Ariel Sharon may go down in history as the greatest Jewish unifier since King David. Like David, he was a shepherd boy turned military hero, and he has managed to become a leader that the wrangling Jewish tribes of his day have been willing to acknowledge and follow.

Sharon entered Israeli politics as a unifier. But once the Likud party he had helped create out of a mixed bag of Greater Israel expansionists, free-marketers, and former leftists came to power in 1977 he abandoned that persona for a hard-line nationalism and militarism that made him a hero to the right and a pariah to the left. His admirers dubbed him "bulldozer" for his single-minded construction of Jewish settlements in the territories; for his opponents, the nickname indicated Sharon's lack of regard for law, proper administrative procedures, and the judgment of pretty much everyone else.

After he achieved his ultimate ambition and became prime minister, he reversed himself. He surprised the left and shocked the right by discarding his previous view that Israel should remain in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip forever, and that Jews live everywhere in those territories. When he announced that Israel would abandon both its fruitless, and in his mind dangerous, attempts to negotiate a deal with the Palestinians, he was able to bring together a broad spectrum of Israeli society stretching from left to right.

He also resolved Diaspora Jewry's existential dilemma. During Israel's early years, support for Israel was an essential element of Jewish identity everywhere, and supporting Israel meant supporting whatever policies Israel's government pursued. Whatever their doctrinal divisions when it came to their religion, Jews were nearly unanimous in their commitment to the Jewish state and its leaders.

That unanimity first cracked when the conservative Likud came to power under Menachem Begin in 1977. For the next decade and a half Israel's own citizenry was split. The left believed Israel's future would best be secured by compromise with the Palestinians; the right believed that Israel had to absorb and settle the territories. Diaspora Jews suddenly found themselves in an awkward position-if they supported the Israeli government, they were at odds with a large swathe of the Israeli citizenry.

When Yitzhak Rabin's government signed the Oslo agreements with Yassir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Jews around the world discovered that Israel could no longer unify them as a community. They had to decide what kind of Israel they supported. That meant that Israel ceased to be a unifying myth of Jewish identity and became another arena of doctrinal dispute.

Sharon's taste for flouting the law
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  • When Sharon embarked on his strategy of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, he wasn't proposing a new idea. In fact, he adopted the platform that the liberal Labor party had offered the voters in 2003, and with which Labor lost the election badly. The mainstream left was reduced to irrelevance; the messianic religious right was left leaderless, abandoned by the very man whom they thought was their savior.

    For many Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora who form the centrist mainstream, it suddenly became a whole lot easier to be Jewish. You didn't have to choose sides.

    It's telling that when Sharon offered himself for re-election in 2005 and formed his new Kadima party, he said absolutely nothing about what he would do during his next term. Precisely because he was making hard choices based on the facts on the ground, rather than on ideology, many Israeli and Diaspora Jews trusted him to make the right choices when the choices had to be made.

    In my opinion, that trust is misplaced. It may be ungracious to speak badly of a man in an intensive-care ward, but the recent wave of adulation for Sharon has obscured some very uncomfortable facts.

    As a veteran of Israel's war in Lebanon, I cannot forget that Sharon deliberately deceived his fellow-cabinet ministers in 1982 to turn a limited mop-up operation into a dangerous and ill-conceived attempt to impose a pro-Israel government on our northern neighbor.

    And that was hardly the only time he demonstrated his impatience with and contempt for the rule of law. In 1967, when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his cabinet were resisting war and trying to use diplomacy to resolve the burgeoning crisis with Egypt, Sharon urged Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin to lock the prime minister and cabinet up and launch a preemptive attack against the will of the country's civilian government. And Sharon built dozens of Israeli settlements in the midst of the West Bank's Palestinian population, again often without regard to proper administrative or legal procedures.

    That history far outweighs the fact that I agree in principle with his disengagement policy (although I disagree with much of the detail). When a leader endangers the very foundations of the Jewish state-its democratic character-it matters not whether the policies he pursues are ones I oppose or agree with. Such a man or woman will would not get my vote. I will be more inclined to vote for his party if he does not lead it. But the opinion polls show that most voters prefer to set aside Sharon's past.

    Will the center hold? It's much too early to say whether Ehud Olmert, the interim prime minister and Sharon's heir apparent, will be able to step successfully into the role of the great unifier. It's also debatable whether it's good for the Jews to have a leader they trust so completely that they cease to argue over the very real questions of what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be Israeli in the 21st century. What is certain is that there is a huge constituency, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, that desperately wants to be united.

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