In a profile of Ariel Sharon written by James Bennet that appeared in the New York Times in 2004, Sharon indicated that he didn’t see Israel as simply a homeland for the Jewish people but rather that the perpetuation of Jewish identity depended on the ability of Jews to isolate themselves from non-Jews.
For those who regard assimilation as a threat, it’s hard to imagine that they can really embrace the idea of peaceful co-existence — be that peaceful co-existence with Palestinians, Arabs, or anyone else. Why? Because peace inevitably leads to the collapse of barriers and if the enduring existence of ones identity is seen as dependent on the perpetuation of such barriers then the enmity which sustains division is preferable to peace.
In the 50’s and 60’s, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, took a shine to the brash leader of Israel’s commandos. Much to the irritation of Sharon’s superior officers, Ben-Gurion would invite him for private chats in his office or even his home. Ben-Gurion’s papers reflect a fatherly interest in Sharon, whom he referred to as Arik and whose roguishness both charmed and worried him. During this period, Ben-Gurion was in his 60’s and then 70’s, Sharon in his 20’s and then 30’s. Their chats followed a tender pattern. Sharon would describe and sometimes defend his exploits. He would complain about his superiors. While lending a sympathetic ear, Ben-Gurion would gently relay to Sharon some of those officers’ concerns, and his own, about Sharon’s behavior. Prodded by Israel’s white-haired founder, Sharon would admit that he lacked discipline and even that he lied, sometimes to Ben-Gurion himself.
“An original, visionary young man,” Ben-Gurion noted on Jan. 29, 1960. “Were he to rid himself of his faults of not speaking the truth and to distance himself from gossip, he would be an exceptional military leader.”
On Nov. 24, 1958, Ben-Gurion recorded an unusual encounter with Sharon. Sharon was just back from 13 months of military study in England. “This was the first time he met with Jews, and he is anxious about the future of our relations with them,” Ben-Gurion wrote in his journal. By “Jews,” he meant non-Israeli Jews living in the Diaspora. Born and raised in what is now Israel, Sharon had not encountered such Jews before.
“The Jews in England are not accepted in the English clubs and golf courses, and they have to situate themselves in Jewish institutions,” Ben-Gurion wrote, recounting Sharon’s impressions. Sharon, he continued, was astonished that these Jews nevertheless did not feel “any personal connection of any kind with Israel.”
It was an insight with a great impact on Sharon. He still speaks about it. When I quoted the passage from Ben-Gurion, it triggered an 18-minute monologue about his fears for the survival of the Jews. “I have many worries, but something that really bothers me is what will happen with the Jews in the future — what will happen to them in 30 years’ time, in 300 years’ time, and with God’s help, 3,000 years’ time.” He laughed. “But I don’t think that then I’ll have to take care of that.”
Returning to his stay in England, he recalled how British officers aimed their anti-Semitism at British Jews but not at Israelis. “It was a kind of an attempt to draw a distinction between Israel and Israelis and ‘their own Jews,’ I would say — Jews in the Diaspora,” he said.
“That worried me,” he continued. “It worried me. I didn’t like it.” He added, “I felt it’s going to be a danger.”
That is classic Sharon: the sweep of the sense of duty, the depth of the tribal consciousness, the sensitivity of the antennae to any threat, maybe real, maybe merely perceived. He regards Israel as a worldwide Jewish project, and he did not want to see any divergence in the Israeli and Jewish identities.
After a few years, Sharon thought the problem went away. “I would say the European countries — maybe others as well — they started to treat us as Jews,” he said. In other words, the danger receded as European Christians began treating Israeli Jews with the same prejudice with which they treated Jews at home. It seemed an odd source of comfort.
Sharon plowed on. A Jew, he said, can only “live as a Jew” in Israel. There were many fewer mixed marriages, he said. “All the time I worry — and I check it all the time — that Jews, I would say, might disappear,” he said. That is, the threat to Jews’ survival exists if they are physically in danger or not. If they are safe and welcomed where they are, they are threatened with assimilation.