Digging into the careers of Yigael Yadin

March 06, 1994|By Myron Beckenstein

Teddy Kollek, the recently retired mayor of Jerusalem, once summed up Yigael Yadin's life in a single sentence: "He was a good soldier, and excellent archaeologist, but a lousy politician."

Summing up the same life took Neil Asher Silberman almost 400 pages and, while he adds considerably more detail, the conclusion is pretty much the same.

Few outside Israel probably remember Yadin, though he has been dead only 10 years. But for most of Israel's brief history, he was a conspicuous and guiding figure.

As a soldier, Yadin was a key player in Isael's 1948 war of independence. As an archaeologist, he was associated with two of the most famous finds of modern Israel -- the Dead Sea Scrolls and Masada. As a reluctant, late-in-life politician, he saw his hopes for political reform drained away as he became a tool of the Begin regime.

Born Yigael Sukenik in Jerusalem in 1917, he was the son of a struggling archaeologist who finally would gain fame in his field just as Yadin was making his mark in a totally different area, the military. For it was Eleazar Sukenik who first realized the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and arranged for their acquisition.

Fate had him scurrying around to do this exactly as Israel's war of independence broke out. At the time, his son was an influential member of high rank in Israel's military order, having abandoned his own archaeological studies when tensions exploded in Palestine in the late 1930s.

The details-forgetting world sees Israel's triumph in that war as a thrilling David-vs.-Goliath contest. As Mr. Silberman tells the story, the disputes and bickering within the Israeli leadership were so great that David almost shot himself in the head, time and again.

After the war, Yadin (Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had many of his principal officers change their names to Hebrew ones; most, like Yadin, chose their Haganah code names) stayed in the military, becoming chief of staff and helping to form the Israeli Defense Forces. He commanded both Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan.

But he had continued disputes with the strong-willed Ben-Gurion. Not liking the path that seemed open to him, he switched careers at age 35 and went back to archaeology.

Yadin had rough edges himself that grated many associates the wrong way. But as an archaeologist he was popular with the public and was a major factor in informing Israel of its past and tying that past to its present.

Amid his excavating at Masada, the site of a fabled Jewish resistance to Roman rule, he once observed: "When Napoleon stood among his troops next to the pyramids of Egypt, he declared that 'four thousand years of history look down upon you.' But what would he not have given to be able to say to his men: four thousand years of your own history look down upon you."

A talented speaker, Yadin enthralled audiences for years and popularized Israeli archaeological discoveries both in his country and the world. He also brought his family back into the Dead Sea Scrolls picture with his studies, making use of his military knowledge to interpret their meaning.

Ever since he had worked with Ben-Gurion, efforts had been made to get him involved in politics. But he always resisted. The closest he came was joining a commission investigating the political and military failures that led to Israel being caught unaware by the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

But in 1976, just after the death of his wife of 34 years, Yadin helped form a new political movement dedicated to reforming the factional, back-room, inconclusive nature of Israeli politics.

The results were the exact opposite of everything Yadin had hoped for. In the 1977 elections, his party inadvertently helped drain enough support from the long-ruling Labor Party that Menachem Begin and his right-wing Likud took over. Yadin soon allowed himself to be drawn into the Begin government. Instead of being able to temper from the inside, he ended up surrendering his principles to the self-serving call for government loyalty.

After he left the government, he was harsh on himself for his naivete. Mr. Silberman is harsh on him, too.

Adding interest to Yadin's life is how his story is entwined with that of Israel's, and when a major episode is omitted because Yadin somehow played no part in it, such as the 1956 Suez War, the omission is glaring.

Mr. Silberman is a writer and archaeologist who studied under Yadin, and maybe it is the archaeological connection that makes that part of the book move much faster than the soldier part.

He has a tendency to overwrite in spots, a leaning toward hyperbole and stay-tuned chapter endings. But the book is a balanced account of an interesting man who lived in interesting times and did interesting things. One can't ask for much more of a subject.

Mr. Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

Title: "A Prophet From Amongst You"

Author: Neil Asher Silberman

Publisher: Addison-Wesley

Length, price: 423 pages, $29.95

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