The University Founder Who Feared Computers and Loved Underdogs

Prof. Zvi Yavetz, who passed away recently at the age of 87, was told by Shimon Peres to build something special in Tel Aviv.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In 1941, at age 16, life for young Zvi Zucker from Czernowitz, Romania, took a dramatic turn. After his mother died in the ghetto, he had been put on a train headed for a concentration camp, but Zucker decided to escape and jumped out. A friend who was with him on the train declined to join him because he didn’t want to leave his parents. Zucker had nothing to lose at that point. “I wouldn’t have jumped either if my mother were still alive,” he said later.

The tale of his escape is heart-stopping: He returned to his home shortly afterward and unearthed a small treasure he had hidden in the yard. Later he joined a group of 17 other young people who had acquired a small riverboat. Equipped with an atlas from school, they decided to navigate their way out to the Black Sea.

Two weeks into the journey, the boat was smashed to bits against a cliff near the coast of Turkey. The next stop was Turkish prison. The Turks took the group for spies and interrogated them at length. A senior Turkish officer who happened by and heard they were Jews contacted local representatives of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish community in Istanbul, who tried to assist them.

The group was caught in an impossible situation. The Turks threatened to send them back to Romania. The British wouldn’t permit them to sail to Palestine. The group sent letters to President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, launched a hunger strike and threatened suicide. After two weeks of negotiations, the British decided that the group would be transferred to Cyprus and held there until the end of the war. They thereby became the first Jewish refugees on that island before it became a huge detention camp for Jews who tried to immigrate illegally to Palestine.

The odyssey came to an end in 1944 when, in Cyprus, Zucker met two soldiers from the Jewish Brigade: Haim Shorer, who would later become editor of the Davar newspaper, and Avraham Yafeh, later the head of the Israel Defense Forces Northern Command and a member of Knesset. The two helped him reach Palestine illegally. “I managed to escape from hell and I came to Israel after many hardships, and twists and turns, after adventure-filled journeys in the Black Sea,” he recalled. After the war he adopted his mother’s maiden name and was known as Zvi Yavetz.

That was nearly 70 years ago. Yavetz would become a professor who specialized in ancient eras, a renowned historian and an Israel Prize laureate in the humanities. He published many books and articles, and was a pioneering researcher and revered lecturer. He helped found Tel Aviv University, was the first dean of the Faculty of Humanities and headed the history department there for three decades. He also founded the IDF Command and Staff College, which trains senior IDF officers, and helped to establish Beit Berl College. He passed away in January at age 87 after being in declining health for several years following a stroke.

At Tel Aviv University, in the history department’s Gilman Building, Yavetz’s office remains as a silent tribute to him. His broken chair and hat are still there. People in the department refer to it as “the Yavetz room.” It’s the central office in the department, but it is still vacant.

“We have department meetings in there, but I wouldn’t sit there,” says Prof. Eyal Naveh, the current department head. “All the department heads who came after Yavetz sat in a office next door or remained in their old offices.”

Says Prof. David Katz, a former department head, friend and colleague: “Yavetz was the eternal department head. It was totally impossible to replace him. It’s as if someone would try to replace Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.” In 2000, Katz put together photos of all the department heads, going back to 1956: “There were just five people. Yavetz, who held the position for three decades, didn’t get what was so funny.”

Naveh, however, does get it, and fondly calls Yavetz an “enlightened dictator”: “On the one hand, he built the department in his image. He decided everything − without committees, without open tenders, but with a ton of charm and charisma. When he got annoyed at something, his voice would echo down the halls. Woe to anyone he couldn’t stand.” On the other hand, says Naveh, “He created a top-notch department here that’s been considered the best in Israel for many years. He gave his all, and because of his strength and power, he didn’t feel threatened by anyone, and nurtured and promoted many fine people.”

Dr. Ido Yavetz, Zvi’s son, is himself a researcher and lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas. The younger Yavetz knows just what is meant by the term “enlightened dictator.”

“My impression was that Dad didn’t tend to put things to a vote. He made the decision and he acted. But it was enlightened because everything was done with tremendous consideration for what people around were saying. I think that, in his view, the final result of his actions was preferable to a ‘democracy of criteria,’ in which all sorts of criteria are used as a cover for avoiding decisions,” adds Yavetz. “He wanted people to be bold, to take responsibility and make decisions. Even if they messed up sometimes. He wanted a university in which people used common sense − not a place where everyone is consulting with a lawyer before making any move.”

