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Moshe Dayan: Israel's Controversial Hero

Moshe Dayan: Israel's Controversial Hero

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by Mordechai Bar-On

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Instantly recognizable with his iconic eye patch, Moshe Dayan (1915–1981) was one of Israel's most charismatic—and controversial—personalities. As a youth he earned the reputation of a fearless warrior, and in later years as a leading military tactician, admired by peers and enemies alike. As chief of staff during the 1956 Sinai Campaign and as


Instantly recognizable with his iconic eye patch, Moshe Dayan (1915–1981) was one of Israel's most charismatic—and controversial—personalities. As a youth he earned the reputation of a fearless warrior, and in later years as a leading military tactician, admired by peers and enemies alike. As chief of staff during the 1956 Sinai Campaign and as minister of defense during the 1967 Six Day War, Dayan led the Israel Defense Forces to stunning military victories. But in the aftermath of the bungled 1973 Yom Kippur War, he shared the blame for operational mistakes and retired from the government. He later proved himself a principled and talented diplomat, playing an integral role in peace negotiations with Egypt.

In this memorable biography, Mordechai Bar-On, Dayan's IDF bureau chief, offers an intimate view of Dayan's private life, public career, and political controversies, set against an original analysis of Israel's political environment from pre-Mandate Palestine through the early 1980s. Drawing on a wealth of Israeli archives, accounts by Dayan and members of his circle, and firsthand experiences, Bar-On reveals Dayan as a man unwavering in his devotion to Zionism and the Land of Israel. Moshe Dayan makes a unique contribution to the history of Israel and the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Editorial Reviews

Itamar Rabinovich
"This well-written and absorbing book offers an authoritative account of the life of Moshe Dayan and places him in the context of larger events. Doing justice to the complex and intriguing persona of Dayan, Bar-On writes for a wide audience, both general readers and students of Israel and the Middle East. I read it with great interest and profit."—Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and author of Waging Peace: Israel and the Arabs, 1948–2003
Booklist - Jay Freeman
"[A] revealing and engrossing account of the life of an often admirable but frustratingly enigmatic man."—Jay Freeman, Booklist
Baltimore Jewish Times - Neil Rubin
"Mordechai Bar-On, Dayan’s bureau chief during the mid-1950s as the latter was Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, brings a welcome addition to the canon of Dayan, weaving first-person observations as he amends the historical record."—Neil Rubin, Baltimore Jewish Times
Jerusalem Report
"Refreshing. . . Bridging the gaps of a complex personality is the great achievement of this brief but highly thoughtful book."—Jason Warshof, Jerusalem Report
The Historian
"Briefly and elegantly conveys the life of a man who played an important role in Israeli history."—The Historian
[A] revealing and engrossing account of the life of an often admirable but frustratingly enigmatic man.—Jay Freeman, Booklist

— Jay Freeman

Baltimore Jewish Times
Mordechai Bar-On, Dayan’s bureau chief during the mid-1950s as the latter was Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, brings a welcome addition to the canon of Dayan, weaving first-person observations as he amends the historical record.—Neil Rubin, Baltimore Jewish Times

