moves forward in time, the subjects gradually become more famous than the photographers. The more famous they are, the more public space they take up – the more that dictates the way they are depicted, and the more the photographer fades into the background. When it comes to today's Dayans, some of the journalistic and artistic portraits are dialogues. Both artists and subject are musing about their own public image.

The cult of Dayan flourished after the Six-Day War, and may no longer be so well understood today, but the 1970 photo of him playing with a lion still defies belief. There he sits on a big rock in his backyard, a hose winding in the grass around him, with the cub – a gift to the defense minister from the Paris Safari – lounging on his lap. The photographer is unknown.

One truly beautiful historical photograph on show was also the taken by an anonymous photographer: the portrait of Devorah Dayan and her children in a plowed field. A gorgeous photograph by any measure. A penknife hangs from Moshe’s belt. Barefoot, with one leg outstretched in a naturally executed Renaissance, young-figure pose – a counterpoint to his rural surroundings – the distance between his pointed small ears unusually wide. The floral pattern on his sister’s clothes. The portrait's beauty and lyrical expression lends a comic dimension to the ideological, patriotic photograph by Zoltan Kruger, showing Shmuel, who had by then become a politician, plowing in clothes that are way too clean. In the photo from the field, Devorah, upon whom the years of toil are apparent, is smiling, as is her young daughter Aviva. (Her son, Yehonatan Gefen, later wrote all about what became of her.) Behind them, young cypress trees are visible.

Moshe’s sons are seen laughing in another lovely photograph, taken by Beno Rothenberg, in which the angles and framing are journalistic in nature. One can see the photographer's awareness of the quintessential sabra status of the boys. Sons of the revered chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.

I gaze once more at Soskin’s perfectly positioned photograph, at Shmuel’s face, so similar to my grandfather’s. An exhibition that depicts a family that shifted direction toward the world of art, and which in today’s Israel no longer embodies nationalist yearnings. They once ruled the land, prominent members of its particular and closed political and military elite. But no more. I send a text message to my uncle, who is well advanced in years, and ask him to send me a picture of my grandfather. Before I know it, he has easily done so via every possible platform.

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