A proud Jew and military strategist

Ariel Sharon’s strong-minded determination to do what he considered to be right for the Jewish people, regardless of conventional wisdom.

Ariel Sharon. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Ariel Sharon.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

Ariel Sharon’s strong-minded determination to do what he considered to be right for the Jewish people, regardless of conventional wisdom, earned him the nickname “the bulldozer” and many detractors who dogged him throughout his military career.

But to his friends he would speak about his concern for the Jewish people, not only in the immediate future, but, more importantly, “30 years from now and 300 years from now.”
After the war, accompanied by his family and an entourage of high-ranking IDF and foreign military leaders, he visited the newly liberated Western Wall, which had been in Jordanian hands for 19 years. Moved and inspired by what he recognized as a miraculous victory, Sharon expressed his gratitude by putting on tefillin at the nascent Chabad tefillin stand at the Kotel, while reciting the prayer Shema Yisrael, proclaiming God’s oneness.
Media photographers captured the event and it was subsequently circulated worldwide, giving a powerful voice to recognition of the divine intervention experienced in the Six Day War.
Tragically, just a few weeks after the war, Sharon’s son Gur was killed by a fatal shot from a gun he and some friends had been playing with at home. He passed away in his father’s arms.
During the shiva, the Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, dispatched a group of emissaries to pay the Sharons a condolence call.
Schneerson also penned a long and heartfelt condolence letter expressing particular anguish over the painful irony that the tragedy had occurred under peaceful circumstances, to someone who had merited to help secure the victory of the Jewish people just a short time earlier in war. In his memoirs, Sharon would recall the Rebbe’s letter to him as “warm and moving.”
Meeting the Rebbe Less than a year later, in 1968, Sharon met Schneerson face to face at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, the first of a number of lengthy private audiences Sharon had with him. Schneerson reviewed with the acknowledged military expert the latter’s battle strategy, asking him detailed questions about why he hadn’t followed a particular route to a certain city instead of going through a particular wadi, or why not use this piece of artillery that has these specific advantages over another that had been used, and other similar queries.
Later, Sharon said he had not expected to encounter in a hassidic rebbe a brilliant military strategist. He would recall that Schneerson’s “incredible knowledge he exhibited in global affairs left an especially strong impression” on him.
In those heady days after the Six Day War – when Israel seemed invincible and was respected the world over – Schneerson nevertheless spoke with Sharon with great pain about the weakness and self-doubt the Israeli government was demonstrating in its international relations, as well as with its actions, which he said spoke even louder than words and would cause the gains in international relations to spiral downward.
Schneerson was particularly pained that Israel did not state categorically that the liberated territories were now part of Israel proper, explaining that doing so unequivocally would gain the world’s respect and minimize bloodshed on both sides. He urged Sharon, as he did others, to encourage the political leadership to stand strong for Israel’s security and not leave the situation in limbo.
Schneerson also spoke with Sharon at length about the responsibility he and other Israeli leaders had to encourage Jewish education and Jewish practice worldwide, as the nationalist spirit alone could not sustain the Jewish people.
Sharon later said he was astonished when Schneerson told him in 1968 – with absolute certitude – that the Iron Curtain would one day fall, and that the Soviet Jews would be free to leave.
It is clear from his writings and public talks that Sharon saw in Schneerson the quintessential Jewish leader, one with whom he could speak openly about military strategy, political issues and existential matters important to the Jewish people as whole. In Schneerson, Sharon saw a wise and sagacious guide, who would have an impact on his own spiritual life as well.
Years later, after Schneerson’s passing in 1994, Sharon would reflect how he had been “distinctly privileged to meet with, and get to know up close, a one-of-a-kind sage in the wisdom of Israel, but also a far-seeing strategist, whose focus was on guaranteeing the continued existence and security of the Jewish people, wherever they may find themselves.”