— Neil Rubin

Washington Times
"This brief, incisive, elegantly written book is full of up-close and personal glimpses of and insights into the many pivotal roles Dayan played in his nation’s military and political affairs."—Martin Rubin, Washington Times
Kirkus Reviews
Succinct biography of the "lone wolf" defense minister during Israel's decisive first campaigns. Bar-On (A Never-Ending Conflict: A Guide to Israeli Military History, 2004, etc.) states from the first sentence of this crisp, selective new biography that "the story of Moshe Dayan is the story of the State of Israel," and thereby, this contains all of its inspiring, problematic and confounding mythology. Dayan (1915–1981), like Israel, was full of contradictions, which were part of his mystique and magnetism. The child of educated Ukrainian immigrants to Palestine committed to eking out a living on one of the earliest kibbutzim in Palestine, Dayan connected first and foremost with the land. His early experience in the farming cooperative involved the moshav, which his "trailblazer" parents forged, draining swamps and enduring Arab reprisals--an experience that would inform his later work as Israel's minister of agriculture and his "lifelong ambivalence toward treatment of the Palestinians." Dayan's fearlessness, which verged on recklessness, characterized his youth, as he learned the basic rules of military field conduct in the fledgling Haganah and lost an eye during an invasion of Syria in 1941, after which he was convinced his military career was over. Occasionally recruited to quell the infighting from the Irgun, he found many of his old colleagues now commanders, and he hitched his star to David Ben-Gurion, who appointed him first as commander of Jerusalem, then head of the Israeli Defense Force, and later defense minister during the Six-Day War. Architect of the doomed reprisals policy along the borders, sidelined and vilified for his role in the Yom Kippur debacle, and unable to accept Palestinian autonomy, Dayan wrestled ceaselessly between hubris and humanity. A sharp, fully fleshed, somewhat biased portrait of "one of the most fascinating and compelling figures to have appeared on Israel's stage."

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Jewish Lives Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Moshe Dayan

Israel's Controversial Hero


Copyright © 2012 Mordechai Bar-On
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14941-8

Chapter One

Wild Grass: Childhood and Teens

The sight of a bareback mule trudging into the farmyard on November 22, 1913, filled the Deganya residents with foreboding. Only hours before, a member of the community, Moshe Barsky, had set out on the mule to fetch medicine for his friend Shmuel Dayan. A tiny, four-year-old kevutza—an early collective settlement that was more intimate than a kibbutz—Deganya was situated where the Sea of Galilee spills into the Jordan River, a few miles upriver from Barsky's destination. As the young man's absence continued into nightfall, a small search party was dispatched. The group came upon Moshe Barsky's mangled body near the river before dawn, the apparent victim of brigands coveting his money and his mule. But as his friends well knew, Barsky was not merely a robbery victim; he was a casualty of the growing Arab hostility to the Zionist homeland that he and his fellow pioneers were developing in the midst of the Arab community in Palestine.

A year and a half later, on May 20, 1915, when Shmuel and Devorah Dayan welcomed their firstborn into the world, they had no doubt what to call the child: Moshe, after Barsky, Shmuel's serious, straightforward, and dependable friend.

Shmuel Dayan was born in 1890 in a small town near the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to a poor but devout family. Influenced by peripatetic Zionist propagandists, he sailed from Odessa to Palestine in early 1908 with his brother and sister. When their boat docked at the port city of Jaffa, they were greeted with "cries and commotion; a strange, alien Arabic; donkeys and camels, cheerless lanes, women with covered faces, and a stench rising from it all."

Initially, Shmuel roamed the moshavot, farming colonies built at the end of the nineteenth century by the first wave of Zionist immigrants. He knew the language of worship from his Jewish upbringing and could soon speak the vernacular Hebrew adopted by Palestine's Jews. In 1910, he joined a commune establishing its own farming village, which members named Deganya for the grain—dagan in Hebrew—they hoped to grow. Though founded as a kevutza, Deganya is considered the first kibbutz in Palestine. "The transition from poor, decadent town life in eastern Europe to a life of physical labor practiced by Hebrew-speaking farmhands creating a new culture and new way of life was a real revolution," Moshe Dayan wrote about this period in his father's life.

Devorah Dayan was also born in Ukraine, in a small village along the Dnieper River where the only Jews were her Russian-speaking family. At the university in Kiev, she discovered the great Russian literature and revolutionary ideals of the generation. "She loved her country, Russia, with all her soul, breathed the [Russian] language and agonized over the plight of Russia's poor," Moshe wrote of his mother's early years. She returned to her Jewish roots only after encountering antisemitism as a twenty-one-year-old volunteer nurse in the Balkan War. "My life was founded on a mistake," she wrote. "Those to whom I wished to devote my energies were not my people.... I had to start all over again." In January 1913, she, too, sailed for Palestine, carrying a letter of introduction to a member of the Deganya community—her destination.

