Jewish America’s institutional leaders have been responding to the news of Ariel Sharon’s death with sorrow, admiration, and the occasional “We didn’t always agree, but…” This was to be expected, and in a way, is as things should be. The immediate aftermath of a person’s death is ordinarily a time to either praise, or be silent.
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But as those leaders have all attested, Arik was no ordinary person. He was larger than life, his military actions and political decisions among the most determinative of Israel’s character today. Sharon’s shadow will long fall on any Jew, anywhere, who loves the Jewish State. Some people do not return to mere dust when they die.
The eulogies are full of references to the love many Israelis felt for Sharon, but little is said about the rage he induced among others. I live in Chicago now, but for a long time I lived in Tel Aviv; I can be numbered in that latter group.
Indeed, Arik’s legacy is a big part of why I don’t live in Israel anymore, why my Jerusalemite husband and I chose to raise our children in galut. For me, Sharon represents all that is most painful about Israel’s history, all that went badly wrong. His personal warmth, his not inconsiderable charisma, and his unwavering dedication to his vision of the country’s security aren’t enough to reverse the consequences of his actions and policies, or undo the damage he wrought.
As a young military man Sharon was recalcitrant and brutal, and was never truly held accountable for either. As a middle-aged politician he lied to his government and his people to launch a grisly and criminally wasteful war, ultimately getting away with that, too. He provoked and exploited Palestinian violence in 2000, and then when elected Prime Minister, cracked down with the same ruthlessness he’d always brought to the conflict. As Likud leader, Sharon ignored the results of a referendum that he’d called and pledged to respect, instead forming a new party that would allow him to do what he’d already decided to do: Withdraw from Gaza unilaterally, using the disengagement as ‘formaldehyde’ for the diplomatic process.
Sharon’s was a worldview of endless war, in which the enemies against whom Israel fights are little more than animals, accountability is for suckers, and a strong democracy is for the weak. This is the same worldview we see reflected anytime an Israeli soldier beats a Palestinian, anytime settlers establish a new outpost, anytime those tasked with protecting and serving Israel’s future as a viable Jewish democracy break the country’s own laws and ignore the international instruments to which it is a party.
When the Second Intifada erupted, my husband and I were living temporarily in the States. In 2001 I flew back to vote (ineffectively) against Sharon; as the violence raged on, we came to understand that the country over which he ruled was not one to which we could bring our family – because endless war would never lead to peace, or security.
I know that as a leftist I was supposed to be thrilled by the Gaza withdrawal, but I couldn’t believe it was the brave move people wanted it to be. Sharon had seen the growing support among Israelis for a two-state solution suggested by the Geneva Initiative, knew what the U.S. Road Map demanded, and understood that both would lead to an independent Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza – and he decided to do everything he could to strengthen Israel’s position on the West Bank in the meantime.
So he bulldozed ahead as he had at every stage in life. His refusal to negotiate even security arrangements with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas belies the notion that he was seeking a path to conciliation – and not incidentally, that refusal allowed Hamas to claim credit for Israel’s retreat, contributing significantly to its later electoral success and ultimately to the rockets fired on Israel the years since.
We cannot know what might have happened if a young Sharon had faced real discipline, if his post-Lebanon political exile had stuck, if he hadn’t gone up on the Temple Mount. We cannot know what might have happened if Israeli politics and culture had not become so wedded to the settler movement he fathered, or if someone, somewhere had insisted that the rule of law mattered more than visions of Greater Israel.
But at a time when Jewish institutional life is roiled by vitriolic attempts to narrow the boundaries of acceptable thought, young American Jews feel torn between ipso-facto supporting military occupation and defending human rights, and the one-state 'solution' is barreling down upon us, we may want to reconsider Arik’s legacy.
I hope that after his long physical nightmare, Ariel Sharon is now at peace – but I fear that the Israel he left behind may never be. And if we love Israel, no matter where we live, that should matter.
Emily L. Hauser is an American-Israeli writer currently living in Chicago. She has studied and reported on the contemporary Middle East since the early 1990s for a variety of outlets, including The Chicago Tribune and The Daily Beast. She can be followed on Twitter: @emilylhauser