, the matriarch of one of Israel’s most famous families, died on Friday, a month before her 104th birthday.
The story of her life is entwined not only with contemporary Israeli history, but with the story of the wandering Jews, who, after centuries of exile, finally came home.
Portrait of Ruth Dayan, who among her many activities is the founder of Jewish - Arab social groups and has worked on behalf of newcomers to Israel, for Bedouin welfare and rights, and for women’s causes. Mrs. Dayan, the wife of late defense minister Moshe Dayan, visited the Moses elderly home in Jerusalem for a fashion show in honor of Israel 60 years. May 12, 2008. (Credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Born in Haifa in March 1917 during the final period of Turkish rule as the elder daughter of Russian immigrants Rachel and Zvi Schwartz, she lived through the British conquest and subsequent mandate, the proclamation of the State of Israel, all the wars in which Israel was involved and in numerous efforts to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.
Coincidentally, the year of her birth was also the year in which Chaim Weizmann persuaded British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour to issue what later became known as the Balfour Declaration, which paved the way to statehood for the Jewish People. Weizmann went on to become the first president of the State of Israel, and his nephew Ezer, who married Ruth’s younger sister Reuma, became the country’s seventh president.
When Ruth was two-years-old, her parents, like many others living in pre-state Israel, went to England to further their education, and while they were there, Rachel Schwartz gave birth to Reuma.
Despite the eight-year age gap between the two sisters, as adults, they were very close to each other.
After six years in England, the Schwartz family returned to the Land of Israel and settled in Jerusalem, where Rachel Schwartz, according to an anecdote told about her by her elder daughter, was the first woman in the country to be issued with a driver’s license. When she was 18, Ruth went to Nahalal where she first saw Moshe Dayan, and fell in love with him at first sight before she even knew his name.
Ruth Dayan and Moshe Dayan. (Credit: RA’ANAN COHEN)
The attraction was mutual and they married soon after, in 1935. It was not an easy life. Conditions in t
he moshav were primitive, in addition to which there was constant worry because Moshe was active in the Hagana, and on one occasion was arrested by the British and spent more than a year in prison.
The couple had three children, Yael, who was a successful author and later became a politician, following her paternal grandfather and her father into the Knesset, Ehud (Udi) who was a sculptor, who died in 2017 and Assi, a renowned actor and film-maker who died in 2014.
Ruth Dayan and her family. (Credit: COURTESY OF RUTH DAYAN)
Moshe Dayan, who became IDF chief of staff and defense minister, was also a philanderer, whose many romantic liaisons included friends of his daughter. Ruth, who was aware of his infidelity, finally told him that she’d had enough and they divorced in 1971.
Long before that, in 1954, Ruth Dayan founded Maskit, with which her name will always be associated. Aware that many of the immigrants from North Africa possessed traditional skills as silversmiths, embroiderers, sculptors and more, but lacked elementary western education, she encouraged them to open cottage industries through which they could earn enough to feed their families while maintaining their dignity by not having to go on the dole.
Ruth Dayan at Maskit. (Credit: HANS PINN/GPO)
The beautiful crafts that they produced were combined with western fashions, initially designed by Finny Leitersdorf, who at the time was one of Israel’s leading fashion designers. In its heyday, Maskit had 10 shops in Israel and one in New York, which together provided an income for more than 2,000 families. Shopping at Maskit was a must, not only for tourists, but also for film stars and other famous people.
Maskit fashions were also sold at high end department stores in the US and were shown at the gala fashion shows organized as fundraisers by Israel Bonds.
Maskit ceased operations in 1994, but its reputation was such that when Shenkar-trained fashion designer Sharon Tal, who had spent time in London working for Alexander McQueen, came home and wanted to open a fashion salon of her own, she sought to revive and recapture some of the magic of Maskit. She contacted Ruth Dayan, who happily collaborated with her.
Ruth Dayan (L), widow of Israeli general and defense minister Moshe Dayan, and her daughter Yael Dayan, 1990. (Credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)
Following her divorce, which was not a happy one, especially as Moshe Dayan was soon remarried to Rachel Koren with whom he had been having an affair with for a long time, Ruth Dayan decided to write her autobiography and collaborated with Jerusalem Post
journalist Helga Dudman to co-author I Dreamed the Dream, The Story of Ruth Dayan
A more recent book about her written by Anthony David and published in 2015, is The Remarkable Lives of Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil and their Forty Year Peace Mission.
Raymonda Tawil, a journalist and political activist was the mother-in-law of Yasser Arafat. Though 24 years younger than Dayan, theirs was an extraordinary close friendship, which also included Yael Dayan.
Raymonda Tawil’s Facebook page includes a photograph of her with Ruth Dayan and the prime minister of Malta.
Aside from her political activities aimed at bringing about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Ruth Dayan was involved in many charitable endeavors, in particular Variety, which supports children with disabilities, and abandoned children.
She was the recipient of numerous awards, among them an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Yigal Alon Prize, the Hebrew University Solomon Bublick Award and the President’s Medal of Distinction.
One of her six grandchildren, Racheli Sion-Sarid, described her as a wonderful mother and grandmother who was supportive of all members of the Dayan clan and who promoted peace, feminism, equality and love of humanity.
One example of her support was allowing her son Assi, who had a severe narcotics problem, to come and live with her so that she could keep an eye on him.
Son of Israeli general Moshe Dayan, Assi Dayan (R), with his mother Ruth Dayan after leaving the Tel Aviv municipal court on charges of beating his girlfriend. Dayan received a 2000 shekel fine and one year parole. October 11, 2009. (Credit: URI LENZ/FLASH 90)
Ruth Dayan was a gifted and extremely eloquent public speaker, equally impressive in Hebrew and English, with a warm, radiophonic voice. She was in frequent demand as a source of inspiration.
Elegant and independent, she continued to drive a car until she was well into her nineties, and her mind remained lucid until her last breath.
In his eulogy, President Reuven Rivlin called Ruth a legend in her lifetime, adding that her story is the realization of the Zionist dream.
Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz said it was with great sadness that he had learned of Dayan’s death, noting that she had been a member of Meretz since its beginning and was a committed leftist till the end of her life. She had remained committed, caring and involved in Meretz’s activities. “I loved her very much,” he said in a written statement.
Former Meretz chair MK Tamar Zandberg quoted Dayan as having said: “I was a partner to history.” That brief statement, tweeted Zandberg, was a summary of her life and that of her family’s dynasty.
Ruth Dayan will be laid to rest at noon on Sunday at Nahalal.
She is survived by her daughter Yael, sister Reuma, grandchildren and great grandchildren.