Yavetz Sr.’s aversion to bureaucracy is recalled by all who knew him. He scorned regulations and criteria and procedures, and displayed administrative “flexibility” and an ability to find a way when he felt it was warranted. In a 1995 article in the multidisciplinary journal Alpayim, Yavetz explained: “My fierce opposition to rigid regulations did not derive from a lack of principles. On the contrary: I wanted to be subject to a few basic rules, but throughout my years at TAU, I refused to be enslaved to regulations whose sole purpose was to make life more difficult for the individual and easier for administration.”

He recalled a saying by Greek philosopher Anacharsis, who declared 2,000 years ago: “These decrees of yours are no different from spiders’ webs. They’ll restrain anyone weak and insignificant who gets caught in them, but they’ll be torn to shreds by people with power and wealth.” His son Ido remembers that, as a child, he would hear his father shouting over the phone “whenever someone started quoting rules to him ... He would remind whomever needed reminding that there were human beings behind those rules.”

Remaining faithful to this outlook, Yavetz accepted for admission to the Faculty of Humanities students who did not have a matriculation certificate, or had poor grades, to give them an equal chance to prove themselves. He believed that the current system is unfair: “At 18, they take people to the army. At 22, they punish them for not having wanted to study when they were kids,” he said on a Channel 1 talk show in 1991.

Enrolled in studies in his department were also adults of his generation, who had been prevented by historical circumstances from completing a degree earlier in life. One of these was Walter Grab, a handbag merchant in the Carmel Market, who, thanks to Yavetz, became a professor himself, an expert on modern German and French history and founder of the university’s Minerva Institute for German History.

Other examples include Michael Harsegor, the one-time teacher from the Ironi Daled High School in Tel Aviv who, thanks to Yavetz, became one of the country’s preeminent historians; Yaakov Malkin, the Habima dramaturge who completed a doctorate at age 50, and at Yavetz’s invitation helped establish the cinema and television department at TAU; and Shlomo Ben-Ami, the youth from an immigrant transit camp, whom Yavetz nurtured in the history department and who went on to become a professor, an ambassador and a government minister.

Yavetz’s friends tell a joke about a stray cat that wandered around the university for years. Asked what it was doing there, it replied: “Yavetz promised me tenure.” As Yavetz wrote in the Alpayim article: “I never believed in putting someone through hell before granting him academic status. When advancement is slightly accelerated, it increases the creative joy for young people. They’re happy with their lot, love their place of work and are also welcoming to others. Woe to the student who falls into the hands of an embittered professor.”

‘Ordinary folks’

Flexibility, daring and the faith that he could overcome any bureaucratic obstacle typified Yavetz’s approach from the start. Shortly after his arrival on these shores, he set about realizing the dream of his late mother, who told him he had to do his utmost to get to Jerusalem and to study at the Hebrew University.

Yavetz once related that he went to Jerusalem to see the academic secretary, a Mr. Poznansky. What − you say you came from the Diaspora, the man said. You have no diplomas, which is understandable, but you have to pass some exams, first of all: in Hebrew literature, Hebrew language, Bible, Mishna. Poznansky asked how long it would take Yavetz to prepare, and Yavetz, his chutzpah showing, apparently replied: I’ll take them tomorrow.

Biblical scholar Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai, who was standing there, suggested that he test the young man right away. And so it was, there on Mt. Scopus, that Yavetz was tested for half an hour in literature, Mishna and Gemara. At the end of the exam, Prof. Tur-Sinai patted him on the back, walked into Poznansky’s office and said: “He doesn’t need any more tests. Accept him.”

Yavetz got into the subject of ancient history entirely by happenstance. Aware of his facility with languages, Prof. Richard Koebner proposed that he be his research assistant for a new book he was writing. The assignment was to read books in German, English, French and Italian on Roman imperialism and to summarize them. Yavetz was undeterred by his lack of knowledge of Italian. “I had a dictionary, and whatever I didn’t know, I guessed,” he recounted later. The summary he submitted impressed the senior lecturer, and soon Yavetz found himself attending the seminar of the distinguished historian Prof. Avigdor Tcherikover, whose field was the history of Jews in the ancient world.

Yavetz devoted his doctoral work to the plebs, the “poor people of Rome,” as he called them. Up to then, historians had focused mainly on the nobility, on saints and emperors. Yavetz uncovered new information about the lives of ordinary folks.