Her welcome was hardly warm. "She was met with skepticism and suspicion ... stemming from an affluent family, a university graduate with budding literary ambitions," Moshe wrote. "What could she want with farmwork in the Jordan Valley?" Devorah remained torn: "Mother left the banks of the Dnieper but not the cultural lode. The beauty of Tolstoy's work, the warmth of Chekhov's writings, Pushkin's brilliant verses, Gogol's gentle wisdom ... were stamped on her soul. Her attachment to them impeded her fitting in with Deganya's members, jealous fanatics of Hebrew culture. Here, too, in her early days, she felt like an outsider."

But Shmuel Dayan fit right in. He was a hardworking laborer and self-proclaimed ideologist. He could wield a plow steadily and ride a horse with weapon in hand—the valued skills of the pioneer. He would also engage in passionate discourses on the future of Zionism and the path to Jewish settlement. The members of the small Deganya kevutza soon found themselves at loggerheads. Shmuel contended that pioneers should develop new core groups to form more agricultural settlements, whereas most members felt it was time to settle down and build their own homes. Communal life exposed another ideological rift. The kevutza founders preached collectivism and equal ownership, provisions for basic and social necessities, and shared childrearing responsibilities. The nuclear family was secondary. Although Shmuel and his group agreed with the founders on shared ownership of land and other means of production, they felt that the community had to be rooted in the family and that each family had the right to develop its farm to its choosing and according to its ability; marketing and costly equipment beyond the individual family's means would be shared expenses. They proposed the idea of a moshav ovdim—a cooperative workers' settlement—which allowed more freedom for private life and personal initiative.

The eye that Moshe Dayan would lose in battle years later was nearly lost in childhood to a severe case of trachoma, rife among the Arab peasants. To ward off blindness, he and his mother visited clinics and hospitals from Tiberias to Jaffa. Finally, in the summer of 1918 (the year the British seized the country from the Ottoman Turks), a Jerusalem eye specialist succeeded in improving his condition.

He would remember his early years in Deganya with the acerbity of a sickly child. "Clouds of dust filled my eyes and made it hard to breathe.... The ... struggle ... from morning against heat, thirst, and unsavory water; in the afternoon, a hot, dry, stifling wind; and the nights—hot and sweaty, dust, mosquitoes, flies, carrying disease for man and beast." He had far sweeter memories of Tsemah, a small Arab town on the Sea of Galilee's southern littoral, which he often visited with his father. Tsemah had a train station and a bustling market, Arab farmers and peddlers going about their business. And yet one of his earliest memories related to the growing Arab-Jewish tensions following World War I.

In the Jordan Valley, Arabs massed to attack the British military base at Tsemah, as well as a nearby Jewish settlement. Shmuel had already moved his family to a new kevutza, a mile south of Deganya, where he was in charge of security. Known as Deganya Bet, the settlement was built around a large wooden shack and collection of tents. Without fortifications, it was an easy target, and the women and children were evacuated to Deganya, where they took refuge behind the fenced perimeter. When the assault began, Shmuel realized that the hundreds of Arab attackers would easily overrun the few men in his charge, and he decided to retreat. He torched the main shack, and five-year-old Moshe watched from Deganya as the flames dazzled in the night sky. The rising inferno ignited the boy's awareness of the violent expressions Arab nationalism could take, a stark contrast to his perception of the peaceful Arab vendors making a living at Tsemah's market. The dichotomy between these two scenes spawned Dayan's acute, lifelong ambivalence toward treatment of the Palestinians.

