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Ruth Dayan, storied social activist and 1st wife of Moshe Dayan, dead at 103

Dayan was the founder of iconic fashion brand Maskit, employing immigrants to create unique clothing, and led numerous social and coexistence causes over decades

File: General Moshe Dayan, chief of staff of the Israeli Army, is pictured with his wife, Ruth in London, Jan. 13, 1958 (AP Photo)
File: General Moshe Dayan, chief of staff of the Israeli Army, is pictured with his wife, Ruth in London, Jan. 13, 1958 (AP Photo)

Ruth Dayan, a social activist and peace proponent and the first wife of famed Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan, died Thursday night at the age of 103.

Dayan was the mother of late Israeli actor and director Assi Dayan, late sculptor Udi Dayan and publicist and author Yael Dayan.

She was born in 1917 in Haifa and spent many years in the agricultural community of Nahalal, where she met her future husband Moshe Dayan. The two were wed in 1935. The couple was married for 37 years, divorcing in 1972.

She was a peace and coexistence activist for decades and led numerous projects to benefit minorities, including immigrants and Arabs. She also helped found Variety Israel, an organization helping special needs children, in the 1960s.

But she was perhaps best known for founding Maskit, a fashion house once celebrated for its intricate ethnic embroidery.

Ruth Dayan, founder Maskit fashion (Moshe Shai/Flash 90)

In the late 1950s, Israel’s fledgling government asked Dayan to come up with work opportunities for new immigrants to Israel who came from Yemen and Morocco and other eastern lands. The initial idea was to train them in farming. But when Dayan visited the immigrants’ homes she found that many were skilled in embroidery and weaving, and she started thinking in different directions.

With the government’s backing and the eventual help of Hungarian-born designer Fini Leitersdorf, she took modern styles of the times and embellished them with ethnic embroidery made by immigrants, as well as Bedouin, Druze, Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian women.

Maskit became one of the country’s first popular exports, known for its unique desert cloak and Bedouin-styled tunics, as well as the rich, heavy embroidery.

In her later years she served as a board member for rights group B’Tselem, and in 2014 was awarded the President’s Medal by the late Shimon Peres.

Ruth Dayan attends a memorial ceremony for son Assi Dayan at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv a year after his death, May 5, 2015 (Tomer Neuberg/ FLASH90)

President Reuven Rivlin eulogized Dayan Friday as “a woman who became an Israeli legend in her own lifetime.”

“Her life story is the essence of the realization of the Israeli and Zionist dream. A woman of excellence and a role model for generations of entrepreneurs. A woman who knew good taste and exquisitely expressed it in pattern and cloth, whose craftwork was connected to this special time and place that we all love dearly.”

Dayan will be laid to rest on Sunday in Nahalal.

Jessica Steinberg contributed to this report.

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