David Mallach disagrees with those who find it ironic that Ariel Sharon — dubbed the Bulldozer because of his unstoppable determination — endured eight years of utter passivity before dying Jan. 11 at the age of 85.
“Old soldiers don’t die,” Mallach quipped. “They simply fade away.”
Mallach, managing director of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People, lived in Tel Aviv as a child, in the 1950s. Sharon, he said, was his “hero of heroes,” someone he saw as “the modern reincarnation of Judah Maccabee.”
In 1990, Mallach, the former assistant executive vice president with what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, had a chance to meet with Sharon, then minister of housing, in a small group to discuss Israeli policy on the West Bank.
“His actions and leadership raised some serious questions, and his penchant for taking decisions into his own hands and acting either outside or beyond the orders was a source of friction between Sharon, whether as a major or as a major general, and his superiors,” Mallach wrote in an essay this week. “But for a group of young boys in Tel Aviv, he remained a symbol of what was possible and what was doable.”
While some leaders in the local Jewish community had reservations about Sharon’s career and leadership — especially his unilateral decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 — the Greater MetroWest federation’s statement was a simple tribute to one of the last survivors of Israel’s founding generation.
“Sharon was one of Israel’s greatest leaders,” according to the statement. “We extend our sincere condolences to his family who stood by his side until the very end. May his memory be a blessing to us all, and may we carry on his legacy of strength and courage. His love of Israel and our people, whom he considered his extended family, touched us all.”
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also accentuated the positive in his statement on the late leader. “Ariel Sharon fought for Israel on the battlefield and for peace at the negotiating table. He helped establish a nation, provide for its security, and he made difficult concessions during his final years as prime minister in the pursuit of peace,” said Menendez. “His life was a meaningful one that was defined by national service and love of country, and that legacy will endure.”
Developer Murray Laulicht, of West Orange and Florida, is a past president of the federation and a longtime member of its Israel and Overseas Committee. He acknowledged ambivalence about Sharon, particularly about the Gaza withdrawal.
“Certainly, he was a great soldier and commander for the State of Israel, but I wasn’t one of his greatest fans,” he said. “But our role is generally to support the decisions of the Israeli government, so we tried to provide help for the people who were being forced to move from where they’d lived for 30 years.”
He said, “Given how soon after the Gaza withdrawal Sharon was incapacitated, you can’t totally blame him for the shabby way the settlers were treated by the government, left living in mobile homes, without the funding needed to establish new homes.”
The ambivalence about Sharon colored Israeli views as much as local opinion, said Amir Shacham, an Israeli who serves as associate executive vice president of Israel and Overseas with the GMW federation. “Most Israelis, at one point in their lives, hated him, and at one point loved him, so everyone is feeling a loss,” he said.
Born in 1928 in a community near Tel Aviv, Sharon became a feared and revered military strategist in the Hagana, in the War of Independence, and the Six-Day War, among other conflicts. But his reputation was tainted after his failure to prevent the 1982 massacre of Lebanese civilians by Christian forces at Sabra and Shatila, before eventually serving as minister of defense. He was forced to step down as defense minister and barred from holding the post again.
For those on the Left, Sharon’s dogged support for expanding settlements and hard-liner attitudes toward the Palestinians stain his legacy.
Rabbi Charles Kroloff, rabbi emeritus of the Reform congregation Temple Emanu-El of Westfield, said, “He was a powerhouse, but not a saint. I admired his military achievements, but his mistakes were costly in terms of human life.”
Yet even for someone this opposed to Sharon’s earlier approach, his final acts of leadership shifted the scale. “I admired his flexibility and openness to new ideas in the last part of his healthy life,” Kroloff said. “He was very pragmatic, and he wasn’t an ideologue. We need more leaders who are willing to look at the facts on the ground and adjust their philosophy to ensure Israel’s security.
“Overall, he offered hope for the Jewish people, just as Yitzhak Rabin did.”
‘He didn’t change’
As polarizing as Sharon could be, after a period out of the spotlight, he reemerged as a political leader, taking on various cabinet roles in Likud-led governments, before winning the premiership in 2001.
Sharon’s complexity fascinated Shacham. Although his ability to reinvent himself astounded outsiders, he said, it was less surprising to those close to him. That, Shacham said, was what enabled him to change his mind, to have “his second life,” transitioning from a dogged supporter of expansive settlement activity, to championing a non-military pursuit of peace as the leader of a new centrist party, Kadima, and the withdrawal from Gaza.
“Inside, I don’t think he changed,” Shacham said. “He protected the country as a soldier and a commander, and in the same way that he saw the settlements as a way to protect Israel, he saw the disengagement as the best way to protect it.”
One of those who parted ways with Sharon was the late David Romanoff of Elizabeth. He, together with his wife Syndi, was active in the pro-settlement movement in New Jersey. He knew Sharon personally and admired him greatly — until what they referred to as the “expulsion” of the Jewish residents from Gaza.
When Sharon visited the United States three months before the Gaza withdrawal, the Romanoffs went to a gathering at Baruch College in Manhattan where Sharon was scheduled to speak. They heckled him until they were evicted. David told an interviewer from The Forward, “I could not help myself!”
In January 2006, Sharon suffered a devastating stroke, which left him in a vegetative state for his last eight years. In 2009, David Romanoff, at the age of 57, suffered a brain injury himself, and was in a coma for almost a year until his death in July 2010.
Asked for a comment, Syndi said, “When Sharon suffered the stroke, many people on the Right and on the Left commented that perhaps he somehow deserved it. My husband would never agree to such a statement. His own father had suffered a stroke, and he was aware of the devastating effects. Instead, he encouraged people to pray for a refuah shleima [complete recovery]. He wanted Sharon to have the chance to do teshuva [atonement] for what he had done. “It is ironic,” she said, “that David would himself suffer a brain injury that left him in the same condition. Until the Gaza thing they were so similar in life — and now in death.”
The question that has long dogged Sharon’s fans and critics was, What might have happened had he not been incapacitated? On Jan. 3, 2006, the day before Sharon suffered his stroke, JTA noted a report that he planned to seek U.S. approval for Israel to unilaterally delineate a border with the West Bank.
The late David Twersky, the former editor-in-chief of NJ Jewish News, met Sharon in the early 1990s, and though skeptical about his views, was won over by his charm. When Sharon was felled by the stroke in 2006, Twersky wrote an essay in The New York Sun. “We will not see his like again,” wrote Twersky. “We’ve known what has to be done for years and with the continuing and fantastical failures of the Palestinians, we know we will have to do it alone. But who can get us there? Who do we follow now?
“Even as he makes his last desperate fight for life, Ariel Sharon looms like a giant.”