Although he has, in most respects, been gone from the scene for the better part of a decade, Ariel Sharon’s death this month has nonetheless hit Israel hard. His military career was among the most exemplary in a nation that has seen far more than its share of great warriors. And by the end of his political career (if not at every point throughout it), Sharon was widely respected and admired. The sudden end of his premiership in 2006 left many in Israel with a sense of missed opportunity and unexplored possibility. But perhaps more deeply than that, his death signals the passing from the political scene of Israel’s founding generation. Sharon was the last prime minister who participated personally in the nation’s founding, and there will not be another. Israel has clung to its founders as long as it could.
In the 1990s, Israelis tried out two leaders from the younger generation—Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak—but reached back for Sharon in an hour of crisis, as the second intifada raged. It is not hard to see why. In the decades after their nation’s founding, Israelis had grown accustomed to larger-than-life leaders, world-historical figures who had played important roles in the realization of what, if not for that amazing generation, could easily have remained an impossible dream.
Although Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, was a member of that generation, the presidency is a ceremonial role, and Israeli politics no longer lives in the shadow of that nation’s founding generation. This has been increasingly clear for a decade and more, of course, but Sharon’s passing makes it an unavoidable fact. It has not been an easy fact for Israelis to get used to, in a variety of ways—some more obvious than others.
Being governed by plain old politicians, rather than men and women of historical stature who fought impossible odds to bring a new nation into being, has been a painful letdown for a society rightly accustomed to living in awe of its own existence. But more than that, Israelis have had a hard time letting go of the founding intensity that has characterized their politics; they have had a hard time getting used to the fact that their country is no longer in the process of being born, but is, for all the never-ending threats to its security, an established presence on the world stage.
The result is a nation peculiarly unwilling to acknowledge its achievements or to contend with the deep problems that remain unaddressed at the core of its civic and national life. Israel’s national anthem is a melancholy song of hope that there might someday be an Israel. Its political and (especially) legal system exists in a constant state of emergency, insistently unwilling to recognize in itself sources of precedents and traditions that might stabilize things. Many of the most promising members of the up-and-coming generation of Israeli professionals and intellectuals—people born into a nation in its third or fourth decade, whose connection to the founding was their grandparents—still live with a yearning for the profound source of meaning that a Zionism that had yet to achieve its principal goal offered prior generations. They have trouble finding such meaning in the mundane tasks of self-government and perpetuation.
This is a problem that Americans once experienced too. Ours also is, to a degree unequaled in the modern era almost anywhere except in Israel, a founded nation. And the first three generations of Americans lived in every sense under the shadow of the founding generation.
Every president in the 48-year stretch from George Washington through Andrew Jackson claimed some connection to the revolution (with Jackson making endless hay of having been captured by British troops as a young boy and cut in the face for refusing to be of use to them), just as every one of Israel’s prime ministers in its first 48 years (until Netanyahu’s election in 1996) had been involved in its founding. And when those with direct memory of or involvement in the revolution passed from the scene, the United States was left not only with decidedly lesser leaders in charge but with a palpable unease about what should come next.