One night in the early 1930s, Vera Scheinerman, the mother of the future Ariel Sharon, grabbed a rifle and a pair of pliers and headed out into the dark. Vera, an immigrant to Palestine from newly Soviet Georgia, was angry at a plan approved by her neighbors in the moshav, or agricultural commune, of Kfar Malal that would force each family to give up a portion of its land in order to found a new village close by. With a gun in her hand, Vera cut the wires which designated the turf the Scheinermans were expected to surrender, thereby collapsing an entire two-mile-long fence and, with it, the plan. Sharon would later tell that story to his own children, a parable on the importance of borders, the merits of bold, if unauthorized, action, and, above all, the power of facts on the ground.
No one would deny that Mrs. Scheinerman taught her son well. Sharon—the Hebraicized name was given to him by David Ben-Gurion, like a Shakespearean king anointing one of his knights—came to embody the stubborn strain of Zionism in both its key aspects: its determined quest for land and its readiness to use brutal force. The result, as several new biographies make clear, was a life rich in the raw material from which myths are made. A warrior at the front line in five successive wars over five decades, Sharon was hailed as a hero at home and reviled as a butcher abroad. He altered the landscape, political and physical, of historic Palestine, leaving a legacy that will long survive him. And, as befits an epic tale, he left behind an enigma, what one of his biographers calls the “mystery of the Disengagement.”
After a career spent in pursuit of Greater Israel, building and expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian land, Sharon’s last great act was the withdrawal from Gaza and the tearing down of Jewish villages which he, more than any other single figure, had helped build. Had it not been for that move, Sharon’s story may well have been recalled as dramatic but essentially uncomplicated: the tale of a soldier of Israel who seized land and chased away enemies. Instead, he is fated to have his life viewed, in part, through the lens of August 2005. What might explain the disengagement? Was it a break from everything that had gone before, or were there clues salted throughout his career? And, most pressingly, what are the consequences of his actions that Israelis and Palestinians will have to live with now and in the future?
His name apart, Ariel Sharon seems to have emerged almost fully formed, inheriting his parents’ vigilance in the face of the Arab threat; sharing their impatience with their fellow Jews, who were regularly disdained for their incompetence and weakness; and revering the value of might. His father’s gift to him on his fifth birthday was…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.