It was 1979, and Ted Mann and his late wife, Ronnie, were anxious to fly back from Israel to the United States. The only problem was that Ariel Sharon wanted them to stay.
Sharon, then Israel’s agriculture minister, was hoping to turn Mann, then chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, from an opponent of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza to a supporter.
“He never took no for an answer,” recalled Mann, an octogenarian who now lives near the art museum.
“He flew us around in his helicopter to the various settlements he wanted us to see and tried to convince both of us that these settlements were wonderful things,” said Mann, who spent two years as chairman of the powerful umbrella organization of national Jewish groups.
Mann’s view of the settlements wasn’t changed: He always believed they were an impediment to peace with the Palestinians, and he still does. But his view of Sharon was dramatically altered 25 years later when Sharon, as prime minister, orchestrated a unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the dismantling of its Jewish settlements.
Such a move was a far cry from the cooperation envisioned under the Oslo Accords reached between Israel and the Palestinians. But still, it meant that one of the settlement movement’s biggest allies was ordering a territorial withdrawal.
Mann is one of many local Israel advocates who has been reflecting in recent days on the life of one of the last members of Israel’s founding generation to leave the world stage. Sharon died on Jan. 11, after eight years in a coma.
Politicians and Jewish organizations issued statements of condolences and praise for Sharon’s devotion to Israel. Many echoed the statement by U.S. Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), who hailed Sharon for his life of military service, “culminating in his strong leadership as prime minister.”
“His unwavering commitment to ensuring Israel’s security and bold vision for its future made him one of the country’s great leaders,” Casey said.
The local Israeli Consulate this week offered the opportunity for community members to sign a book of condolences at its offices in Center City.
Sharon’s military and political career spanned the entire history of modern-day Israel, beginning with his service in Israel’s War of Independence and ending shortly after Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza, when he went into a coma after suffering a stroke.
Though initially a member of founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s leftist Mapai Party, he came to be identified with the political right and helped create the Likud Party in the early 1970s. When, decades later, he pushed for disengagement, he infuriated many of his former supporters while winning some grudging admiration from those on the left.
“If you really believe as I do that the answer is two states, then you’ve got to really despise him for his early years and appreciate him in his last years,” said Mann. “The way the man completely changed in the early 21th century, that came as a very welcome shock to me.”
Another local resident who has played a big role on the national stage has a completely different view. As the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein vociferously opposed Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal policy.
“It is a tragedy that forcing Jews out of Gaza will taint his legacy,” said Klein, a Lower Merion resident.
But Klein said he never lost admiration for the man he had met a number of times in Israel and in the United States, both when Sharon was at the height of his power and when he was considered politicaly washed up.
“I wish I were an observant Jew,” Klein recalled Sharon saying to him at a dinner for a Jewish organization in New York in the late 1990s. “I would have liked to have lived that way.”
Klein, 65, has met a number of Israeli leaders, but he said none had the same level of knowledge about the Bible and Jewish history as Sharon — a man thought of more for his military prowess than his scholarship.
“Sharon knew every nook and cranny of Israel and Judea and Samaria. He knew the land like the back of his hand; he understood the territory so well,” he said.
Those who encountered him personally described a very different Sharon at different points of his life, at times backslapping and jovial, at others iron-willed and ruthless.
Steven Friedman, a 67-year-old Center City lawyer and Republican activist who attended Cheltenham High School with Yoni and Benjamin Netanyahu, said Sharon was one of the most charismatic figures he’d ever met.
“It was like meeting John Wayne,” said Friedman, who was a close friend of one of Sharon’s aides and, as a result, met him several times.
Friedman and his friend had dinner with Sharon shortly after he was forced out as defense minister following the invasion of Lebanon and the determination that Sharon bore indirect responsibility for massacres by Lebanese forces at two Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut. Friedman also traveled to Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel during that time.
“He was going through the pain of recovery after that,” said Friedman. “I can only say that he was in a class of his own. His charisma, his charm, was really extraordinary.”
When Edward Rosen was serving as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, he was among a group of federation leaders from around the United States who traveled with Sharon, then the defense minister, into Lebanon in 1983 during the Lebanon War. About five miles over the border, Rosen recalled, they visited a tunnel filled with thousands of artillery shells that the Israel Defense Forces had captured from the Arab fighters.
“He wanted us to see what Israel was facing,” Rosen said of Sharon.
Years later, when Rosen again traveled to Israel with federation leaders, Sharon, then prime minister, met with the group for breakfast at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
“I think it’s safe to say that the members of various delegations were impressed with Sharon, his ability to communicate and his desire to show that he wanted peace — but peace with security for Israel,” said Rosen, who is 86.
David Gitlin, a 57-year-old lawyer who lives in Villanova, had a very different first encounter with Sharon in the 1970s. Gitlin grew up in Mexico, where his grandfather was a leader in the Latin American wing of Menachem Begin’s Herut Party. Begin, who was an opposition leader in those years, was a regular visitor to their home.
When the family moved to Israel while Gitlin was in high school, he met Sharon at a Herut Party event in which Sharon was still in uniform. At the time he was beginning to plan an entry into politics. To this day, Gitlin said he can’t believe the chutzpah Sharon displayed while still a political neophyte when he urged the Herut and Liberal Parties to merge and become the Likud Party. They ultimately did.
“I thought he was very charming,” said Gitlin. “He made it known what he wanted. He was a bulldozer-type person. He was larger than life.”
“I always admired him,” he continued. “First of all, his army service is unparalleled. He single-handedly turned the Yom Kippur War around on the southern front. As a politician, he was quite a visionary. He was not dogmatic.”
Manny Hova, a 66-year-old Israeli-born resident of Center City, was in the armed forces under Sharon’s command during the 1967 Six-Day War. At the start of the war, after learning who was in charge of their division, Hova said he and his fellow soldiers “immediately felt comfortable because he’s one of the best fighters Israel has had the last 60-70 years.”
Outside the Jewish community, Israel supporters have their own recollections of Sharon. The Rev. Luis Cortés, a Philadelphia-based pastor who had met with Sharon several times during his premiership, said the late leader was a man who always thought about the long-term survival of Israel.
Cortés, who heads Esperanza, a faith-based nonprofit that serves the Hispanic community locally and nationally, was invited to Israel by Sharon to discuss ways to deepen ties between Hispanics and the state of Israel. Sharon placed the highest value on Israel’s relationship to America and knew he had to reach beyond the Jewish community to ensure continued support.
“He said to me, ‘Reverend, for the future of Israel, my grandchildren need to know your grandchildren,’ ” Cortés recalled.
When Sharon suffered a stroke in 2006, Cortés said that fellow evangelical leader Pat Robertson publicly suggested that Sharon had suffered God’s wrath for his decision to uproot Israelis from Gaza.
Cortés said his organization put out a statement defending Israel’s right to makes its own decisions on security needs. He said that in a private call, Robertson offered something of an apology for his remarks. Robertson later wrote a letter of apology to Sharon’s son Omri.
Staff writer Eric Berger contributed to this report.