Moshe Dayan's Widow Ruth: Zionist Dream Has Run Its Course

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Left: Ruth Dayan.; Right: Moshe Dayan in 1967. Michal Chelbin for Newsweek (left); Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Elegantly dressed and perfectly made up, Ruth Dayan, 95, receives me with a wide smile in her Tel Aviv home overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The charismatic, alert, and extremely intelligent Dayan is the widow of Moshe Dayan, legendary chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and a key leader in the war of independence in 1948. Indeed, Moshe Dayan was transformed into a symbol of national strength during the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel took control of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The Israelis felt invincible with this imposing figure at the helm. Having lost his eye in battle, he chose to wear a black eye patch, which became his trademark. In the years since his death, Ruth has continued to act as one of Israel’s most outspoken elder statesmen.

Sixty-three years after the founders began to build a democratic, secure, prosperous state, Israel is still struggling: there is no peace deal in place with the Palestinians, tensions between Arabs and Israelis grow by the day, and the violence drags on. Under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party, Israel has been racked with political divisions. The government has moved to the right politically in order to keep a majority in Parliament. Yet over the summer, liberal Israelis set up tent cities protesting the massive income inequality and high cost of living that are plaguing the nation. Moshe Dayan is very much seen as one of the “founding fathers” of Israel. And there is a nostalgic turn today, mainly among the middle-class Ashkenazi who see him and his brethren as symbols of collective sacrifice and communal bonds.

Dayan is rich with memories of the Israel of then and gets furious when I ask her to compare it with the Israel of now: “We built this country inch by inch, and we lost so many lives. We built public and social institutions, schools, factories. What’s going on today is awful. They’re ruining this country. I am a proud Israeli. I’ve lived through every war, endured every moment of suffering, but I never stopped believing in peace. I lost friends and family members. I’m a peacemaker, but the current Israeli government does not know how to make peace. We move from war to war, and this will never stop. I think Zionism has run its course.”

She sighs, and adjusts herself before continuing. “I long for the old Israel, where I traveled alone to Gaza the day after we won the 1956 war. Moshe was already a war hero, known to Israelis and Arabs alike. When I met the Palestinian mayor, I introduced myself as Ruth Dayan. The mayor almost had a heart attack.” She giggles. “His aides fled the scene. He cautiously asked me what my business was, and I replied that I wanted to see their rugs. He was astonished. ‘Rugs?’ he asked me. I was the head of Maskit at the time, a chain of arts-and-crafts stores. We were employing Bulgarian immigrants, and I wanted to include Arabs. I hired Arabs all over the country to make rugs and other merchandise. It was about living together, working together, creating a bridge. Today we use foreign labor to work in Israel because Palestinians are not allowed. And this continuous expansion of the settlements everywhere—I cannot accept it. I cannot tolerate this deterioration in the territories and the roadblocks everywhere. And that horrible wall! It’s not right.”

The tensions between the Jews and the Arabs in Israel have been particularly fraught since the second intifada started in 2000. The wall built to protect the nation from the terrorist attacks sealed off Gaza and the West Bank, but it also cut off contact between the two populations. Ruth Dayan is considered a free thinker in Israeli society. And her devotion and constant efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together are legendary. “Moshe had a double-edged policy: hardline punitive raids of cross-border Arab retaliation, and at the same time, he led the delegation for the ceasefire negotiations with Jordanian King Abdullah. He was a fighter and a negotiator. He was tactical and realist—never saw things as black or white. After the death of his brother, Zorik, in battle in 1948, Moshe reached out to the Druze community, which had been responsible for his brother’s death, and made a peace accord with them. Moshe’s father never forgave him for that.”