“The prevailing notion at the time,” he told Aviva Lori in a Haaretz Magazine interview in 1996, “was that all the work in ancient Rome was done by slaves and not by the poor people, who lived off the bread they received for free from the government and from various amusements the state provided for them. I cast doubt on this ... I started collecting information about the working people in ancient times and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t possible to make a living from bread and circuses. In my research I discovered how people worked, sank into debt and lived in slums.”

In the Alpayim piece, Yavetz explained: “I concluded that it was inconceivable that they were all idlers who just waited around doing nothing for their bread allotment. They worked. They weren’t permanent laborers, and a A.D. Gordon-style work ethic wasn’t part of their outlook, but they did odd jobs. For as long as I can remember, as a result of the youth movement tradition, I’ve been interested in ordinary folks. And besides, I also had to somehow quiet my conscience for not going to settle the land, to fulfill the dream. Maybe, in order to compensate for that, I thought: I’ll write about the ordinary folks in ancient Rome.”

In the mid-1950s, his revered teacher, Tcherikover, recommended him to Tel Aviv Mayor Haim Levanon, as a candidate for establishing what would be Tel Aviv University. Yavetz faced numerous hurdles. The odds of being able to compete with the Hebrew University were close to nil.

“The Jerusalem professors publicly mocked and condescended the young, brash folks from Tel Aviv,” he wrote in Alpayim, adding that the Hebrew University “was filled with teachers and mentors − people with a broad European education, who had come to Israel before the start of World War II. While I was making my way from the Nazi camps to the illegal immigration boat and the camp in Cyprus, they were already devoting their lives to study and research. I was afraid I’d never be able to make up for what I missed in my formative years.”

When Yavetz saw he was not going to receive a tenured position in Jerusalem, he decided to devote himself to establishing the university in Tel Aviv. The rivalry between the two institutions of higher learning continued for many years afterward. As Prof. Katz humorously recounts: “Yavetz wanted to steal people away from Jerusalem. He said he was willing to make peace with the Palestinians on condition that they took back Mt. Scopus.”

In the beginning, the new university operated out of rundown huts ‏(“total wrecks,” as Yavetz described them‏) in Abu Kabir. The faculty was comprised of resentful veteran teachers who hadn’t obtained an academic appointment in Jerusalem, plus younger types, like Yavetz, who hoped to advance in Jerusalem but meanwhile were making ends meet in Tel Aviv. Yavetz later moved the Faculty of the Humanities to temporary quarters in the Balfour elementary school, which the older students took over in the afternoon hours.

“I’ll never forget how, sitting there in the afternoons on those first-grade chairs, were the future professors Walter Grab, Michael Harsegor, Benjamin Cohen, Anita Shapira, Aryeh Kasher, Moshe Levin and others. At the time I was absolutely certain that, with students like this, we couldn’t be ignored for long,” Yavetz once said. He remembered that Zion, the janitor, permitted the heavier students to sit on the chairs from the eighth-grade classroom, contrary to instructions he was given by the school principal.

The nascent university subsequently moved. It was George C. Wise, its first president, who looked at the ramshackle cabins in Abu Kabir and said to Yavetz: “Are you out of your mind? What Tel Aviv snob would send their kids here to get a degree? We’re going to Ramat Aviv.”

Ethiopian foray

Yavetz grasped the fact that, to obtain recognition for the new university, he had to win the support of then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The door to Ben-Gurion was opened for him by none other than Shimon Peres, who was then one of “Ben-Gurion’s boys,” a newly minted MK and deputy defense minister.

In an article in 2000, Yavetz said: “First we talked about books and about issues related to the Hasmonean revolt, and only after that did he ask me what I wanted. I explained to him that we were working on establishing a university in Tel Aviv but that no one was taking us as seriously as they should ... The idea that the first Hebrew city was also worthy of a university had yet to penetrate the public consciousness.”

Ben-Gurion told Peres that Yavetz could establish a university in the Negev. Yavetz was not deterred and said that first he would establish one in Tel Aviv. Peres apparently offered him the following advice: “Build something special in Tel Aviv, something that doesn’t exist in Jerusalem and something that could be of particular interest to ‘the Old Man.’” When Yavetz asked if he had any practical suggestions, Peres answered: “Establish a chair in military history.”

