Remembering Ariel Sharon: A Real-Life Hero
Ariel Sharon died today.
It was eight years ago that a stroke left the prominent Israeli leader in a coma, and about two weeks ago, while I was in Israel, that news reports circulated that Sharon’s condition had “worsened.”
In a sense, it was ludicrous. How much worse could the comatose 85-year-old’s health get?
In another sense, it didn’t even seem like news. Except to those who knew him personally, what did it matter, really, whether the man was in a permanent vegetative state or whether his kidneys and liver gave up, too? But it wasn’t just news. It was the lead story across Israel.
Ariel Sharon lived a life of controversy. Born in 1928 in the pre-Israel British Mandate of Palestine E.I., he joined the Israeli army as a paratrooper, achieved officer status, and distinguished himself militarily by, for instance, forming the elite Unit 101 of the IDF and by mounting successful if contentious operations during the 1956 and 1973 wars. For these the public dubbed him the “King of Israel” and the “Lion of God,” launching his political career.
Sharon’s military boldness was matched by his bullheaded personality, at attribute for which he was called “the Bulldozer.” Reports of military insubordination had already surfaced in the 1950s. Later, for his actions as Defense Minister during the 1982 Israeli military campaign in Lebanon, he was charged with personal responsibility for Muslim deaths at the hands of Lebanese Christians. Unlike most such accusations, this one came not from Israel’s critics but from the Israeli government itself.
Repeating his pattern of provocation, Sharon led a contingent of 1,000 Israeli Jewish police offers to the Temple Mount in September of 2000, all but ensuring a violent response from the local Muslims who considered the site the 3rd holiest place in Islam.
In 2001, Sharon became Israel’s Prime Minister, thus giving his argumentative personality a larger pulpit, such as when he enraged all of France by declaring that French Jews should leave immediately because of the rampant and unchecked antisemitism in that country.
In 2004, he made an everlasting contribution to a 3,000 year-old struggle when he led his government to a unilateral disengagement from the occupied Gaza Strip (biblical Philistia, where David slew Goliath). Sharon’s move was met with widespread disapproval. Many Palestinians accused him of refusing to negotiate, while many of the Israelis living there refused to leave peaceably.
Yet Sharon’s autobiographer David Chanoff also reports that the leader said of his own life that “I begin with the basic conviction that Jews and Arabs can live together” and that even though Israel should remain Jewish, “Arabs should … be full citizens in every sense of the word.”
By 2005, this side of Sharon had become more widely recognized. He resigned as head of the Likud party, which he himself had founded, and established a new party, which he called “Kadima” — a Hebrew word that means “forward,” and also, more colloquially, “let’s go already.” It was in this context that he was widely seen as Israel’s greatest hope for permanent peace.
And then he suffered a series of debilitating strokes that left him in a coma, that left his party without a strong leader, and that devastated the spirits of many newly-made optimists.
Flawed though he was — as real-life heros always are — Sharon was larger then life, and he wrote a chapter of a book that began 150 generations ago. Yet alongside monikers like “King of Israel,” he was also known by his humble nickname: Arik.
Perhaps this Jew born to Russian immigrants can remind us that our own lives, too — in ways we often cannot fathom — are part of the unfolding story of the Jewish people. Now there’s a new chapter waiting to be written. And each of us has been invited to contribute.