The Rebbe gives military advice As his leadership in the IDF continued, Sharon continued to correspond with Schneerson. At one point, Schneerson expressed to Sharon his grave concern that the Bar-Lev defense line in Sinai would prove insufficient in the face of a renewed attack from the Egyptians. Schneerson compared it to the ill-fated French Maginot line, which proved disastrously ineffective in preventing German invasion in the spring of 1940. It later became known that Sharon, too, had shared these worries.
In what turned out to be pivotal advice, when Sharon sought Schneerson’s counsel in 1970 about whether he should retire from the military and enter politics, Schneerson strongly encouraged him to remain at his post.
“Your proper place is in the IDF, and it is there that with God’s assistance you are successful and will continue to be so,” Schneerson wrote him, insisting that Sharon’s military service was necessary for the protection of “the entire Jewish people residing in Israel,” and therefore, “you must absolutely and certainly continue to serve in this very important capacity and role.”
Sharon heeded Schneerson’s advice, but in early 1973 he was forced to leave the military as part of a national policy to retire many senior officers. He helped to negotiate the formation of a Likud (unity) front headed by opposition leader Menachem Begin. However, within a matter of weeks, the Yom Kippur war broke out, and Sharon was urgently called up to the war front.
In the first hours of the war, Schneerson’s strategic analysis about the Bar Lev line was tragically proven correct when Egyptian forces overran it, costing hundreds of lives and contributing to the urgent panic felt throughout the country.
Yet, despite the dim prognosis in the first days of the war and the panic that had set in among some of the military and political leadership, Schneerson insisted that Israel would still miraculously emerge victorious.
A deeply personal connection Sharon’s growing connection to Schneerson and Chabad was also deeply personal. He was a frequent visitor at Kfar Chabad, where he would come to celebrate Jewish holidays – and even celebrated the bar mitzvas of his sons there.
In the ensuing decades, Sharon continued to travel to Schneerson to receive his guidance and blessing.
Schneerson would urge him to do everything in his power to maintain Israel’s security, as well as promote Jewish engagement, education and mitzva observance, which Schneerson explained was crucial to Jewish continuity.
Sharon would come to say that this endeavor is “the primary means to guarantee Jewish continuity” both in Israel and the Diaspora. He would also comment how moved he was to see that wherever in the world he went, Schneerson’s ideals about Jewish education and observance were being implemented.
His connection to “the Rebbe” also profoundly influenced his own religious beliefs and observance. Although Sharon described himself as a non-religious Jew, Schneerson encouraged him in his observance, and Sharon would occasionally put on tefillin, would regularly hear the Megila on Purim and welcomed the matza for Passover that he received from Schneerson’s emissaries. Sharon noted that he would frequently study the Bible, and he would eventually use phrases like “God willing” when expressing his hopes for the future, a rarity among his generation of Israeli politicians.
Long before Sharon began his political career, Schneerson stressed to him the folly of not embracing the territories that Israel had gained in the Six Day War in 1967, telling him that Israel needed to believe in its own strength.
Sharon took heed of this position and worked tirelessly to support the endeavor to renew Jewish life in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
Later, as minister of defense, Sharon directed Israel’s 1982 incursion into Lebanon. Unable to control the actions of the Lebanese Christian militias they were trying to support, Sharon was forced to resign after accusations that he had failed to prevent the massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut.
The Lebanon war cast a pall over Israel, politically and socially.
Still, Sharon went on to fill a number of key cabinet positions over the next two decades.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the floodgates opened and hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews came to Israel. Sharon, who was then housing and construction minister, was tasked with the formidable challenge of absorbing them into Israeli society.
He would later recall that very first meeting with Schneerson in 1968, when he predicted that the Iron Curtain would one day fall and the Soviet Jews would be free to leave. “I remember thinking that what the Rebbe was saying sounded impossible,” Sharon said. “But evidently anything is possible, and the Rebbe was right as always.”
While Ariel Sharon will be remembered as a brilliant and fearless general and military strategist, as well as a formidable politician, perhaps the following words of his own best sum up his life’s goals: “Before and above all else, I am a Jew.
My thinking is dominated by the Jews’ future in 30 years, in 300 years and in 1,000 years. That is what preoccupies and interests me, first and foremost.”