Moshe Dayan on the Strength that Yields and the Strength that Breaks

In the early part of the 1950s, a young Israeli named Roi Rotberg left Tel Aviv to help create Kibbutz Nahal Oz, a settlement adjacent to the border with the Gaza Strip. Taking charge of defense and working the land, Rotberg was regularly involved in chasing away Arabs who crossed the furrowed border to conduct petty theft or other sometimes more serious crimes.

Sixty years ago today, on April 29, 1956, Moshe Dayan, then the Israeli army’s senior commander, learned that Rotberg had just been murdered. Dayan, hero of the 1948 War of Independence, had come to Nahal Oz the day before as the community was preparing to celebrate four weddings. He and Rotberg had met and, by all accounts, got along well.

Dayan’s own memoir describes the murder:

While the kibbutz members were putting the finishing touches to their preparations and receiving their guest, Ro’i rode away on his horse to drive off a group of Arabs who had crossed the border [and] were pasturing their flocks in the kibbutz fields and cutting their crops. When Ro’i reached them, he was shot dead, and his body was dragged across the border. His corpse, mutilated, was later handed over the U.N. soldiers, who delivered it to us for burial.

When Dayan heard about the crime, he returned to his room, where he wrote an eulogy. The eulogy is considered by many to be one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. It is Israel’s equivalent to the Gettysburg Address. It is said to have taken Dayan half an hour to write it.

From the very inception of the Jewish State, a sense that national existence is at stake has rightly suffused the Israeli mind. More than simply a war for self-determination, the War of Independence was, for the outnumbered and ill-equipped Jewish fighters, a battle for survival. “All knew,” Dayan said, “that there could no retreat and no surrender.” Common threats breed common cause, and thus unity was found in the recognition that there were no alternatives to war. To the question of whether it was in Israel’s power to stand up to the Arab assault, the common retort was, “Is it in our power not to?” Dayan and his contemporaries understood that any prospect of survival would only be found in facing up to their enemies, rather than standing down.

This recognition would be perpetually renewed. Years on, reminiscing about the Yom Kippur War, former Prime Minister Golda Meir re-inhabited the mood of the time, “We know that giving up means death, means destruction of our sovereignty and physical destruction of our entire people,” he said. “Against that we will fight with everything that we have within us.”

In this commitment, Meir and Dayan call to mind the imperative proclaimed years earlier by David Ben-Gurion. “God left one commandment out of the Bible,” Ben-Gurion mused. “Perhaps the Almighty delivered this commandment to Moses, but Moses forgot to bring it down from the mountain. That commandment is No. 11: ‘Be strong.’”

In just this way, Dayan’s eulogy has as its central image the story of Samson from the book of Judges. Samson, gifted by God with miraculous strength, learns that Philistines in Gaza are lying in wait to ambush him at the locked gates of the city. Unperturbed, Samson avoids the assault by simply breaking down the Gazan gates and carrying them away on his shoulders. Later, blinded by trust in his unfaithful Philistine wife, Samson is betrayed into the hands of his enemies. Delivered in the very vicinity of these historic events, Dayan’s address drew striking parallels:

Yesterday with daybreak, Roi was murdered. The quiet of a spring morning blinded him, and he did not see the stalkers of his soul on the furrow. Let us not hurl blame at the murderers. Why should we complain of their hatred for us? Eight years have they sat in the refugee camps of Gaza and seen with their own eyes how we have made a homeland of the soil and the villages where they and their forebears once dwelt.

Not from the Arabs of Gaza must we demand the blood of Roi, but from ourselves. How our eyes are closed to the reality of our fate, unwilling to see the destiny of our generation in its full cruelty. Have we forgotten that this small band of youths, settled in Nahal Oz, carries on its shoulders the heavy gates of Gaza, beyond which hundreds of thousands of eyes and arms huddle together and pray for the onset of our weakness so that they may tear us to pieces — has this been forgotten? For we know that if the hope of our destruction is to perish, we must be, morning and evening, armed and ready.

