Moshe Dayan Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A native-born Israeli, Dayan helped Israel win its independence and homeland in 1948-1949 and, as chief of staff, helped build the Israeli Defense Forces into one of the most aggressive military forces in the world. He served as defense minister and as foreign minister and was a member of the Knesset.

Early Life

Moshe Dayan was born of Russian immigrant parents on May 20, 1915, the first child born on the first kibbutz in Palestine, Deganya A, where the Jordan River flows from the Sea of Galilee. Moshe Dayan, then, was a Sabra, a native-born Israeli who grew up speaking both Hebrew and Arabic and was intimately acquainted with both cultures and the hardship of life in Palestine in the early twentieth century.

Palestine was still under Ottoman Turkish rule until the end of World War I, when it became a League of Nations Mandate under the authority of the British government. In 1929, at the age of fourteen, Dayan joined the Haganah, the secret underground defense force of the Israeli settlers. One of Dayan’s first duties was to help patrol the fields on horseback to guard against marauding Arab bands and to drive out Arab goats from the crops.

When Dayan was eighteen, in 1933, he studied math, Hebrew, and literature in Tel Aviv. The next year, he took a walking tour of Palestine to Bet She’an, along the Jordan Valley to Jericho, and south to Beersheba. On July 12, 1935, Moshe Dayan and Ruth Schwartz, a student from Jerusalem, were married. From 1936 to 1939 the “Arab revolt” brought much violence to Palestine, and Dayan served as part of the British-sponsored Jewish Settlement Police Force. He was a guide in the area between Tiberias and Mount Tabor. At the same time, Dayan was a platoon commander in the Haganah and set ambushes at night on roads leading from Arab to Jewish settlements.

Life’s Work

Moshe Dayan thought of himself as a farmer with an avid interest in archaeology and Jewish history, but by the late 1930’s it was obvious to him that his life must be devoted to establishing the State of Israel. That meant a military and, later, a political career for him. In May, 1939, the British government drastically limited Jewish immigration to Palestine and restricted Jewish purchase of land in many areas of Israel. Membership in the Haganah was illegal, and Dayan and forty-two others were arrested for possession of firearms and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment by the British. They served one and a half years and were released in February, 1941, to serve as Jewish volunteers with British forces. Dayan was attached to an Australian unit invading Syria in June, 1941. In a fierce exchange of fire at a French police outpost, Dayan was hit in the left eye and endured twelve hours of pain, with glass and metal fragments in his head, until he finally arrived at a Haifa hospital. The black patch he wore over his left eye was his trademark for the rest of his life.

When World War II ended and the British realized they could not work out a solution for Arabs and Jews in Palestine, they announced their intention of withdrawing from Palestine. The United Nations sought a solution acceptable to both Arabs and Jews and proposed a partition plan that would have created an Arab state of forty-five hundred square miles and a Jewish state of fifty-five hundred square miles. The Arabs refused to accept the plan. In many parts of the Arab world, violent attacks killed Jews and destroyed many of their homes and synagogues. Seven thousand non-Palestinian Arabs infiltrated Palestine to join Palestinians in attacks against Jews. The Jews responded by joining Haganah or other resistance groups. Dayan’s twenty-two-year-old brother, Zorik, was killed in a battle with the Druze. Nevertheless, Dayan met with Druze leaders and persuaded them not to participate in the coming Israeli-Arab war.

On May 14, 1948, the British completed their withdrawal from Palestine, and David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the existence of the State of Israel. Diplomatic recognition was extended to the new nation by the United States, the Soviet Union, and many Latin American and European nations. Israel was accepted for membership into the United Nations by a 37-12 vote. Immediately the neighboring Arab nations launched the invasion they had planned: ten thousand Egyptians, forty-five hundred Jordanians, seven thousand Syrians, eight thousand Iraquis, and three thousand Lebanese invaded Palestine.

The Syrian sector was northern Israel including Deganiah, under the defensive command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dayan. The Syrians had two hundred armored vehicles, including forty-five tanks. Dayan had only three antitank bazookas and, later, four sixty-five-millimeter guns. After nine hours of bloody fighting between inexperienced, clumsy forces, the Syrians retreated. From there Dayan was ordered to a most unpleasant task, that of armed combat against fellow Israelis to secure weapons brought in on the Altalena by the Irgun, a Jewish underground movement which refused to accept the authority of the new Israeli government. Several Israelis were killed on both sides before Dayan was able to negotiate a settlement.

Dayan was a key commander in the Israeli victories at Lod, Ramla, and Faluja. On July 23, 1948, he was appointed commander of Jerusalem. A cease-fire had been fixed between Jordanian and Israeli positions. As a result, Dayan really had more of a political role, negotiating local arrangements with Arab Jerusalem and national agreements with King Abdullah of Transjordan. The armistice agreements left Israel with eight thousand square miles of Palestine, 21 percent more land than allotted under the United Nations Partition Plan, which the Arabs had refused to accept. Jordan occupied the West Bank and most of Jerusalem. About 70 percent of Palestinian Arabs fled Israel during the war (720,000): 300,000 into the West Bank and Jordan, 180,000 into the Gaza Strip, and 170,000 to Lebanon and Syria. In the next decade, half a million Jews were forced to leave their Muslim homelands in various...

(The entire section is 2499 words.)