What Are Sharon’s Wars For?
By A.D. Freudenheim  

22 August 2004

At least Ariel Sharon is consistent. James Bennet’s interview with the Israeli Prime Minister in the 15 August 2004 edition of The New York Times Magazine[1] portrays much the same person I listened to in March 2001, at a speech Sharon gave in New York City[2], and whose opinions have been unsubtly stated in news reports and other articles over the last 3 ½ years.[3] Then as now, Sharon’s perspective on war and peace with the Palestinians has been portrayed by the American media as neither optimistic nor pessimistic but simply “realistic”: a belief that war is not good, but peace is not possible, so Israel must settle for the best stalemate it can, while remaining strong and well-prepared for the future.

Sharon’s reasoning can be summed up with his own words: as he said in March 2001, and again in his recent interview with the Times, Israel “is the only place where Jews have the right to defend themselves by themselves.” But in the context of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and viewed within a long tradition of anti-Semitism – it is also a desperately negative view of the world, one informed by an inescapable sense of the Jew-as-victim. Discussing Sharon’s perspective on European anti-Semitism, the Times interview reports:

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.

And a few paragraphs later:

...[Times reporter Bennet] asked what he thought it would take for Israel to be fully accepted in the world. “Not to exist as an independent state, maybe,” he shot back. “Look, it's a Jewish state inhabited by Jews. Not patronized. Maybe the world would have accepted patronized Jews.”

Israel’s very existence, and its underlying military strength, was intended to allow Jews to defend themselves, and to remove the threat of victim-hood that being state-less so often seemed to provoke; that was the original premise and promise of Zionism. Despite this, Sharon allows others to define who and what Jews actually are, even perpetuating some sense of dirtiness and shame with the word. Thus Sharon reveals that despite Israel’s existence – despite the strength and bravado and clarity of purpose he has sought to project for himself and his nation in his role as military commander, party leader, and politician – there can be no escaping Jewish weakness, victim-hood, and underlying shame, and even those Jews of the Israeli variety can be viewed in this way. Clearly, to be a Jew is not a good thing.


In his March 2001 speech, Sharon began his remarks by pointing to the continuity of Jewish history: “I bring greetings from Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people for the past 3,000 years, and capital of the state of Israel for the past 52 years. … We are only custodians of the city. The city of Jerusalem belongs to you no less than to ourselves.” He continued by saying: “As Prime Minister, I am first and foremost a Jew. That is the most important thing.” And: “Strengthening Jewish education in Israel and abroad, integrating Zionism and Jewish education … Jews must know the Bible, their history, and the history of the land of Israel … they must know that the Jews never stopped living in Israel …” And: “It is time to be proud Zionists again, and to wave the flag of renewed Zionism. … We have accomplished great things in the past 120 years of Zionism...”

Similar sentiments were echoed in the Times interview, with Sharon confessing that he has “...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.” Or, as Bennet captured it, “A Jew, [Sharon] said, can only ‘live as a Jew’ in Israel.” And: “[Sharon] regards Israel as a worldwide Jewish project, and he did not want to see any divergence in the Israeli and Jewish identities.” We get the point: Sharon is worried about the future of the Jews, from a variety of threats, and he sees Israel as the solution to these Jewish problems.

Somewhere, though, Sharon’s formula of Judaism + Jews + Zionism + Israel + the Diaspora is missing some step of logic. Although Bennet nearly picks up on this point, noting that “Sharon appears blind ... to the rising anti-Israeli-ism in what he sees as anti-Semitism,” a deeper question about Judaism and Israel remains to be asked – and deserves to be answered. If being a Jew is not a good thing – if the word “Jew” still carries its shameful connotations, if outsiders can still define who and what Jews are – then Sharon’s insistence on the importance of Israel, and on the continuity of the Jewish people, rings hollow. What does it mean, for Sharon, to be “first and foremost a Jew”? If it means something Biblical, something fundamental, unknowable, and divinely-inspired, then sacrificing any of the Occupied Territories must be a betrayal of basic beliefs about the history and destiny of the Jewish people. This is the perspective held by many of those on Judaism’s and Israel’s far right, the so-called “settlers” and other Israelis who put Sharon in power because they thought he would protect them. Yet Sharon continues to push ahead with planning a withdrawal of Gaza, and with constructing a barrier between Israel proper and much of the West Bank, a barrier that could become an internationally-recognized border.

If, on the other hand, to be a Jew means something more relativistic – to have a sense of Jewish history without a specific sense of divine Jewish destiny; to see Judaism as a secular culture rather than a religion; to believe in the importance of Torah-inspired Jewish values, but to interpret them through a personal rather than fundamental, Biblical lens – then Sharon’s values seem rootless, uncertain, and opaque. Self-defense may be a Jewish value, but, to take one example, is a policy of targeted assassination as pro-active self-defense also a Jewish value? The occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip may be the reality of a victory in the 1967 war, but should discrimination against Palestinians, aggression towards civilian populations, the destruction of Palestinian homes, orchards, livelihoods and infrastructure be the natural and acceptable corollary?

Bennet quotes Sharon as saying “I would have liked that Israel will be known not for being warriors,” but Sharon has never been able to offer a different vision for Israel, one that could move Israel away from the identity of an ever-embattled warrior nation. However, Sharon’s vision of the world is neither rosily optimistic, as Israel’s left has often been painted, nor is it Messianic, in the way of many of Judaism’s Orthodox. Instead, it is limited, and bound together with a perspective on the Diaspora that mistakes Jewish self-identification for Zionism or Israel-ism. Despite the Prime Minister’s sometimes-bold, sometimes-desperate maneuvers, he seems to have crafted an identity for Israel that is unsatisfying to almost everyone, Israelis included.

One final example: back in 2001, Sharon listed immigration as a key goal of his government, and cited the need to bring more Diaspora Jews to Israel, particularly from the United States. Sharon acknowledged that it was important to “create the right conditions for [immigrants] to move” to Israel, but three and a half years later, that goal still firmly in place, the Times describes immigrants as “barely trickling” to the Jewish State. With no peace in sight, a vision-less leader – and, generally, acceptance of Jews in and by other countries – it is not difficult to see why. If only Sharon himself could see it.

[1] “Sharon’s Wars,” by James Bennet, The New York Times Magazine, 15 August 2004. All references to the Bennet/Times article refer to this source.
[2]Report on a Speech by Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister of Israel," by A.D. Freudenheim, 21 March 2001. All subsequent references to this speech refer to this source.
[3] See, for instance, my articles "Peace and Nonbelligerence," 16 April 2001 or "Blame The Jews," 7 December 2003.
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