Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Prophet of Wrath, Harbinger of the Future

Because of his provocativeness, it's easy to miss Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s profound moral seriousness and the great relevance of his thought today.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Rinat Klein and Uri Rosenwaks’ three-part documentary series “Leibowitz: Faith Country and Man” could not have come at a more important time. Fewer and fewer people know who Yeshayahu Leibowitz was, or know only that he coined the term “Judeo-Nazis." Fortunately, a number of screenings of the documentary have sold out; hopefully this indicates a renewed discussion of Leibowitz’s thought and ideas.

I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with Leibowitz privately, mostly at the residence of his late friend Father Dubois, a Dominican Monk, but also at Leibowitz’s home. He was as close to the ideal of the Renaissance man as I anybody I have ever met. The breadth of his knowledge was truly staggering: His professorship was in organic chemistry, but he taught subjects like history and philosophy of science, Jewish philosophy and the mind-body problem. I studied Maimonides’ "Guide of the Perplexed"with him and interviewed him a number of times. In private, he was a very kind man but he was also a consummate showman who enjoyed the limelight and had an uncanny feeling for provocation.

Because of his provocativeness, it's easy to miss Leibowitz’s profound moral seriousness and the great relevance of his thought today. He is often pigeonholed as belonging to the extreme left, which is a mistake. Leibowitz, never willing to bow to collective pressure, was the most unlikely of combinations: On the one hand he was a libertarian, an extreme form of classical liberalism, and believed that human beings should be free to determine their way of life without any state interference. On the other hand, he was an ultra-Orthodox Jew who insisted that the state and religion must be separated completely to avoid corrupting each other.

Leibowitz argued vehemently for two positions: that holding any state as a value in itself was inherently fascist and that sanctifying any piece of land, including Israel, was a form of idolatry. Very soon after the Six-Day War, Leibowitz predicted that if Israel didn't withdraw immediately from the occupied territories, all of the state’s energy would be tied up in ruling another people against its will. In some respects Leibowitz’s prediction has turned out to be false. Israel has continued to evolve economically, culturally and its creative energies have turned out to be remarkable.

But in a central respect his prophecy of wrath has turned out to be true. Israel’s political system has become completely incapable of solving some of Israel’s most pressing dilemmas and unable to create a legal system with true equality before the law. To this day it is an incoherent mix of liberal democracy and clerical rule.

More than anything, Israeli public discourse is shaped by the collective denial that the occupation has been Israel’s political and moral catastrophe. This denial has created an often-shocking emptiness of political discourse and an inability of truly facing existential questions. Instead, as Leibowitz predicted, nationalism, militarism and the value of the state dominate public discourse, and politicians compete with each other in the use of nationalist clichés in order to become electable.

I do not think that Leibowitz should be sanctified, or that he was right on all counts. But there are profound reasons why so many of us who knew him deeply admire and love the man. He embodied moral clarity and the possibility to stand up to both worldly and religious powers on matters of principle. He was adamant that the collective or the majority must never be allowed to determine either what is true or false, or what is morally right or wrong. And he thought that ruling Palestinians under occupation was a moral catastrophe. Period.

I think that it is also important to understand his relation to Israel, because many who have no idea who he was think that he was some kind of post-Zionist. Leibowitz was against one state west of the Jordan with equal rights for all. Israel’s raison d’être for him was only for Jews to have a homeland: He was a fervent Zionist even though he was against any form of nationalism, and was fond of quoting the Austrian writer Grillparzer who said “from humanity to nationality to bestiality.”

What can we learn from Leibowitz now, almost two decades after his death? It is time we accept that Israel is like all nations. Nations make mistakes, and their greatness in the end is measured by their ability to take responsibility for them, and to change. This holds true for Palestinians, whom Leibowitz held responsible for their own tragedy by rejecting the partition plan of 1947, and it holds true for Israel for believing after 1967 that it could hold on to the territories indefinitely.

The question is whether a political leadership will emerge that is imbued with Leibowitz’s moral clarity. Such a leadership must be able to tell the settlers that Israel’s government made a historical mistake in encouraging them to settle in the West Bank under the illusion that Israel would rule it. In the same way, a Palestine leadership must admit to its people the terrible the mistake of rejecting the partition plan of 1947.

Such leadership must be capable of facing the moral and emotional truths that Leibowitz embodied. Doing so will enable both Israelis and Palestinians to embark on a process of collectively mourning decades of senseless suffering. Without such mourning we are doomed to repeat the past by trying to repress it.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz. A man of moral clarity. Credit: Alex Levac

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