Jews in Israel laid to rest a man revered in the local community as one of the nation’s great leaders.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon died Saturday due to complications after a stroke that left him incapacitated eight years ago. He was 85 at the time of his death.
Sharon was buried outside his family’s ranch in south Jerusalem next to his late wife, Lily.
Rabbi Larry Kaplan of Temple Israel in Wilkes-Barre said local impact was diminished by the fact too many years have passed since Sharon — nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his aggressive military tactics and bold political decisions — fell into a coma after the massive stroke.
“Our memories are what happens in the news today,” Kaplan said.
Dignitaries from around the world attended the funeral Monday, including Vice President Joseph Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
As a young man, Sharon joined the Zionist military group, Haganah, which opposed British occupation in Israel. He rose through the ranks of the military, moving into politics and overcoming scandal and controversy to become prime minister, a position he filled at the time of his stroke.
Gaza Strip withdrawal
He spent most of his life battling Arab enemies and promoting Jewish settlement on war-won lands. But in a surprising about-face, he led a historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all soldiers and settlers from the territory after a 38-year presence to ensure Israel’s security.
Despite Sharon’s drawing 10,000 Jewish families out of Gaza Strip, Palestinians in the territory — which is a little more than a smudge of real estate bordered by Israel and the Mediterranean Sea — continued their attacks on Israelis.
“It’s ironic that, as (Sharon) laid in a coma over the next few years, rockets continued to fly from Gaza,” Kaplan said.
Rabbi Roger Lerner, of Temple B’nai and B’rith in Kingston, said what Sharon did was unprecedented, but a commendable move in the fight for peace.
“That’s a good thing to stand up for, that he was willing to make a sacrifice for peace,” Lerner said. “What Sharon saw was that it was not in Israel’s best interests to be in a place where they did not intend to stay. I don’t necessarily agree with his tactics, but that’s why I’m not in politics. I’m a rabbi, I deal with peoples’ souls.”
While Sharon might be remembered for his strong-armed tactics, Kaplan said he was unique and promoted innovation among his people.
“He was a devoted and dedicated leader ultimately who was interested in peace for Israel and the entire Middle East,” Kaplan said. “Ariel Sharon had an interesting and complicated career. What ends up happening is people remember the worst and don’t necessarily remember the best.”
Sharon pushed for technology development, some of which still sees use today, like the small camera medical patients can swallow to produce gastrointestinal video; that technology was developed in Israel with Sharon’s strong support, Kaplan said.
In addition to Biden and Blair, the prime minister of the Czech Republic and foreign ministers of Australia and Germany were among those in attendance at Monday’s ceremony.
After the ceremony ended, the closed coffin, draped in a blue and white Israeli flag, was placed in a military vehicle and driven in a police-escorted convoy toward Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel.
Crowds stood along the roadside and on bridges, snapping pictures and getting a final glimpse of the coffin as the procession of vehicles left Jerusalem and snaked down the highway outside the city.
Lerner, too, said he has not seen great mourning at the loss of the former leader from his Kingston temple community. The greatest impact was felt when Sharon first fell ill eight years ago.
“The fact that he was in a coma was tragic.” Lerner said. “That’s a long time to remain unconscious. … His suffering is done.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.