In fact, the Dayan family was severely tested by the historical events that unfolded with the creation of the state of Israel. “You know, Moshe died 30 years ago this month [October]. His courage and bravery had shaped the history of Israel.” Ruth Dayan wrote a love letter to Moshe on the 30th anniversary of his death, which was published in one of Israel’s prominent newspapers. But Ruth complains that the paper discussed at length Moshe’s numerous love affairs rather more than his contribution as a public servant. “Women fell like flies at Moshe’s feet, but I didn’t care. The charisma evaporates at the breakfast table.” Regardless of her true feelings about her husband’s infidelity, Dayan insists on defending his memory. “You can divorce a husband, but you can’t divorce a legend.” Their younger son, Assi, has spoken publicly about his conflicts with his father. As Ruth explains, “There was a feeling of resentment and abandonment” on her son’s side. For Moshe, “military missions were his absolute priority?...?We had to leave a life that we loved on the farm. We moved so many times to so many places. It became a challenge to keep a proper family feeling while Moshe was advancing his career. The country’s needs demanded immediate solutions.” Ruth adds, “I was visiting Nablus in what is now called the West Bank. The military governor asked me if I could visit Arab women in prison there to see if I could get them to embroider. Later that day, when I came home, Moshe criticized me, saying: ‘I put those women in jail, and you go visit them. What are you doing?!’?” I decided then it was time for us to divorce.”

zionism-dayan-fe04-2ndary Ruth and Moshe Dayan with their children. Michal Chelbin for Newsweek

Dayan comes from an elite, secular family. Her grandfather graduated from the Sorbonne, and her father studied at the London School of Economics. At the age of 17, she dropped out of school, left her parents’ comfortable home in Jerusalem and her pampered city life for an agricultural school in Nahalal, a cooperative village in the Jezreel Valley in the Lower Galilee. Her dream was to build kibbutzim, farms, and to work the land. There she met Moshe Dayan, who was born into the harsh reality of the backbreaking labor, mud, and smells of kibbutz life in Degania. “He knew how to grow crops and orchards. He treated trees as if they were his own babies.” Ruth and Moshe were married in 1935, a year after they met, and together they envisioned a country based on socialist ideals. “Work was the center of our lives. I milked the cows even on my wedding day,” she says. “Before daylight each morning, I would bake, make cheese, and look after the animals while Moshe tilled the fields, so I deeply understand the Arabs and their attachment to the land. I miss the farm life: the cows, the dogs, even the filth of it.”

As an Arab teenager growing up in East Jerusalem during the first intifada, I saw the many faces of Israel, mostly Israeli soldiers imposing martial law on my community; but I also befriended liberals like Ruth whose belief in coexistence and reconciliation broadened my perspective. The echoes of years of violence left us fewer moderates. I fear without more people like Ruth Dayan, the children of the country will grow accustomed to hatred and a deep racial divide that is becoming insurmountable.

Ruth shares with me her deep-rooted connections with the Arab community in the form of a letter written in 1924 by Nazira Zananiri to Dayan’s grandmother, Madame Clinker. Zananiri is thanking her dear Israeli friend for a Christmas card she had received. The affection between the two women is evident. “My mother spoke Arabic and we often hosted Palestinians in our home. We lived among them, even during wars. At the double wedding of our children Assi and Yael in 1967, we invited Israelis, Druze, Arabs; it was a wonderful celebration.”

The general view in Israel before the U.N. bid for Palestinian statehood this September was that by erecting a wall, the government would no longer need to deal with the Palestinian issue. Security would be guaranteed. A physical defense was built up as a block against the bloody days of Hamas-led terrorism. But it has not ended the war within. Recent Israeli governments have been held hostage by the ultra-Orthodox political parties that dictate the national agenda by demanding large economic subsidies and affordable housing within the settlements in exchange for their parliamentary support. These political parties and their constituency, the Haredi, are transforming the face of the nation by promoting an ideological inflexibility that opposes any peace deal with the Palestinians. This has created tremendous tensions with the Obama administration, and runs counter to the visions of those like Moshe Dayan, who, after suffering a psychological defeat in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, began engaging in a different kind of dialogue with Egypt. Moshe Dayan went from saying, “Never peace without Sharm al-Sheikh, and never Sharm al-Sheikh without peace,” to entering into a peace negotiation with Anwar Sadat under the guidance of the Carter administration. This political transformation is not lost on Ruth. “For Netanyahu, peace is just a word, and that [current Foreign Minister Avigdor] Liberman?...?he is the most terrible man in this country. The way he speaks about our Arabs, our Israeli Arabs, is unacceptable! I call Liberman ‘Doberman’: how can a man like that represent our country?!” On the other hand, Ruth endorses the next potential leader of Israel, Avishay Braverman, a member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. “I was impressed by his work at Ben-Gurion University. I also would like to have someone like Tzipi Livni as the foreign minister. She was a great representative of Israel when she was the foreign minister. She understands diplomacy, and above all, she has good manners, not like Avigdor Liberman. I even said it on TV—this Doberman is insane!” Liberman has advocated for the involuntary transfer of Arab-Israeli citizens to a future Palestinian state in exchange for retaining Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, and has proposed a parade of anti-Arab bills.

