Moshe Dayan: From bed to battlefield
A new biography of Israel’s most swashbuckling soldier-statesman happily succumbs to his charm
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Moshe Dayan: Israel’s controversial Hero, by Mordechai Bar-On, Yale University Press, £18.99
Moshe Dayan with his troops
I first heard Moshe Dayan’s name when I was nine. It was June 1 1967. Israel was surrounded by Arab armies poised to attack. And it was my birthday. My dad gave me a big hug and said: “Son, the state of Israel has given you a birthday present — they’ve just nominated Moshe Dayan to the post of Defence Minister!”
I, of course, wanted a toy but when my dad showed me the Davar newspaper with a picture of a man with a black eye-patch who looked like a pirate, I was happy. I knew pirates always win wars.
I came across him again when I was a little older and, like many of my friends, read Cholot Lohatim (“Burning Sands”). Its author, an attractive female journalist called Hadasa Mor, was one of Dayan’s mistresses, and she described her affair with him in this thinly disguised autobiographical novel.
Years later, a journalist friend of mine told me how he once approached the reclusive Dayan, saying: “it must be you, Mr Dayan — the hero in Mor’s book”. Dayan replied: “Young man, it’s ok to have as many affairs as you want, but never with a lady who knows how to write”. His attitude was always: “the citizens of Israel have voted for me as their minister, not as the husband of the year”.
Like Ariel Sharon, another controversial hero, the story of Moshe Dayan, as Mordechai Bar-On, his former IDF bureau chief, observes, is “the story of the state of Israel” — and first and foremost a story of its wars, in which Dayan played such a leading part, though his important role in forging peace with Egypt in the late 1970s as Israel’s Foreign Minister is also described here.
Bar-On takes us through Dayan’s childhood in Palestine working the land, always on guard for Arab reprisals against the Zionist project; his role in the Haganah, the underground Jewish militia in British-ruled Palestine, where he proved himself a fearless and original, if reckless, military planner; and how he lost his eye during a military battle in Syria in 1941 when a bullet struck the left lens of a pair of binoculars he was using. Dayan continued to suffer horrific headaches, as doctors had failed to clear the debris from his skull.
Then come the other conflicts: Israel’s 1948 War of Independence; the 1956 Sinai Campaign that Dayan planned; his role as Defence Minister in the great six-day victory over the Arabs in 1967; and, finally, again as Defence Minister, his part in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, which saw Israel being taken by surprise and put an end to his being regarded as Israel’s “Mr Security”.
In assessing Dayan’s legacy more than 30 years after his death from cancer, Bar-On observes that the man remains, “a controversial figure”, a view that is likely to remain the prevailing one for years to come.
Moshe Dayan is irresistible to biographers as he not only played such a prominent role in the history of his nation, but was also a complex personality. Bar-On does offer the occasional criticism of his man, but admits to being “captivated by Dayan’s charm” and, overall, this is a sympathetic portrait. It is also a delightful read.
Ahron Bregman is the author of ‘Israel’s Wars’. He teachers at the department of War Studies, King’s College London