Appointed to this chair was Dr. Yisrael Bar, a senior Defense Ministry employee, well-known military analyst and expert on military history, who had been hired by the ministry to write a book on the history of the War of Independence. A ceremony formally inaugurating the chair was held in late 1956 with Ben-Gurion in attendance. But the joy later turned to embarrassment when Bar was arrested in 1961 on suspicion of spying for the Soviet Union, and sent to prison.

“The ‘Yavetz method’ was proved wrong in this case. It never dawned on me to ask Bar for his doctoral diploma, too. I was satisfied with his list of publications and I requested letters of recommendation from Israel and abroad,” Yavetz said later. Apparently his co-workers didn’t notice that Bar’s file was missing such a diploma; he had never received one.

But this incident did not hurt Yavetz’s reputation. In 1962, when he was just 37, he was sent on behalf of the state to establish a faculty of humanities at the new university in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Israel was responding to a request from Emperor Haile Selassie. A report in Haaretz, entitled “Israeli historian to Ethiopia,” said: “In their search for suitable scientists, Ethiopian officials contacted Jerusalem. The Foreign Ministry contacted Dr. Yavetz. He worried that his departure for this mission would upset his plans, but he decided to go nonetheless.”

Yavetz was described in that article as “one of the young professors responsible for dynamic activity at the young university, who are very zealous about its prestige. They do not aim to compete with Jerusalem and its senior standing, but they do not view themselves as inferior either.”

With typical humor, Yavetz commented years later on the way his visit to Ethiopia contributed to his research on ancient Rome. “I think I must be the only modern historian of ancient Rome to have shaken the hand of an emperor, the only one to have eaten lunch with an emperor,” he said in an interview in the journal Zmanim.

His widow, Devorah, recalled that at one cocktail party they were invited to in Ethiopia, Yavetz met the German ambassador. They started to talk and the ambassador asked Yavetz where he learned to speak German so well. Yavetz’s response, according to Devorah, was: “From the people who wanted to make soap out of me.”

“That was very typical of Zvi, who always said just what was on his mind. He was never afraid or hesitant. He always spoke his truth,” she says now.

Hooked on soccer

Yavetz was known for his sense of humor. His conversations were often sprinkled with stories that invariably brought a big smile to his listeners. In 1991, he was a guest on the Channel 1 show “This is Your Life.” Describing the lifestyle enjoyed by veteran Israeli academics, he once said: “I travel a lot and people make fun of me for it. It’s become a big joke at the university. They say there was a crash between two airplanes, one that was flying from Tel Aviv to New York, and the other from New York to Tel Aviv. Yavetz was on both and survived both times.”

The eminent historian was also a huge soccer fan. Prof. Yossi Mali, Yavetz’s teaching assistant in the late 1970s, recalls how Yavetz used to impress his students with his knowledge of soccer: A Liverpool fan, he once ticked off all the names of the players on the English team that won the 1966 World Cup.

“One time in class I corrected him. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re the student I’ve been looking for,’” Mali remembers. “They say I got the job just because I love soccer. One time I was joking about it with Zvi and I said how lucky it was that I’m a soccer fan. And his response was: ‘No, what’s really lucky is that you’re not a Manchester United fan.’”

Yavetz did not see his discipline as a science. “History isn’t what happened, but what’s known to us,” he said in the interview with Haaretz Magazine. “Anyone looking for pure science should go study physics. For me, the only objective things are geography and chronology. Assessments and the spirit of the time are totally subjective. I can’t make generalizations or abstractions or predict the future. Analogy is only found in geometry. Therefore, [history] is not a science.”

And he went on to say: “Pompey was defeated and Julius Caesar was murdered, and I can’t bring them back to the laboratory and replay history. There are things I don’t know.”

In Yavetz’s view, history is a subjective field, an expression of the trends and the ambience of the era in which it is written. Yavetz saw the humorous side of this, too. He used to tell the story of the gay teacher from England who sued to ban the teaching of “Romeo and Juliet” on the grounds that the Shakespearean work contained “heterosexual propaganda”; or about the black American professor who claimed that Greek culture was copied from African writings found in Alexandria: “When the man was told that he was mistaken, he replied: ‘Now you see how you were brainwashed all of these years?’”

Nonetheless, in certain instances, Yavetz was ready to draw parallels between ancient history and the present, such as when noting the similarities between the conquests of the Roman Empire and the Israeli occupation in the territories. “Occupation affects the occupier just as much as the occupied. One day the occupier wakes up and sees that’s he’s not the same person he was before. But this doesn’t happen overnight. It happens after 20 or 30 years of occupation. It happened to us, and it happened to the Romans,” he told Haaretz Magazine.

