Yael Dayan, Israeli Writer and Politician, Dies at 85

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Only a few children of prominent political figures, such as John Quincy Adams or Indira Gandhi, ever attain the same heights as their parents. Some, like Jenna Bush and Meghan McCain, distinguish themselves in other fields. Others garner attention for negative reasons, like Hunter Biden, currently on trial for federal gun law violations. Yael Dayan, who passed away on May 18 in Tel Aviv at 85, was not part of this latter group. Her literary and political achievements made her a significant figure in modern Israeli life, independent of her father, military hero Moshe Dayan, a renowned figure in Israeli history. Nonetheless, the influence of her famous parent was never entirely absent.

Born in the agricultural commune of Nahalal on February 12, 1939, Yael Dayan did not immediately enter politics despite her family’s legacy. Her father, Moshe Dayan, served as Israel’s defense minister during the 1967 Six-Day War and as chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces during the 1956 Sinai War. Her grandfather, Shmuel Dayan, was a founding member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and her uncle, Ezer Weizman, the seventh president of Israel, was the nephew of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann. 

Yael Dayan in Paris, France on November 28, 1985. (Jean-Jacques Bernier /Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Despite her early literary interests, Yael Dayan’s initial books reflected her elite upbringing. Her debut novel, New Face in the Mirror, published when she was just 20 years old in 1959, focused on a young woman’s experience in a military family. Her second book, Envy the Frightened, published a year later, explored similar themes. 

Her most notable work is My Father, His Daughter (1985), where she directly addressed her father. Moshe Dayan was a globally recognized figure following the Six-Day War, his eye-patched image becoming iconic. Like many public figures with legendary achievements, Moshe Dayan’s private life had its flaws. Yael Dayan candidly examined these aspects, providing a balanced view of her complex father.

Following Moshe Dayan’s death, Yael Dayan entered politics. She joined Israel’s Labor Party and later the One Israel Party, serving three Knesset terms from 1993 to 2003. During her national government tenure, she championed significant legislation, including laws definitively banning sexual harassment in Israel, a career highlight for her. A peace process supporter in the early 1990s, Yael Dayan was also socially liberal. She advocated for gay and lesbian rights and criticized the rabbinate’s control over marriage and personal status laws in Israel. After her Knesset terms, she remained active in local politics, serving on the Tel Aviv City Council for a decade, including a period as deputy mayor. 

The current times are challenging for Israel. Since October 7, 2023, the 76-year-old nation has faced its most significant existential threat since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, alongside unprecedented external political pressures. Even its staunchest ally, the United States, has shown wavering support. For many Israelis, the struggle against Hamas is akin to America’s fight against Nazism 80 years ago — a battle against pure evil where good must prevail. However, not everyone shares this view, as seen in the American university protests in May. With mounting casualties and ongoing debates about the war’s morality, Israel, and the global political community, now more than ever, need a strong, wise moral voice like Yael Dayan’s.

Daniel Ross Goodman
Daniel Ross Goodman
Contributor. Daniel Ross Goodman is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Divinity School. He holds a Ph.D. from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, studied English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and teaches Jewish thought and theology at St. John's University. He is the author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema and the novel A Single Life.

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