Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is the President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Wed,Aug 20,2014 24 Av 5774
As these words are written, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the visionary and ferocious champion of the State of Israel, fights for life in his hospital bed, and Jews everywhere pray for his return to health—even as they know that the doctors offer little or no hope of recovery.
A fearless soldier and military commander, Mr. Sharon was a hero of four of Israel’s wars. A strong and controversial leader, he fought fiercely on the battlefield and in the political arena to protect the interests of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
In his younger years, Mr. Sharon was a man of the right who often took extreme positions that outraged his political foes. As Prime Minister, however, he was the ultimate realist. In order to assure Israel’s future as a Jewish state, he dismantled Jewish settlements and ended the occupation of 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. In the process, with cool pragmatism and resolute courage, he rallied Israel’s citizens and Jews everywhere to his side and stood firm against forces of extremism in Israeli society.
As Prime Minister, Mr. Sharon was the most trusted and charismatic political figure of his day. Aware of the limitations of both right and left, he created a new party, Kadima, in order to offer Israel’s centrist majority a political home. Few doubted that he would have easily won a third term as Israel’s leader had he not fallen ill.
While Mr. Sharon was flexible in his approach to Israel’s problems, he never changed his fundamental values. He believed in an Israel that is strong militarily and diplomatically, and he saw good relations with the United States as Israel’s highest priority. He searched for a Palestinian partner for peace, but when a suitable one did not emerge, he showed that he was prepared to act unilaterally, not only by reversing direction on settlements but also by building a security fence that he had long opposed.
Ariel Sharon was also deeply committed to the welfare of the Jewish people, and was the only Prime Minister in recent decades who spoke passionately about Jewish education whenever appearing before a Jewish audience. He was also a champion of the Birthright program that provides free visits to Israel to young Jews from throughout the world, and he insisted on Israeli government funding to support the program. “I am a Jew first and an Israeli second” was a line that he repeated endlessly to Jewish leaders.
At a time when Israel is threatened both militarily and diplomatically, Jews everywhere, whatever their political orientation, recall Mr. Sharon’s daring and leadership, and join with the citizens of Israel in remembering and honoring his extraordinary legacy.