In contrast, Moshe Dayan was capable of amending his political views along the way. He had denied the existence of Palestine in his early speeches, yet he later agreed to Palestinian autonomy when, as foreign minister, he negotiated the Camp David accords with Egypt. In it, the Israelis agreed to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace with Cairo, all this in spite of the fact that Dayan’s views conflicted with those of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. “[The late Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat, who would always kiss me when we met, respected him. So did King Abdullah of Jordan. ‘What a pleasure it is to have your husband as an enemy,’ he would say. Moshe has always treated Arabs with respect. Even after the Six-Day War, he would travel by himself to the West Bank. He liked spending time with Arabs, and would visit Nablus without bodyguards. He believed that work would bring us together. He had a dialogue with the Arabs. So did my brother-in-law, Ezer Weizman, who was a pilot and later became the president of Israel. He was also a true believer in peace. He knew Cairo like the palm of his hand, having flown over it so many times on missions. He used to laugh and joke with President Sadat. Relations were different then. Who talks to the Palestinians now?” she asks.

In reference to the current prime minister’s conservative stance, Dayan takes pains to make herself clear. “I reject Netanyahu’s policy; it is a recipe for disaster. He is unwilling to address the issue. It’s a bunker mentality. We had the Oslo accords, which established Palestinian control over certain areas in the West Bank and Gaza, while other areas remained under mixed control. The accords established the Palestinian Authority and police force, but nothing has changed. The number of settlements has increased from 60 to 200, military checkpoints are everywhere, and freedom of movement is virtually nonexistent. Violence is still the only spoken language. I don’t try to instill optimism in my Palestinian friends. Out of courtesy, I tell them that I hope something will change. But I don’t speak about peace anymore; I don’t have the courage. I’m friends with so many Arabs. My soulmate is Raymonda Tawil, Arafat’s mother-in-law. This government does not represent my values. It’s gone so far. Both sides think they are freedom fighters.”

Dayan speaks like a natural-born leader. When I provoke her with the question of whether the security measures are justified by terrorism, she interrupts me and says: “Oh, please, nothing will stop terrorism except dialogue. [Yitz-hak] Rabin could have achieved peace. He fought terrorism as if there were no negotiations, and negotiated as if there was no terrorism. Today we must apply the two-state solution because we have grown apart, and it would be best if everyone took care of their own business. We are a mob that can’t even get along internally.”

Having made plans to visit a friend, she drives me home, and we continue our conversation in the car. The radio is reporting the news of Muammar Gaddafi’s death. Dayan is outraged. “Why not give him a trial?! This is barbaric. Even the worst criminals deserve a fair trial. This is the price of democracy! Why start the new Libya with bloodshed?” Gaddafi, she tells me, had sent her a book in 2008 in which he described his peace plan. “He wrote that we all should live together and benefit from our combined resources. I sent him a thank-you note and gave the book to Shimon Peres.”

Dayan continues: “Israel today is not a dream, it is a country in a lot of trouble. It’s a high-tech society that communicates through iPad, iPhone, and Facebook instead of having children talking to each other. Our youth live all over the world, wherever they can find a job. There’s a brain drain taking place. I’m very concerned about where all of this will lead us. I am really proud of the 300,000 protesters who demanded social justice. I say go on and include the Palestinian issue in your agenda! That is also about justice and our future.” Dayan doesn’t just talk, she also acts: a few months ago, she invited 300 people from Kharbata, an Arab village in the West Bank, for a trip in Israel. “I got them entry permits, and they were treated wonderfully. I took them to the beach where they swam, and the children had so much fun! It seemed that at least for a day they were living a normal life. This is my ultimate goal.”