Witness the remarkable aliyah of Ariel Sharon

The pre-mortem eulogies, the stream of editorials, the international expressions of sympathy — what we have witnessed in the past few weeks is Ariel Sharon’s ascension to the Jewish pantheon.

It is a remarkable aliyah. Once anathema to a majority of American Jews, Sharon is now a crossover hit among Jews and non-Jews alike (well, maybe not Arabs), his picture on the mantle beside David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. There will be Sharon Squares, Sharon honors, Sharon-invoking fund-raising appeals. There will be — mark my words — a Sharon Prize for International Peace.

Twenty years ago, the man was a villain to many Jews.

“I believe [then-Prime Minister Menachem] Begin ought to resign and take Sharon with him,” a leader of the Union for Reform Judaism told the New York Times in 1982. “They are inimicable to the interests of Jewish unity both in Israel and elsewhere in the diaspora.”

When Amos Oz published an interview with an anonymous Israeli general identified only as “C.” who spouted anti-Arab bile and proclaimed, “Better a live Judeo-Nazi than a dead saint,” most people were certain C. = Sharon. (It didn’t, but that hasn’t kept the misattribution from remaining alive on anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Web sites to this day.)

In the early 1990s, as Sharon cast his eyes upon the position of prime minister, the New York Times shuddered. Most American Jews, it wrote, “are moderates and liberals, and many find Sharon repugnant, even scary.”

Now, as Sharon ails and is not expected to resume an active political role, the statements of the current leader of the Union for Reform Judaism reflect a sea change in American Jewish sentiment.

“As a soldier on the battlefield, [Sharon] demonstrated remarkable courage in each of Israel’s wars,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the current president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Later, as a politician, he demonstrated equal courage in the political arena, overcoming voices of extremism with a message of reason and moderation.”

What extreme makeover could account for such a shift in perception? How did Sharon go from being President George H.W. Bush’s nemesis to President George W. Bush’s favorite uncle?

The obvious answer is that Sharon himself changed. The architect of the ruinous Lebanon War, the father of the settlement movement, the outrageous and vociferous Israeli opposition leader and the man deemed “indirectly responsible” for the Sabra and Shatila massacre assumed the mantle of office and immediately said that things look different from the top.

He recognized the demographic realities that Israel faced if it retained the West Bank and Gaza, and he understood that Israel’s international standing and domestic economy depended on concessions — either with a partner or unilaterally. It was Sharon who first used the word “occupation” to describe Israel’s, um, occupation.

But the deeper answer goes beyond Sharon’s assumption of office — after all, not all opposition leaders, once in power, move to the center. The answer lay in Sharon’s biography.

“My father did not fit into anybody’s mold,” Sharon wrote with obvious pride in his 1989 biography, “Warrior.”

“Like his neighbors, he was a passionate Zionist. But unlike them, he was no socialist. On the contrary, if anything stood out in his character, it was his individualism. Worse, he made no effort at all to hide his dislike for people he considered too rigidly ideological.”

Sharon was born and raised on Kfar Malal, a moshav 15 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. When the cooperative dictated that his father plant oranges and lemons, Samuil Sheinerman, educated in agronomy in his native Russia, insisted on planting a new fruit called an avocado, which he called “the fruit of the future.” His father’s dissension and stubbornness set the Sheinerman family apart. Even in death, Sharon’s father stipulated that his body not be carried to the cemetery in the village truck, but that his son drive him there in his own pickup.

“The man was by nature unable to compromise,” Sharon wrote.

Sheinerman became “Bulldozer” Sharon. And any chapter in his life after Kfar Malal is the stuff of a dozen “Munich”-style movies, minus the moral quandaries. Sharon organized and led deadly reprisals against Arab terrorists, fashioned a tank campaign in the darkest hours of the Yom Kippur War that encircled Egypt’s Third Army, launched a war that took Israeli soldiers into Beirut and — hence his nickname — bulldozed his way through international dissent to create a chain of settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

It was this militancy and stubbornness that petrified American Jews, offending their delicate belief in an Israel whose moral limits were set in stone, not quicksand.

“While Ben-Gurion’s sense of Jewish power was always tempered by a equal sense of the limitations on Israel,” wrote David Biale in his 1986 classic “Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History,” “the new real politik, best exemplified by Ariel Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon, seeks power without restraint.”

But Ben-Gurion liked Sharon. In 1953, when Sharon faced worldwide recrimination for dozens of civilian deaths in a raid on the Jordanian village of Kibeyeh, Ben-Gurion privately praised the young officer.

In any case, Sharon was acting in what he believed were Israel’s security interests, despite the repercussions. Decades later, as prime minister, when he came to the conclusion that those interests demanded a withdrawal from settlements he had long championed, he broke from his supporters and set Israel on a new path. To American Jews, the move exemplified the ideal quality of Israeli leadership: pragmatism and power joined to the pursuit of peace.

Thus, Sharon ascends the pantheon.

And what of his detractors, left screaming and scratching their heads? They will have to make do with avocados, not oranges.

Rob Eshman is editor-in-chief of the L.A. Jewish Journal, where this column previously appeared.

Rob Eshman
Rob Eshman

Rob Eshman is national editor of the Forward. Follow him @foodaism.