After failing to convince the bulk of Deganya's members to found new settlements, Shmuel moved his family to Deganya Bet before Moshe's sixth birthday. In the summer of 1921, he helped inaugurate Nahalal, the country's first cooperative settlement, with the family unit at its foundation. These trailblazers called their new form of settlement a moshav. It was established on the lands of Mahloul, a small Arab village whose name, the pioneers believed, was a garbled interpretation of Nahalal, the biblical city mentioned in the book of Joshua. In his memoirs, Shmuel cited the Bible, Talmud, and writings of Josephus as if these were Jewish title deeds to the land.

Nahalal's first tents were erected on a hill at the edge of Lower Galilee. These makeshift abodes were pitched on the same earth that would eventually serve a more permanent function: the Nahalal cemetery, where Devorah, Shmuel, and later Moshe would be laid to rest. The moshav was built on the plain below, about a mile to the south, on fertile soil allocated to the settlers by the Jewish National Fund, the Zionist land-purchasing agency. Before cultivating the land, the settlers first had to drain the surrounding malarial swamps. Many settlers contracted the disease, but they simply downed quinine and went on working.

Mosquitoes and renewed Arab violence temporarily drove the mothers and children to the nearby Arab city of Nazareth. There, Devorah gave birth to Aviva, and Moshe started school. Shmuel rarely visited. Though Nahalal was only an hour away, he worked long hours in the swamps and fields. On most evenings he was too exhausted to make the uphill trek. Instead, he wrote Moshe long letters, which the child was not yet able to read. They brimmed with the romantic ideology and historicism spouted by the pioneers. "Walking behind the plow this morning," he wrote, "I was aware that, for the first time, the soil was being tilled with a European plow, which made the plowing hard." Shmuel finished the letter with a flowery discourse on the history of the Jewish people in Exile, the emergence of the Zionist movement, and the Zionists' aspirations to redeem the land from the wilderness.

In the spring of 1922, the violence subsided and the families returned to Nahalal and moved into shacks at the settlement's permanent site on the edge of the Jezreel Valley. In the early years moshav life was arduous. In addition to battling malaria, the settlers worked from dawn into the night, often on insufficient food. But for Moshe it was paradise, filled with rivulets, fruit gardens, lush vegetation, geese, and cattle. By the time he was ten, he could milk cows, drive mule carts to bring in the harvest, and till the vegetable garden next to the house. Soon he was also handling the mule plow while Shmuel walked behind him scattering seeds. The labor left its mark—Moshe attained the calloused hands of a veteran farmer.

While her husband and eldest son worked the land, Devorah, often ill, spent weeks in the hospital and sanatoriums. Still, she managed to give birth to her youngest son, Zohar, four years Aviva's junior. While the Dayan family grew, Shmuel had become a key figure in the burgeoning moshav movement and would travel overseas to recruit young people for Zionist settlement. The responsibility for the farm fell on Moshe, who took the chores in stride.

"I was left alone to celebrate my eleventh birthday," he wrote. "I took the cows out to the public pasture, watered the seedlings, saw to the urgent chores. I kept a diary, composed verse, and read a lot. The fact that I was alone did not bother me. I was at 'home': the plowed fields, the young plantation, the anticipation of rain, looking after the hatcheries until egg time, the night sound of crickets and frogs, and the cows in the barn."

Shmuel and Devorah added a tiny room to their modest home. Hardly big enough for a bed and small desk, this became Moshe's private place, in which he grew accustomed to reading and thinking in solitude.

That same year, Meshulam Halevi, a young teacher, arrived at Nahalal. He was allotted a large tent but chose to teach the older children in a flimsy shack that shivered in the winter wind and baked in the summer sun. He called it Noah's Ark. Halevi emphasized the environment and Bible studies and enriched his classroom lessons with nature walks, teaching his young pupils to recognize the flora and fauna close to home. His curriculum encouraged independent thought, and he had his students keep diaries, publish a school newspaper, and correspond with one another. Halevi's approach to education exploited Moshe's strengths in writing and drawing, and the school newspaper provided Moshe with a practical medium to showcase those talents.

