Yael Dayan is long remembered as a young Israeli soldier in uniform, walking confidently alongside her father, Gen. Moshe Dayan. She admits that she was the poster child of the Israeli Defense Forces.
At 77, the author and politician looks back at her life with uncommon honesty in “Transitions” (Mosaic Press). She expresses a certain wistfulness about the young woman she once was, and sadness that things she worked so hard to achieve, namely peace, have not come to be.
Dayan, who has written two previous nonfiction works and five novels, served as a member of the Knesset between 1992 and 2003, and chaired the Tel Aviv City Council from 2008 to 2013.
In the memoir, she asks, “When did the girl in khaki become the woman in black?” (She’s referring to the group of Israeli women who have protested against the occupation for almost 30 years, wearing black.)
The turning point was the Lebanon War, she tells The Jewish Week. “The fact that we were there for so long — I could have stayed a girl in khaki if temporarily we were doing something I couldn’t accept. When years went by and it became a reality, then war also became the worst choice. The shock of my generation, those who still believe in peace, is that we so easily chose to fight war rather than wage peace.”
Dayan is regal and articulate. She suffers from chronic obstructive lung disease and uses an oxygen concentrator and sometimes a wheelchair. But none of this stopped her from embarking on a multi-city speaking tour. In New York last week, she was feted at a reception hosted by her niece Amalia Dayan, co-owner of the Luxembourg and Dayan gallery on the Upper East Side.
She tells the crowd, “If only Israel were like Tel Aviv, we’d have peace.” Later on, Dayan explains that not all of Tel Aviv is artistic and intellectual, that it’s a multicultural city with many immigrants and an Arab population. “Basic things, like democracy, rights of children to schooling and decent health, are taken for granted. Tel Aviv is pluralistic, a center of culture, media, the stock exchange. That’s what Israel could and should be.”
In American audiences, she is finding “a general fed-upness with Israel. They are saying to us, ‘You are becoming obsolete, not solving your own problems, not accepting reforms, saying no to everything. You are playing a dangerous game. You are so strong; you get aid and support. Why can’t you resolve questions that every democracy in the world has resolved?’”
What would her father think today?
“I refuse to take the liberty to even think what he would have said. He died at 66, an unnecessary death — today he could have been treated. [He had colon cancer.] He is missed in a big way. He didn’t disappear from the public scene. Not for one minute. For better and worse, he keeps capturing the imagination and discussion and arguments and headlines in the press. I don’t have to dig deep to revive his memory.”
Dayan’s husband Dov Sion died in 2003 after suffering from Parkinson’s. Her mother Ruth, also an activist for peace, is about to turn 100.
“The big obstacle is the occupation and the settlements. It is unacceptable to be the occupier of millions of others, who are other people with rights to self-determination,” she says.
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“Many people find it very difficult to think we can undo the settlements. We need some undoing.”
About her friend Ari Shavit (the author and former Haaretz columnist who recently admitted making unwanted advances at a woman journalist), she says that he should have known better. It was Dayan who initiated and pushed the law that made sexual harassment a crime in Israel. She was also involved in fighting for victims of domestic violence, for affirmative action, gender equality and gay rights.
“I look back,” she says, “and I’m proud of what we achieved. It’s so frustrating not to have completed, not to have seen the end of the conflicts.
“It’s like the [biblical] story of Mount Nebo. There is across the river a promised land. I can see it, I’m almost touching it. Aren’t we all? We would like to take one step further to achieve what we believe in, but we don’t get there.”
An atheist, Dayan says, “I identify myself as Jewish, through language — the Bible is history, geography and poetry,” she says, adding, “But we should know where it stops. We don’t elect a Sanhedrin. We don’t sign international agreements based on God’s promises. This has to be understood. … That God promised us a different-sized country; I don’t want one soldier to be killed over it.”
Even though the book is completed, she doesn’t feel like this is a finale. “I would like to be able to add another chapter.”