Demystifying Dayan

Mordechai Bar-on bridges the gaps of a complex personality, while biographies of Ben-Gurion and Sharon fail to impress

Moshe Dayan 521 (photo credit: YAAKOV/GPO)
Moshe Dayan 521
(photo credit: YAAKOV/GPO)
In the past year or so, three biographies on Israeli leaders have appeared that are distinguished by having biographers who were personally close to their subjects. Such books bring a kind of intimacy to the nation’s history, but the reader must be especially mindful of any interests their authors may have, as well as of the problems caused by the overly intrusive or detached biographer.
Leading off is Shimon Peres on David Ben-Gurion (“Ben-Gurion: A Political Life”) from Nextbook/Schocken’s altogether excellent Jewish Encounters series. While the book is valuable as a record of Ben- Gurion’s political journey, Peres defends Ben-Gurion so stalwartly on every last point that he misses the opportunity to present a nuanced portrait of a leader he knew up close.
To prod the elder statesman, co-author and former Haaretz editor David Landau is employed, seemingly by the publisher, to draw Peres out on controversial elements of Ben-Gurion’s career, such as his possible lack of empathy for European Jewry during World War II, the exemption of yeshiva students from military service, and the dangers of Israel’s system of proportional representation. But to little avail. The following exchange pretty much sums up Peres’s position.
David Landau: Despite your enormous admiration of him, did you ever find yourself, in private, critical of Ben-Gurion’s policies? Shimon Peres: No! The same mixed verdict cannot be afforded to Gilad Sharon’s sprawling, disorganized tribute to his father. Over 607 merciless pages, the former prime minister’s youngest son, a columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth and a manager of the family’s farm, seeks to settle his father’s scores in politics and on the battlefield. No detail better encapsulates the tedium of this book than the multiple verbatim transcripts of discussions between Sharon and world figures.
Which is why reading Mordechai Bar- On’s biography of Moshe Dayan was so refreshing.
Bar-On, a historian and senior research fellow at the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, who served as Dayan’s bureau chief during the Sinai campaign and was elected to the Knesset decades later on the left-wing Ratz list (a forerunner of today’s Meretz party) makes clear from the start that he wishes to demystify Dayan’s persona, to humanize a man adulated by many as an ideal Sabra and yet reviled by others as a reckless insubordinate who operated according to his own moral code. And although Bar-On infuses the narrative with personal observations, the book is much more a detached historical assessment than a personal account.
If Dayan’s story somehow parallels that of the State of Israel, it does so over a very particular period. Aside from the Yom Kippur War and its bruising effect on both the national psyche and Dayan’s own reputation, Dayan’s life (1915–1981) corresponded with what we might consider the nation’s ascent. Born just two years before the Balfour Declaration, he played outsize roles in the War of Independence, the 1956 Suez Campaign [he was the fourth Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, 1953–58], and the Six Day War of 1967, serving as minister of defense from immediately before the outbreak of that war through 1974. As foreign minister under Menachem Begin’s 1977 Likud government, he was a pivotal figure in negotiating a peace deal with the Egyptians.
Whatever one’s opinion of Dayan, few would question his rootedness in the Zionist mythos. The son of immigrants from Ukraine, he was the first child born on Degania, considered the first kibbutz. Dayan would later admit that “I didn’t especially respect my father,” who was heavily involved in the back-and-forth of labor politics, along with advocacy for the moshav movement, even as he felt deep respect for his mother, a Kiev university graduate who had absorbed the works of Chekhov, Tolstoy, and other Russian literary greats. These early sentiments of Dayan’s may offer insight into his adoring relationship with his firstborn, Yael, versus his distance and even alienation from his two sons, Ehud and Assi.
Dayan first caught the public’s eye at age 19, when he engaged with two friends in the symbolic but actually quite dangerous rite of Books Dayan’s life (1915–1981) corresponded with what we might consider the nation’s ascent Moshe Dayan in 1978; rooted in the Zionist mythos walking the Land of Israel, including stops at the Dead Sea potash works, Hebron, and Beersheba. An incident in which Dayan and his companions were detained by an Arab policeman in Gaza but insisted on speaking Hebrew was later published in the workers’ newspaper Davar, thanks to the youths’ self-promotion. The trek would also forge in Dayan a visceral connection with the Land that lasted all his life.
