Both Arab and Jew lived in the original Palestine. Why, Ruth Dayan asks, can't they do so again?

The Long View: Our Middle East Correspondent interviews a feminist, patriot and widow who is nostalgic for a time of much greater harmony in the region

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“I was born here and I have a right to live here – the same thing goes for the Arab population”

On the wall of the flat is a photograph of a beautiful young woman with long, dark hair. She is sitting on a lawn with a handsome young man in British uniform. 

I am sitting opposite a lady aged 95, the sea glittering behind her Tel Aviv balcony, her memories of the old Palestine and the new Israel as sharp as a teenager’s. She is the woman in the photograph.

The man is Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli chief of staff who conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Golan in 1967, Israel’s golden boy, whose values – so his widow Ruth Dayan believes – have been distorted by the country’s present leadership.

After Zionism

Many times she has spoken out to tell the world – and Israelis – that the country’s right-wing governments are ruining Israel, that Zionism has “run its course”.

Now she sits in her tartan skirt, surveying her journalist visitor.

“I could look you up on the internet in two minutes,” she says. “I read that you are pro-Arab. You shouldn’t be. You should be pro-world. There shouldn’t be any discrimination between races. Discrimination has a lot to do with what’s happening. The Bible is a beautiful philosophical book. But it’s full of cruel wars…”

I tell Ruth that she shouldn’t believe all she reads on the internet, that a website recently denounced me as a Mossad agent because I had “revealed” in The Independent that my mother’s maiden name was Rose. She bursts into laughter. “When Israelis tell me there is “no one to talk to” [among the Palestinians], it gets on my nerves,” she says. “Most people who deal in politics, don’t see Arabs. I go to the terri- tories – but I have to have a [Israeli] permit to get into Ramallah.”

Her accent in English is poised, slightly upper crust and she obviously admires the country which ruled mandate Palestine until 1948. “I am an Anglophile,” she says proudly, a woman born in Ottoman Palestine in 1917, moving to London with her parents. She was “the only child in the whole of England who was a Jewish Palestinian”.

She has an acute memory, some corners of which I choose not to disturb. Moshe Dayan was a war hero, black patch over his eye and socialist ideals, but he was a notorious womaniser and he and Ruth divorced in 1971 after 36 years of marriage. So I ask about the early Dayan, the man in the photograph in British uniform. They were deeply in love, she says – she was 18 and he was 20 – and she had an eight-year-old daughter when he was arrested by the British, one of 34 Jewish militants, in 1939. But he was later released to serve in the 1941 invasion of Lebanon, where a French sniper took his eye out. Legend has it that he lost his eye in Damour. Ruth thinks it was further south, near Sidon.

Nostalgic

Ruth is nostalgic for the values that existed in the original Palestine, where Arab and Jew lived together. “My older son was born in an Arab house in 1942.”

Today, she doesn’t like the word “Zionism”. “The country was built by settling the land and working in malarial swamps up to our knees. Even the Mufti was with the Jews at the beginning.” When she returned to Palestine at the age of 12 in 1929, “I didn’t know I was Jewish – I didn’t know what Palestine was. My mother taught an Arabic kindergarten, just inside the old city of Jerusalem. We went to a playground on Mount Zion, provided by a Jew on condition it was for Arabs as well as Jews.

“I was taught Arabic at home… I was born here and I have a right to live here – the same thing goes for the Arab population. I’ve never been brought up in a religious home. My grandfather didn’t speak Yiddish, he came in 1903… Now when I see what’s happening around us, this frightens me more.”

Ruth Dayan is aristocratic. Her sister Reuma married Ezer Weizman, Israeli Defence Minister and later President; her three children have been a Knesset member, a writer and a famed actor. Feminist, patriot, pining for the “old” Israel,  she is a paragon of old age. And if I can be like Ruth Dayan, I intend to reach my nineties.

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