Relatively few Israelis came to pay their respects to former prime minister Ariel Sharon as he lay in state Sunday in the plaza in front of the Knesset.
The line of afternoon visitors was quiet under an overcast sky. A trickle of curious onlookers, fewer than 100 standing in the Knesset plaza at any one time, was surrounded by large television cameras and a handful of notepad-toting reporters. Tourists moved through the line in small groups, bored. Black sedans brought cabinet ministers for brief visits.
Television crews pounced on a few veteran soldiers who had served with Sharon, on a middle-aged Orthodox mother who’d named her son for him, on the bearded gentleman who hailed Arik for having “saved Israel’ in the Yom Kippur War.
An hour before dusk, a group of religious men stood at a corner of the plaza, faced east toward the Temple Mount and intoned the afternoon prayer.
It was too solemn, or perhaps too chilly, for the dramatic encounters or debates of the sort sometimes seen at funerals of controversial public figures. Some people lingered in the hopes of an opportunity to tell bystanders what they thought of the old general. Not all were there to praise him.
“He took people out of their homes for no reason at all,” said an elderly man in haredi garb, in a reference to Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But the crowd failed to respond, or even notice, and the man soon fell silent.
“This is not a historical moment,” insisted a young woman to a tourist standing next to her, saying that Sharon’s military record was too brutal to be deserving of state honors.
But even she spoke softly, and soon walked away.
Monday’s funeral will doubtless be more colorful and animated, but this was a shockingly muted parting from Jerusalem for one of the most gregarious, outspoken, brilliant and unabashedly epicurean figures in the colorful pantheon of Israel’s war leaders, especially when compared to the commemorations of other public figures.
In October, hundreds of thousands of Israelis attended the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Similarly impressive numbers – indeed, an entire movement of “children of the candles” – commemorated Sharon’s former colleague, the assassinated premier Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Yet the Knesset plaza was eerily tranquil on Sunday, as though the memory of Ariel Sharon, for good or ill, had already faded from the world.
Sharon’s death took a long time. Struck down at the height of his popularity in January 2006, he has been missing from public life for eight long years. He may have died on Saturday, but in most senses, Israelis had already lost him years before. As the state offers its formal recognition of the one-time leader, it seems neither his admirers nor his detractors can bring much visceral urgency to bear on his legacy after so protracted a departure.
Yet there is something else behind the muted memorialization. Sharon’s place in the national consciousness, the hard-nosed pragmatism that Israelis so cherished when it helped defeat the terrorists in the early part of the last decade, does not lend itself to commemoration.
Both Rabin’s and Yosef’s deaths brought out expressions of profound identification far broader than the individuals being remembered. Death often shapes and sharpens one’s sense of identity and the larger meaning of things. Upon his death, Yosef’s followers and admirers descended on his funeral in Jerusalem to articulate how the old rabbi had helped forge a proud “eastern” identity for many Jewish immigrants from the Muslim world, mistreated in the early years of the state. Similarly, Rabin’s death galvanized Israelis around the issue Rabin himself had made the defining political paradigm off his day, the quest for peace and normalized relations with Israel’s neighbors, an issue that often delineated social identities as much as political views.
Funerals have always served such a function. Millions lined the railway tracks from Washington to Illinois to see Abraham Lincoln’s casket pass by. Millions accompanied Mohandas Gandhi on his final journey, as a similar expression of deep identification with the deceased. Even the former president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis attracted upon his death in 1889 one of the largest funeral processions ever held in the United States. Throngs of hundreds of thousands were drawn to the old senator-turned-rebel leader not because of his (paltry) achievements, but because he symbolized a historical experience with which many Southerners still identified.
Sharon was divisive, to be sure. He was found partly responsible for the Christian Phalangist massacre of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila. He was one of the greatest builders of West Bank settlements in Israel’s history. The right had plenty to dislike as well. Sharon was the defense minister who dismantled the Jewish settlements of the Sinai, and the prime minister who withdrew them from Gaza.
And he was loved, according to polls and endless accounts. In 2006, Sharon was the country’s new “Old Man,” the unassailable national grandfather, the grizzled veteran who defeated the terror waves of 2000-2004 and gave a shaken nation the sense that a sure hand was at the helm of national affairs.
But he didn’t represent any defined movement or ideology. Indeed, he was loved because he stood for the end of clear-cut narratives and camps that many Israelis felt had failed to give them security and peace. He won two elections on the implicit promise that he would not try to represent anything.
Sharon may have earned the gratitude of a nation, but his memory is clouded by the very post-ideological age he helped define. Everybody can find something to hate in his record, and it is hard to articulate the things for which Israelis were so grateful eight years ago – the end of terror, the end of the failed ideologies of right and left, the return to normalcy and economic prosperity.
These are not small achievements, but nor are they memorable ones.
And so Sharon’s long-awaited passing is taking place with an uncharacteristic placidity. He didn’t die at the height of his power and popularity, but eight long, silent years later. And even in 2006, his popularity was not built on emotive, identity-forming political ideas, but on his very independence from them.
In his final public speech before leaving public service, Douglas MacArthur, one of America’s greatest and most controversial generals, recalled “one of the most popular barrack ballads” of his early days in the military, “which proclaimed most proudly that ‘old soldiers never die; they just fade away.’ And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.”
It would have been an exceedingly fitting epitaph for Ariel Sharon, Israel’s greatest field commander and one of its most controversial and beloved prime ministers, an old soldier who faded slowly away.