Commentary Magazine

My Father, His Daughter, by Yael Dayan

Dayan & His World

My Father, His Daughter.
by Yaël Dayan.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 289 pp. $17.95.

In 1967, during the Six-Day War, the Israeli government press office circulated a photograph of Moshe and Yaël Dayan that appeared in hundreds of newspapers in Europe and North America. The photograph captures father and daughter, both in army uniform, smiling as they walk across the newly conquered Sinai desert. It is an image of Moshe Dayan at his best: war hero, father, charismatic symbol of Israeli pride.

Seventeen years later that photo graces the title page of Yaël Dayan's My Father, His Daughter, the most intimate portrait of Dayan yet written. In the intervening years, Dayan has been the subject of several books, including his own autobiography, and innumerable magazine articles, not all of them flattering. Since his death in 1981, students of Israeli history and politics have conceded only that there is no consensus on what sort of man he was. To some, he is the brilliant war hero who led Israel to its greatest military triumph in 1967; to others, an egocentric general whose carelessness and shortsightedness left the country unprepared at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. Yet despite these conflicting images, no one denies that Dayan was an integral part of Israeli history: born on the first kibbutz, a leader in the War of Independence, chief of staff during the Sinai campaign, Minister of Defense during the wars of 1967 and 1973, and finally, as Foreign Minister, one of the architects of the Camp David accords.

The task before Yaël Dayan is somehow to reconcile her father's status as a historical figure with the sharply divergent assessments of his career. She is herself a recognized author, having published five novels in English. In this, her first foray into nonfiction, Miss Dayan portrays her own life and that of her father through a selection of memories from childhood, adolescence, and maturity, and, perhaps out of necessity, she provides a vivid description of Israeli life over the past forty years.

Yaël Dayan suggests, and she is not the first to do so, that Israel continues to live under a Dayan complex. Precisely what she means by this we are never sure. Dayan has often been praised, for example, for his role as the architect of “normalization” on the West Bank immediately following the Six-Day War of 1967. It is true that the decision to unite Jerusalem and maintain day-to-day life on the West Bank determined the character of Israeli policy toward the territories from then on. But when we try to explain how Dayan himself understood the Israeli presence in the West Bank we discover a maze of contradictions. He opposed any sort of a Palestinian Arab state, yet was equally opposed to annexation of the territories. He criticized the expropriation of land for the building of settlements, but was the foremost advocate of creating “facts” on the West Bank.

As Defense Minister, similarly, Dayan was at once a ruthless administrator and an accommodating diplomat, capable of destroying an Arab home in the morning before sitting down to tea with a local sheikh in the afternoon. While there are those who insist that Dayan had some vision of Israeli-Arab coexistence, even Yaël Dayan is hard put to describe it. It is this same undefined vision without a policy that the current generation of Israelis has inherited—and in that sense they are, truly, still living under a Dayan complex.


But Moshe Dayan's legacy extends far beyond both his military exploits and the specific policies he stood for. During most of his adult life, Dayan was perceived—both in Israel and abroad—as the personification of Israeli nationalism. Yet he was not in any sense an observant Jew, nor, to judge by his indifference to the issue of immigration from the Diaspora, was he a particularly ardent Zionist. He certainly did not share Ben-Gurion's intellectual understanding of a Jewish state; according to his daughter, the only books Dayan read seriously were the Bible and the poetry of his contemporary Nathan Alterman. Nonetheless, he possessed an almost romantic devotion to his country, expressed not so much in his extraordinary display of public-spiritedness as in his passionate attachment to the physical land of Israel.

On this aspect of Dayan's character, Yaël Dayan tells us more than any of his biographers. The book's most moving passages convey her father's love for the flowers, rocks, and riverbeds of his country. It was in the desert, she writes, that Dayan seemed most satisfied. She fondly recalls the times her father would keep her from school so she could accompany him in exploring the Negev desert during a night patrol—for Dayan, that was the authentic Israeli education. Even Dayan's legendary passion for archeology—a hobby that has become a national pastime in Israel—can be explained in these terms. Spending hours digging among ruins, Dayan felt he was creating a direct link between himself and the ancient biblical Israel, skipping over the generations of European Jewish life that lay in between.


Both in private and in public, Dayan was known to be intolerant of inferiors, blunt in speech, and instinctual in action. Even as his popularity soared he remained aloof, never aligning himself too closely with friends or political colleagues. Dayan, of course, used these traits to his advantage, taking the initiative in military decisions and, when the opportunity arose in 1977, crossing party lines to join Menachem Begin's cabinet. This was the pragmatic, self-confident Dayan. But, as his daughter reveals, the private Dayan did not always share such strength of character.

In the years following the 1956 Sinai campaign—a period almost untouched in his autobiography—Dayan separated from his wife and embarked on a series of widely publicized affairs with women his daughter describes as cheap and vulgar. Yet he was remarkably indifferent to gossip and remained unconcerned with his public image. At the same time he grew disenchanted with his new life as Minister of Agriculture, and later seemed to lose interest in politics altogether. As his children grew up, Dayan found himself alone, with little enthusiasm for anything. His daughter tells us that he became impatient, lost his sense of humor, and developed an obsession with money. The 1967 war and his appointment to the office of Minister of Defense revived his spirits. But the international fame that came with it, Yael Dayan observes, contributed to a previously unseen materialism and selfishness that culminated in his marriage to a fashionable woman who is spared none of Miss Dayan's contempt.

These and other stories of indiscretion, poor judgment, and an obsession with death convey Dayan's unease as a civilian. It seems he was at his best only in times of war; peacetime invariably left him restless, ill, or lonely. Even his success at Camp David was short-lived; he resigned from the government when the West Bank autonomy talks did not proceed as he had envisioned. In his last bout with public life, he headed an ill-conceived splinter party that had a disastrous showing in the 1981 elections, three months before his death from cancer.

In her final two chapters, Yaël Dayan lapses into unnecessary and unhappy detail about her father's will (in which he bequeathed almost his entire fortune to his second wife) and the scandals that resulted from it. But just as Dayan's weaknesses do not detract from his extraordinary contribution to Israeli life, neither do these chapters detract from what is perhaps the most complete picture of Dayan and the world he inhabited.

About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.

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