Israel lost a leading member of its founding generation and of its peace movement with the death of Mordechai Bar-On on March 7, 2021. “Morale,” as he was known died, aged 92, after a lifetime of achievement as an army officer, educator, historian, politician, author and peace activist.
Born in Tel Aviv during the British Mandate period, Bar-On joined the leftist Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, at age 10 and the pre-state Jewish defence force, the Hagana, at age 15. During Israel’s War of Independence, he served as a platoon- and later company commander and was wounded in battle.
In the early 1950s, while still in the army, he studied history and economics at the University of Jerusalem. After a year of command of Israel’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, he became the head of the IDF’s historical section.
During 1956-1957, he served as head of office to General Moshe Dayan. Later that decade, he attended Columbia University’s School of Foreign and Public Affairs, earning an MIA degree. From 1962-1968, Bar-On served as Chief Education Officer of the IDF. This role required him to develop and manage all manner of educational and cultural activities for soldiers and to articulate the IDF’s moral values. During this period he attained the full rank of colonel.
In 1968, after 21 years of service, he retired from the IDF and was elected to the executive of the World Zionist Congress. As head of the Jewish Agency’s Youth Department, he ran a network of educational emissaries to Diaspora youth. In the late 1970s, he resigned from the Jewish Agency to pursue doctoral studies at the Hebrew University. The historic visit of President Sadat to Israel prompted him to become involved in politics and peace building.
Key figure in Peace Now
Shortly after Peace Now was established in 1978, Bar-On became one of its central figures. He also became an executive member of the Institute for Peace in the Middle East. He joined in dialogue with Palestinians, including with those who identified with the PLO at a time when it was still illegal for Israeli citizens to do so. In 1984, he toured the U.S. to advance a two-state agenda, together with Mohammed Milhem, the then former mayor of the West Bank town of Halhoul. (Milhem had been deported by Israel to Lebanon in 1980 in the wake of a Palestinian terror attack on Jewish settlers.)
Later in 1984, Bar-On was elected to the Knesset, representing the progressive Ratz Party, the precursor to Meretz. After two years, he returned to academic life, researching and writing on historical subjects, including a history of Israel’s peace movement. He also served a four-year term as President of the New Israel Fund.
Canadian Friends of Peace Now remembers, with deep appreciation, Bar-On’s speaking tours to Canada under our auspices. He made an impact on audiences because of his wisdom, knowledge and integrity. As our partner organization, Americans for Peace Now, put it: “Morale Bar-On was often referred to as a moral compass of the peace movement….He was…a beloved elder of our ‘tribe’”
We believe the best way to honour his memory is to continue the peace work he so bravely and selflessly pursued.