Obituary

Former MK Yael Dayan, trailblazing feminist and peace activist, dies at 85

Labor lawmaker was among the most prominent voices in the country advocating for equal rights; also a celebrated writer, she was the daughter of iconic statesman Moshe Dayan

Amy Spiro

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Labor MK Yael Dayan delivers a speech to the Knesset plenum to mark International Women's Day on March 7, 2000. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Labor MK Yael Dayan delivers a speech to the Knesset plenum to mark International Women's Day on March 7, 2000. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Yael Dayan, a trailblazing member of Knesset and peace activist born into a storied Israeli family, died on Saturday at age 85.

A feminist activist, longtime Labor MK and celebrated writer, Dayan enjoyed a successful career as an author before transitioning to serve in both national and local politics.

As the daughter of celebrated statesman Moshe Dayan and niece of president Ezer Weizman, Dayan was never far from the national – and oftentimes international – spotlight.

She became among the most prominent voices in the country advocating for women’s rights – spearheading legislation outlawing sexual harassment – gay rights and reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. In 1992, she was the founding chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality.

Dayan suffered for many years from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which toward the end of her life kept her largely confined to her home and in need of supplementary oxygen and a wheelchair. But even in her later years, Dayan would at times attend protests and make her voice heard on issues she deemed important.

“In old age, there is also a reckoning for the future in any reckoning of the past, there are things I haven’t yet managed,” she said in a 2015 interview with Israel’s public broadcaster, at age 76. “But I can continue on this path, even with a wheelchair and with an oxygen tube in my nose, I can still wheel there and be present, and take a microphone and speak.”

Yael was born to Moshe and Ruth Dayan in 1939 in Nahalal, a small agricultural moshav in the British Mandate of Palestine. During her mandatory army service, she served in the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Unit and achieved the rank of captain — while her father was chief of staff.

Yael Dayan, left, daughter of IDF chief Moshe Dayan, walks with a friend at military training camp in Tel Aviv, May 28, 1957. (AP)

In 1959, at just age 20, Dayan published her first novel, “New Face in the Mirror,” in English, garnering worldwide acclaim for the story of a young female Israeli soldier born into a military family. The New York Times praised the book as having “an honesty and compulsive intensity” as well as exhibiting “amazing mastery of a foreign language.”

She followed it up just a year later with a second novel, “Envy the Frightened,” which also explores themes of military responsibility and paternal expectations. Dayan continued to write fiction and non-fiction in English and in Hebrew over the coming decades, including newspaper columns in Ma’ariv and Yediot Aharonot.

In 1967, while serving in the reserves during the Six Day War as a reporter on the Sinai front, she met Dov Sion, then an IDF colonel 18 years her senior, and married him just a few weeks later.

Unlike in her later years, Dayan embraced traditional family roles as a young mother of two, writing in 1977 in the New York Times that she was “a proud housewife” who believed that a woman’s place “is not in the front line” of combat. She did, however, rail against the rabbinical courts’ monopoly on issues of marriage and divorce as “anachronistic” and causing a “clash with primary rights of citizens wishing to build their lives as they please.”

Ruth Dayan (left), Yael Dayan (center) and Moshe Dayan at a ceremony in Haifa in 1963. (Moshe Pridan/GPO)

In 1971, her parents split after her father’s numerous infidelities. Moshe — also a former defense and foreign minister — died in 1981, and Yael’s 1985 book about his life, “My Father, His Daughter,” raised eyebrows in Israel and around the world for its frank depictions.

Yael did not shy away from discussing her father’s many extramarital affairs, nor excoriating his second wife, Rachel, who was the recipient of the vast majority of Moshe’s estate in his will, generating controversy and familial division. And while Yael praised him as a national hero, she was not blind to his flaws, writing that in his later years, “lack of responsibility made him irresponsible, and his impatience turned to arrogance.”

“I grew up in a very loving, sharing family,” she said in a 2015 interview on Israel’s public broadcaster. “The fact that my mother and father were [often] out of the home did not detract from that… they took us with them. As kids we were in army camps and Wadis and joined tours of senior officers.”

A few years after her father’s death, Dayan first dipped her toe into politics, running for Knesset with the Alignment party (Labor’s predecessor) in the 1984 election, but was ranked too low on the party’s list to win a seat; as she was again in 1988. In 1992, Dayan entered the Knesset after being placed 37th on the Labor list ahead of the national vote.

Labor MK Yael Dayan (center) speaks to MKs Ehud Barak (right) and Binyamin Ben Eliezer in the Knesset on July 26, 1998. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

She served three full terms in the Knesset before losing her seat in the 2003 national election. During her time in parliament, Dayan fought for legislation for the rights of women, including a landmark 1998 law that made sexual harassment illegal.

“It’s a law that was born out of a difficult reality – which is unfortunately still difficult,” said Dayan in a video interview with the Knesset Museum in 2022. “People didn’t know what sexual harassment was… there was very serious opposition.”

Looking back in 2015, Dayan said the battle she is most proud of is the fight to end violence against women: “It’s still a struggle, but things which were considered normative – which are not – I can attribute to my and my colleagues’ success [in saying] we have to completely change course.”

Throughout her tenure, Dayan pushed for an agenda that was often met with serious opposition from more conservative and religious lawmakers. In a 1993 speech to the Knesset plenum calling for greater rights for LGBTQ members of the IDF, Dayan suggested the biblical King David was gay, arousing fury from many MKs. She was also the first Knesset member to publicly attend a gay pride event in Israel and also established a subcommittee to address issues of discrimination against the community.

Former Labor MK Yael Dayan participates in a protest against the deportation of asylum seekers at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

During her time both in and out of the Knesset, Dayan was also a prominent peace activist, advocating for the establishment of a Palestinian state. In 1993 she met secretly with PLO chief Yasser Arafat in Tunis, enraging prime minister Yitzhak Rabin for leaving him in the dark.

In her 2014 memoir, Dayan wrote that during her lifetime, she witnessed Israel transform from “a beloved, admired, victorious and just homeland, via an unbearable regression, to the dangerous sphere of ethno-theocratic messianic existence, which is so far removed from a peace- and justice-seeking society.”

After leaving the Knesset in 2003, Dayan dove straight into municipal politics, running at the head of the local Meretz list for Tel Aviv city council. She served for 10 years on the council, including as deputy mayor under longtime Mayor Ron Huldai, before largely leaving political life in 2013.

Yael Dayan, the daughter of late military leader and politician Moshe Dayan, at her home in Tel Aviv on February 2, 2019. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

In addition to her famous father, her maternal aunt, Reuma Weizmann, was married to president Ezer Weizmann. Her paternal cousins include father-and-son songwriters Yehonatan and Aviv Geffen; former Likud MK and IDF general Uzi Dayan; journalist Ilana Dayan; Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan; and many other MKs throughout the years.

Dayan is predeceased by her husband, Dov Sion — who she cared for during his long battle with Parkinson’s — and survived by their two children, Rachel and Dan, and four grandchildren. Her younger brothers Assi Dayan and Udi Dayan died in 2014 and 2017, respectively, and her mother, Ruth, died in 2021 at age 103.

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