Ariel Sharon and the Messianism of Force

The legacy of a warrior and Prime Minister.

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In 1983 I attended the founding meeting in Jerusalem of Netivot Shalom, a Religious Zionist peace movement. 

Addressing the assembly, among others, was Rabbi Yehuda Amital, an extraordinary figure: Holocaust survivor, Haganah veteran, a creator of the network of hesder yeshivot which combine study with army service, founder and dean of a major yeshiva in Gush Etzion, the Plymouth Rock of West Bank settlements. A passionate theologian, Rabbi Amital had been a leading figure and thinker of the Gush Emunim settlement movement in its heyday. Now, years later, with the Israeli Army mired in Lebanon, he concluded that it was time to change course and made his case with no diminution in passion.

"There are three kinds of false messianism afoot in the Land of Israel," he said, "Gush Emunim, Peace Now, and Ariel Sharon."

ariel sharonHe continued: "We live in a complex reality and each proposes a simple answer: Gush Emumin offers faith, Peace Now offers good intentions, and Ariel Sharon offers force. Not one of them is sufficient. All three are necessary, each balancing the other in their place and time."

I have, in the last two decades, often thought about Rabbi Amital's speech, and certainly now, with the eclipse of Ariel Sharon. 

Military Man

Ariel Sharon's passing from the political scene elicited waves of public sentiment and genuine concern that are, for anyone who has followed the last quarter-century of Israeli politics, nothing short of astounding. That Arik Sharon, who for decades was perhaps Israel's most divisive, reviled, and feared political figure (and that's saying something) at home and abroad--that he of all people should be regarded so tenderly, seems to prove once again that Israel is the land of miracles, the kind that leave you scratching your head.

Arik Sharon, the human bulldozer, mushroomed out of some deep fold of Israeli and Zionist history: Company commander in the 1948 war, commander of the legendary Unit 101 and thus one of the creator's of Israel's forward-leaning military ethos, out-and-out hero of the 1973 war, architect of the megalomaniacal and disastrous Lebanon War--the ruination of a generation--and the master-builder of Israel's settlements; a fighter seemingly from birth, he gave no quarter, plunging headlong from one adventure to another.

Sharon reminds one of Yiftah of the Book of Judges--the not-entirely-respectable chieftan to whom the timid elders turn to fight their battles--whose headlong ardor leads him to sacrifice his own daughter. Israel turned to Sharon most recently, and gave him the Premiership in the midst of a brutal intifada, which he did crack in the end, with force, force, and more force. Israel is now more secure than it was when he took office. History will judge if it could have been safer with fewer dead on both sides.

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Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.