During the last couple of weeks, while vacationing in beautiful exotic countries, I have found myself conducting some unexpected, but very serious Zionist existential soul searching.
The Lord of history has created the following stage and set of events for me:
Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was fighting his last battle for life during these same two weeks, after eight years in a coma. Whenever I found an internet connection, I glued myself to the reports, anecdotes, and stories about his unique personal, military, and political legacy. Nothing was really new; however, after eight years, I suddenly had a different perspective. Sharon’s passing led me to think a lot about the fundamental question of our people’s continuity.
Add to it that, during those same two weeks, a tireless and determined secretary of state, John Kerry, was leading two sets of historical Middle Eastern negotiations: between Israelis and Palestinians and between Iranians and the rest of the world.
Believe it or not, it was not Kerry, nor even Sharon that contributed the most to my Zionist soul searching, it was Ari Shavit. Probably the tranquil effect of the calm tropical bays, sitting under palm trees, away from my daily routine and freezing New Jersey, gave me the courage and motivation to cope with reading “My Promised Land.” This monumental book by Shavit, a Ha'aretz columnist, was not an easy read for me. Not because of its 450 pages of sophisticated English, but because of its message. Shavit puts a very vivid, colorful, sharp mirror in front of our faces and asks us to face it head on. Some of the chapters of the book are painful, even depressing. Some are encouraging and up-lifting. The overall story of the impossible yet miraculous Israeli history and reality in which we live, challenges readers to thoroughly reflect and think about the issues.
On the very last day of my vacation, I finished reading “My Promised Land” while at the same time Ariel Sharon, in the words of his son Gilad, “decided to go.” I would like to share with you some insights that I had during these last two weeks. They are in no particular order of importance or meaning:
• In biblical terms, Ari Shavit is the prophet and Arik Sharon is the king. Sharon is a doer, a bulldozer; Shavit is a writer, an observer. Sharon, for better and for worse, shaped the impossible yet miraculous reality that Shavit ably describes.
• Ari Shavit, Arik Sharon and I all have the same initials: A.S.
• Arik Sharon and Ari Shavit represented for years two opposing sides of our Israeli political spectrum. Now they would both be considered centrists. They marched, each in their own way, significant mileage from the margins to the center.
• Sharon was the ultimate Zionist product, the new Sabra Jew, and salt of the earth. Soft on the inside and tough on the outside. A sensitive gentle farmer. A charismatic, fearless, and creative commander. Cynic, pragmatist, and indisputable politician. He was a man of action, not of thinking or processing. Shavit is a Zionist and a public opinion leader in his own way but his mega intellect and sophistication prevent him from being a popular leader. What does it say about leadership?
• Shavit and I have a surprising parallel personal history. We were born a few days apart at the same hospital. We grew up as kids, two miles away from each other. We served in the IDF together in nearby units. We studied together at the same faculty of Hebrew University; we probably ate at the same cafeteria and went to the same parties. We worked for a while together in the media and we even share a mutual passion: We like to tell the stories of our Zionist grandfathers as a way to deliver our message.
• I believe there is a missing chapter in “My Promised Land,” about Israel-Diaspora relations. Shavit touches on the subject throughout his book but not in a profound way. One would expect a more meaningful analysis of this topic in a book of this magnitude. Shavit should have known better. Sharon, on the other hand, in his own awkward manner, was very connected to his Jewish identity. He defined himself first as a Jew and second as an Israeli. He always mentioned that he is a soldier, a general, and prime minister of the Jewish people. He was the initiator of the first-ever true partnership in funding and implementation between the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency’s Masa Israel Journey, a long-term visit for study or internship in Israel for Diaspora young adults.
• Ehud Barak coined the phrase: “Israel is actually a villa in the jungle.” The younger Sharon as a soldier and builder adopted this concept and tried to eliminate the jungle. The older Sharon, in his second term as Prime Minister, adopted the concept and tried to reinforce the villa. His “separation plan” was based on this exact terminology and philosophy. Shavit states in his book that throughout our Zionist history we continue to be faced with this dilemma.
• Behind Sharon’s big body and big actions lived a delicate and warm soul. Some say it was formed in the 1948 War of Independence when his devoted soldiers saved his life after evacuating him from the battlefield of Latrun. Shavit, though I don't know him personally, is perceived to be a more cold and remote person. Yet his book is based on meeting with many people as well as personal stories of his family and other players. “My Promised Land” highlights the importance of this personal aspect in shaping the nation’s history. Sharon's personality and achievements are a great example of how important this is. What would our destiny look like if Sharon had not had a second stroke…if Rabin had not been assassinated?
• I choose to take an optimistic approach after reading Shavit's book. Partially because it is my nature, partially because it is the only way to survive in our neighborhood, and partially because of people like Sharon. He proved a few times in his career that with courage, belief, determination, creativity, and operational capabilities, history can be changed. I am waiting to see if the current leadership of our world will perform the same way and shape our history for the better.