Dayan’s legend grew further when he and 42 other members of the Hagana, the pre-state militia, were jailed in the fall of 1939 at Acre Prison for illegal possession of weapons, which they were using for a “covert platoon officers’ course.” The harsh 10-year sentence, which stirred outrage in the Yishuv, was ultimately cut short to just a year and a half, as the British looked to enlist Jewish support against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, stationed in Libya and poised to move eastward.
It was later that same year, 1941, that Dayan lost his left eye while leading a Hagana company, which the British enlisted to seize a police station held by Vichy French forces in southern Lebanon. Responding to the incident, Dayan displayed his trademark nonchalance. “It doesn’t matter,” he told his friend Zalman Mart. “I lived with two eyes for 26 years. It’s not terrible. You can live with one eye, too.”
The national fatigue that came with the occupation of southern Lebanon and the two Palestinian intifadas occurred long after Dayan’s death. But that doesn’t mean his imprint on the Palestinian issue was not profound. As defense minister, he was the “prime architect” of the occupation policy, and this is perhaps the most painful component of his legacy today. Dayan, like so many others, was overcome by the capture of Judea and Samaria, with its biblical place names and landscape, and he could not reconcile his emotional response with the realities on the ground, among them the Palestinian desire for full autonomy.
Shlomo Gazit, who served under Dayan in the territories, described the defense minister’s unsustainable approach as comprising “an invisible government of occupation; normalization; a wise penal policy.” Such a policy of “soft” occupation was also the presumed cause of Bar-On’s own political split from his former boss.
A unique strength of this book, which draws from Shabtai Teveth’s 1971 biography of Dayan among other sources, is its dispassionate curiosity in seeking to understand the essence of Dayan’s character.
The writing seems to be guided by no agenda whatsoever. Yes, we have the unfiltered accounts of Dayan’s womanizing and his plundering of antiquities – in one instance, in 1968, at a site near Tel Aviv where bulldozers had purportedly uncovered a burial cave, he suffered “two broken ribs and a torn vocal cord” when the structure he was exploring collapsed.
But we also see vulnerability in Dayan’s personal ambivalence. Even though Dayan was quite decisive to the extent of overreaching in combat situations, he would relent when challenged later by his superiors.
While he respected and could empathize with Palestinian Arabs individually, he never came to terms with the seriousness of their national aspirations. And in personal matters, despite his infidelities and his steady mistress, Rachel Rabinovich (later his second wife), he had no particular interest in divorcing his first wife, Ruth, and they stayed married for some 35 years.
Still other elements of Dayan’s character elude easy classification, both in politics and war. Although he was born on a kibbutz, the very symbol of labor Zionism, he eventually supported a market-based economy, a preference that would play out in the nation’s own trajectory. When Dayan traveled to Vietnam to serve as a New York Times correspondent for two months in 1966, many assumed he would rubber-stamp the US mission there. Quite the opposite happened.
In a series of articles, he concluded “that the United States could not win and would eventually give up.”
Anecdotes, at last, give wonderful life to Bar-On’s narrative. Israeli talks with the Jordanians in 1949, spurred in part by Dayan, were conducted in “the finest Bedouin tradition: a chess match that would end in victory for the king and a recital of verses he had composed, followed by a banquet late in the evening.” Flying home from talks with the British and French over the impending Sinai Campaign, Dayan “sketched a small cartoon with a map of Sinai in the background, depicting the British Lord Bull and French Marianne reaching out to ‘Little Israel’ and declaring, ‘After you, sir!’” With such details, we get a sense of the whimsical Dayan, a man whose mind could range far and who could laugh at his own follies.
Before working with Dayan on the Mapai Party campaign for the 1959 elections, renowned Israeli writer S. Yizhar assumed Dayan would be “tough, inconsiderate, volcanic, decisive, brutal, and cruel.” But the writer ultimately found Dayan to be a pleasant working companion, warm with a sense of humor.
Bridging the gaps of a complex personality is the great achievement of this brief but highly thoughtful book. It is preferable to the others under review: one is close to hagiography, and the other is something between a screed and a scrapbook.