Moshe Dayan: Israel's Controversial Hero

Yale University Press  2012


Moshe Dayan in many ways embodied the State of Israel in its formative years. Born in 1915 on a communal settlement near the Sea of Galilee, Dayan grew up on the farm, working with Arabs but also resisting them when attacked. His profound Zionism, the constant threat under which he lived, and his willingness to fight those who were at once his neighbors and his foes shaped much of his thinking throughout his military and diplomatic career.

Mordechai Bar-On, a member of the Israel Defense Forces and Dayan’s bureau chief during the Sinai campaign, worked with Dayan at one of his most critical and successful periods and, from the perspective of 2012, assesses Dayan’s place in Israeli history. Based on his personal knowledge and the vast archives recording Dayan’s career, Bar-On focuses his biography on Dayan’s controversial career and personality.

Bar-On sees four critical stages in Dayan’s life. Before statehood Dayan was part of the Zionist effort to establish a Jewish community in Palestine and gained a reputation for standing up to the Arabs. The second critical period grew from Dayan’s reputation as a successful fighter and led to key appointments in the government; as chief of staff, he led the IDF to victory in the Sinai and, as Minister of Defense, led the stunning victory in the Six Day War, securing his public popularity as a military hero. In his next critical role, Dayan was charged with protecting Israel’s newly won territory and building a viable community for its Palestinian residents; during this period the Palestinian Liberation Organization was born, with its terrorist attacks, and Israel once again faced war with Egypt and Syria, this time suffering a powerful surprise attack on Yom Kippur. Although the Israelis recouped some of their early losses in the Yom Kippur War, Dayan was blamed for insufficient preparation and misjudgment. He resigned and withdrew from politics but returned three years later to achieve his last major accomplishment; playing a major role in negotiating a peace treaty with Egypt.

In these critical periods, Bar-On shows Dayan as a complex and often isolated figure, angering the establishment, frequently at odds with his fellow ministers, and frustrated in his attempts to realize his policies. While holding fast to his positions, in fact he often deferred to others, casting himself as an outsider. His military knowledge and skills have secured his place in Israel’s emergence as a strong state, capable of defending itself in the face of unremitting hostility. But Bar-On faults Dayan for his insistence on Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territories despite his sympathy for the Arabs and for his refusal to face the issue of Palestinian statehood. For Dayan there was no compromise; Israel was Judah and Samaria, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Moshe Dayan reveals little of Dayan’s personal life, which was as complex as his public life. As a co-worker, Bar-On experienced Dayan’s human side, but Dayan’s family life, touched on only briefly, is pictured mostly in the conflicting words of his wives and children. His womanizing, his sometimes illegal and irresponsible archaeological pursuits, his bouts of serious injury and illness are mentioned almost in passing. As a biography, Moshe Dayan leaves much beyond Dayan’s public career to the reader’s further and easily available reading. As an assessment of one of Israel’s most recognizable figures—marked by his black eyepatch—it offers the possibility that Dayan’s policies may have laid some of the groundwork for Israel’s most difficult and still unresolved problem. Given the detailed descriptions of military campaigns, the book would have benefited from the inclusion of maps. Index, notes.

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