Meshulam Halevi left a lasting impression on Dayan, who years later would write Living with the Bible, a personal narrative juxtaposing his life with events of antiquity, and he credited his first teacher with transforming the ancient Bible into a living text for him. "Our actual surroundings served to further bridge the distance of time, returning us to the days of antiquity, our patriarchs and nation's heroes," he wrote. "The language we spoke—the only language we knew—was Hebrew, the language of the Bible."

In the fields around Nahalal, Moshe encountered Bedouins, a nomadic people who seemed to emerge straight from the Bible's passages. He learned to chat in Arabic and befriended one of the Bedouins, Wahsh (Wolf), who would visit Moshe and Shmuel in the fields and share in their meals. Occasionally, Wahsh would lead the mule while Moshe held the plow. Later, when Nahalal's young men quarreled over field rights with Wahsh's tribe, Dayan was knocked unconscious by his friend. Understanding the young Bedouin's motives, Moshe held no grudge. Early on, he empathized with the Arabs, while also maintaining the resolve to repulse their attempts to thwart the Zionist cause.

Moshe's appetite for knowledge was insatiable. He devoured books and newspapers, and became a reliable source of information for the other children. Still, he lagged behind his classmates and struggled to obtain his teacher's affection. His peers viewed his reclusive personality as conceited, and his sharp tongue occasionally offended.

But when he offended, he did so in Hebrew. As devoted Zionists, Shmuel and Devorah insisted on speaking only Hebrew in the home, effectively refusing Moshe access to the language that had molded their own cultural world. Halevi, his cherished teacher, was fluent in Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew but appreciated the importance of English as the language of the British regime. Throughout his life, Moshe struggled to learn English, the key to Western culture.

After elementary school, Moshe's continuing education was in doubt. He would not have time to fulfill his agrarian responsibilities if he left the village to attend the closest school. But in 1926 one of Nahalal's founders, Dr. Hannah Maisel, established an agricultural boarding school for girls in Nahalal. Moshe, then fourteen, along with his male peers joined the girls' classes for general studies. They devoted two hours a day to learning and the rest to practical labor. The girls worked on the school training farm, the boys on their family farms.

At school, the girls were older than Moshe, and it was not until his second year that he dared pursue Haya, the youngest girl in the school, who was a year older than he. It was a puritan era, and young Moshe was bashful and fearful of rejection—a hesitance for which he would more than compensate later in life. He began his courtship by suggesting that they do homework together. They walked in the fields, discussed books, and exchanged flirtatious letters. On Sabbath eves, he excelled at couples' folk dance at the youth clubhouse that the moshav had provided. The first kiss would follow.

Much like their son among most of his peers, Shmuel and Devorah were not particularly popular in the community. As recognized national leaders, they had a reputation for arrogance and pride. Shmuel, especially, drew fire for preaching the virtues of manual labor while pursuing public positions off the farm. Moshe's own relationship with his parents was uneven: "I didn't especially respect my father. In fact I didn't respect him at all. My mother—I respected highly." As an adult, Moshe's aversion to party hacks and partisan politics may well have stemmed from this period, when he saw party politics distance his father from home, making his mother unhappy and causing the family hardship. Moreover, he disliked the way his father saturated everything with ideology and rhetoric. Moshe later acknowledged that "as a child I saw my father as a man of high but empty words, like his party comrades. When a child realizes that his father is talking nonsense, he loses respect."


Excerpted from Moshe Dayan by MORDECHAI BAR-ON Copyright © 2012 by Mordechai Bar-On. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mordechai Bar-On is senior research fellow, Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem. He served in the Israel Defense Forces as General Moshe Dayan's bureau chief during the Sinai Campaign, and in 1984 was elected to the Knesset, Israel's parliament. He lives in Jerusalem.

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Moshe Dayan: Israel's Controversial Hero 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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