Ariel Sharon (1928 – 2014)
Reflecting on the myth of a Zionist martyr and the reportage in Israel and beyond
Ariel Sharon was perhaps the last Israeli soldier-statesman whose life was framed with the Zionist myth of martyrology. Although there surely is no shortage of commanders who are mythical figures and became politicians in contemporary Israel, Sharon joins an exclusive club of those mythic figures of men in the history of Zionism whose lives ended mysteriously, untimely, not in war, and/or whose death stories were contested and ambiguous. Theodore Herzl, who died young, and is rumored to have suffered from syphilis. Joseph Trumpeldor who died protecting Tel Chai in 1920 and, as the myth holds (Yael Zerubavel provides a detailed account), said before dying “never mind, it is good to die for our country.” Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a national-religious law student. Yasser Arafat, whom Israel tried and in the end probably succeeded to poison or otherwise kill during his long career (2004). Rafael Eitan, a former chief of staff and politician: a wave pulled him into the sea in the Ashdod harbor in which he was a project manager (2004), and Sharon, who was in coma for eight years starting in January 2006. His social death was blurred, extended even beyond the span of “the king’s two bodies.” Shortly after his stroke, streets and institutions were already named after him.
The eulogies on his death and the description of the funeral reflected this ambivalence, which combined inglorious and glorious military chapters, including his resignation after being found responsible for the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during the first Lebanon war, and the change he made as a prime minister which led him to support the withdrawal from Gaza.
Sharon was described in the Israeli press as a farmer, a commander and a statesman, similar to the depiction of Yitzhak Rabin, Raphael Eitan, Moshe Dayan.
Dayan’s death was never ambiguous as was true for the others, but his life was marked by mythical dramas, commitment to agriculture and the love of archeological finds (many of which he stole).
Sharon was also put alongside other figures such as Rechaveam (“Gandhi”) Zeevi, advocate of the “transfer” of the Palestinians and a head of “Moledet” Party. He was assassinated by members of the popular front of the liberation of Palestine in 2001, while serving as the minister of tourism.
The elusiveness of the end of life for notably many mythical figures of the Zionist movement in Israel says much about the materials out of which those myths are made: sacrifice, fighting, and the sanctification of death, on the one hand, and labor, agriculture, and husbandry, on the other. Both sets of mythemes are part and parcel of the totality of sacrifice for the land, versions of which we encounter also with David Ben Gurion.
The Israeli and international press understood those tensions in their depiction of Sharon’s death. Sharon, the 11th prime minister of Israel held the image of the Sabra that Dayan and Rabin had. The Israeli press combined the images of “Arik, an Uzi in his hand, a bandage on his head and a lamb draped over his shoulders” (Aluf Ben, Ha’aretz, 13.1.14).
The German foreign minister Steinmaier said he was an “indefatigable protector of his beloved fatherland Israel.” Merkel called him a patriot. UN general secretary Ban Ki-Moon stated that he was a “hero of his people,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogized: “Arik: your special contribution to the Israeli security will be remembered in our history.” President Shimon Peres said: “you were the shoulder on which the security of our people leaned…your footprint is in every hill and valley. You harvested them with the sickle and protected them with the sword.”
Both the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and the (Berlin) Tagesspiegel quoted Palestinian sources to refer to his role in war crimes. The central article in the FAZ (13.1.2014) was titled “a war maker and a farmer.” American Vice-President Joe Biden described him as “a complicated man in complicated times and a complicated neighborhood” referring more to the present challenges that Israel faces than to Sharon’s mythological “total commitment” to security. Referring to, but not held captive by, Sharon’s place in the pantheon of Zionist leaders hovering over the performance of more prosaic leaders today, the international press presented him as an Israeli leader with a controversial career. The Israeli response, both in the eulogies themselves, and in their reportage, hangs close to the myth of Sharon, insisting on his incomparability, even when the myth is called into question.