A generation of settlement are we, and without the steel helmet and the maw of the cannon we shall not plant a tree, nor build a house. Our children shall not have lives to live if we do not dig shelters; and without the barbed wire fence and the machine gun, we shall not pave a path nor drill for water. The millions of Jews, annihilated without a land, peer out at us from the ashes of Israeli history and command us to settle and rebuild a land for our people. But beyond the furrow that marks the border, lies a surging sea of hatred and vengeance, yearning for the day that the tranquility blunts our alertness, for the day that we heed the ambassadors of conspiring hypocrisy, who call for us to lay down our arms.

It is to us that the blood of Roi calls from his shredded body. Although we have vowed a thousand vows that our blood will never again be shed in vain — yesterday we were once again seduced, brought to listen, to believe. Our reckoning with ourselves, we shall make today. We mustn’t flinch from the hatred that accompanies and fills the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, who live around us and are waiting for the moment when their hands may claim our blood. We mustn’t avert our eyes, lest our hands be weakened. That is the decree of our generation. That is the choice of our lives — to be willing and armed, strong and unyielding, lest the sword be knocked from our fists, and our lives severed.

Roi Rotberg, the thin blond lad who left Tel Aviv in order to build his home alongside the gates of Gaza, to serve as our wall. Roi — the light in his heart blinded his eyes and he saw not the flash of the blade. The longing for peace deafened his ears and he heard not the sound of the coiled murderers. The gates of Gaza were too heavy for his shoulders, and they crushed him.

I want to touch on two points. First, and surprisingly perhaps, Dayan does not call for vengeance. This is partly because he recognizes cause for Jewish hatred by the Arabs. Dayan, the paradigmatic Jewish warrior, one whose name is counted with Joshua and Gideon, was a man who warred for the sake of peace. Dayan’s childhood was spent among Arab neighbors. Bedouin children were his early playmates. He boasted of his deep respect and affection for his Arab friends. “We took our lunch together among the furrows,” he said. “I danced at their weddings and they danced at mine.” At the same time, those very Bedouin playmates, in moments of strife between Jews and Arabs, sometimes became his enemies and vicious fights broke out. Dayan always sought reconciliation.

Indeed, Dayan’s brother was killed by Syrian Druzes during the War of Independence. Nevertheless Dayan called the men who had killed him to a parley, and put to them the case that they would be better off being a part of Israel than of Syria. Dayan recalled that for those Druze tribal warriors, blood-for-blood was the eternal law and “they could not believe that one whose brother had been shot down only days earlier could extend the hand of amity to those who had taken that brave man’s life.” But extend the hand Dayan did, and “those men became my friends.” If I’m right, this is what enemy-love looks like.

At the same time, point two, to acknowledge the reality of enemy-love is to acknowledge the reality of an enemy. Because the Arabs hate the Jews, Dayan insisted the Jews cannot ignore the hatred. We can clamor for peace all we want, he said, but our adversaries’ intentions will have much to say regarding whether our longing is requited. When those intentions are manifest in the murder and mutilation of Israelis, it is clear that Jewish ears must be stopped up against those who call for Jewish peace. Aspirations for an end to conflict can be enervating and lull us away from our senses. Dayan’s eulogy jolts us from our somnambulism and puts us instead on a footing for war. Hardheaded realism must always trump softhearted sentiment.

For Dayan, Jewish strength was found first in a willingness to yield, when yielding serves the long-term good of all. “We must be strong enough to see the other fellow’s side,” he urged, “to act with clemency, to extend the hand of friendship.” At the same time, our enemy’s implacability means our open hand must sometimes be closed to a fist. And then strength, in the last resort, takes the form of Samson, and we break apart the strongholds of our adversaries.

Sixty years ago today, Dayan reminded us that strength is a two-edged gift. It is as true today as it was 60 years ago.

The text of Dayan’s eulogy is taken from the translation by Mitch Ginsburg found at The Times of Israel, April 28, 2016.

This article originally appeared on the Philos Project, April 29, 2016 and is reposted with permission.