Israel Must Stop Sanctifying a Racist and Violent Late General

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Rehavam Ze'evi with the lioness he held at an Israeli army base.
Rehavam Ze'evi, center.Credit: Daniel Rosenblum  

Rehavam Ze’evi was a bully — in his personality, his worldview and his political platform. He prevailed over the helpless, from women soldiers to prisoners of war. He used thugs to strong-arm journalists and he led an extreme right-wing party that aspired to expel Arabs.

It was always an exaggeration to depict him as a celebrated soldier. Like a myriad others, he fought in the War of Independence and in operations that preceded it, but his combat career ended there. As commander of a Golani Brigade battalion in the 1951 battle of Tel Mutila, he was responsible for major mistakes that led to many casualties. Chief of Staff Yigael Yadin, who sought to obscure the entire chain of command’s responsibility for the disgrace of the battle, gave him a medal. Ze’evi advanced as a staff officer who was known for his knack for writing and for befriending the right superior officers. He was a bad soldier and an equally bad civilian.

In October 2001, just hours before he was set to resign from Ariel Sharon’s government, Ze’vi was murdered by Palestinians. Hundreds of Israelis were murdered in that period, but Ze’evi was elevated to martyr status and eventually reached equal standing in the national memory to Yitzhak Rabin. Laws were passed to mandate and fund events — mainly for the benefit of the settlers — to falsely commemorate his image.

Many knew of Ze’evi’s despicable acts — from sexual assaults against women, physical abuse of Arabs to friendships with convicted murderers and underworld figures — but that did not stop him from being elected to the Knesset and joining the government. These acts were also reported in a fragmented way in the press. But it was only last week that his victims and witnesses to his acts of violence worked up the courage to go before the cameras in Ilana Dayan’s investigative journalism program “Uvda” (“Fact”).

The assemblage of information presented in the program constitutes a harsh indictment not only against Ze’evi, but against Israeli society and its institutions from the 1960s and ‘70s, the main period of Ze’evi’s misdeeds, through his time in politics and up to his commemoration since his murder. Ze’evi was the key suspect, but alongside him the shame was bared of the authorities who should have dealt with him and his actions and refrained from doing so —chiefs of staff, defense ministers, military prosecutors, attorneys general. His army colleagues, who supported him when he was criticized instead of condemning his actions, are party to this disgrace.

The Knesset made a mockery of itself in legislating “Ze’evi’s legacy” — a costly disgrace financially but even more in terms of values. Now that the victims have dared to speak out, it is not too late to fix this distortion. Ze’evi’s true legacy is contemptible. A state that claims to educate its children for morality and truth cannot allow itself to sanctify the values of a man who was a racist, a man of violence and a serial sexual offender.

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