Politically, the professor was a devoted supporter of the Labor Party. He didn’t hesitate to speak his mind on political issues − and often incurred some stinging criticism for it. In one memorable television appearance on the BBC in 1969, he took part in a debate with a professor associated with the Fatah movement. Yavetz said on the broadcast that everything should be up for negotiations, including Jerusalem. His comments sparked an uproar. In Haaretz he was called “the damaging Israeli.” Davar wrote about “Prof. Yavetz’s work accident” and labeled his TV performance “odd and embarrassing.” Almost 30 years later, he told Haaretz Magazine: “The fact is that today they’re doing what I said then ... The wars of tomorrow needn’t be thought about in the same category as the wars of yesterday.”

In 1990 he was awarded the Israel Prize in the humanities. He took advantage of this occasion, too, to bluntly express his views. In his speech at the ceremony he called upon the nation’s leaders to reassess relations with Israel’s Arab neighbors, especially the Palestinians, as well as with Diaspora Jewry. He warned against the nation being misled by words that had become slogans, and against “leaders who are captive to the conceptions of yesterday, when they should be grappling with the challenges of tomorrow.” And he added: “We’ve had enough commissions of inquiry [after the fact]. Reassessment could avert problems from the start, and the sooner the better.”

He remained a great lover of the people in Israel all his life, however, and once said, I travel a lot and I have lectured at many universities, on every continent − North America, South America, Australia, Europe ... And nowhere do you find this unique thing that we have here: true friendship. This is where real friends are to be found. Even with all the bad things we have here, and there are certainly plenty of those, as long as that is preserved, we will endure. If we sacrifice this last thing on the altar of expediency, then all the not-so-nice things will come.”

‘Happy is he who retires’

Prof. Yavetz’s library covers three entire rooms of his apartment on Ramat Aviv’s Haim Levanon Street − about which he even had a story. The street had been formerly called “University Street”: “It made me mad. Levanon deserves to have a street named after him. But what kind of city does away with ‘University Street’? Every city in the world has a street called ‘University Strasse,’” he said in an interview in Zmanim magazine. His struggle did not succeed. In the end, some years ago, he added, on his own initiative, the legend, “Formerly University Street” to the street sign on his own building

His home library is meticulously organized. Some of the shelves open up to reveal more rows upon rows of books hidden behind. To be surrounded by this extraordinary intellectual ambience is a special experience.

“This is a library of thousands of books that he collected over very many years, from the first day he started teaching at the university,” says his son Ido.

It is divided into three sections: Hebrew literature, European literature, and − the Holy of Holies − literature of and about ancient Greece and Rome.

“He wouldn’t part with any of the books, even after he no longer read them. That’s why we stayed in this apartment and never moved,” says his widow, Devorah. “He used to read 14 hours a day − at his desk and then in bed too.”

Along with all the books, his study contains a desk and a chair. A computer is notably lacking. As is a typewriter. “People are constantly telling me how difficult I’m making things for myself, and how with one click I could move paragraphs from here to there instead of being stuck having to erase things all the time. But while other people are busy moving paragraphs around on the computer, I’m still publishing a book every year,” he said in a 2002 interview in Maariv.

“He wrote everything by hand. He didn’t want to hear about a computer,” says Devorah. “He would smile and say, ‘You go do your Internet, I’ll keep on the way I’m used to doing things.’”

Adds Ido, “Even without the Internet, he had much more intelligent comments to make than people who surfed the Web − and all from memory. He would write all the footnotes from memory as he was writing. If he didn’t remember something, he would get very annoyed.”

Attempts to entice Yavetz into the modern world went nowhere. “I showed how with the computer I could get to all these original manuscripts, whereas in his day, he had to request vacation time and travel to some archive in Europe to see them,” recalls Ido. “It made an impression on him, but he said, ‘Good thing I’m on the way out. That’s not my world.’”

To the professor’s credit, he knew when to head for “the way out.” After three decades of running the history department, he took early retirement from the university. Superb scholar that he was, he understand that his time was up and that new winds were blowing on the TAU campus.

“Happy is he who retires before a commission of inquiry is formed for him,” he remarked when people tried to persuade him to stay on. “The time has come for me to leave. It’s enough.”

Prof. Katz remembers how they used to go to eat together in the cafeteria in the Sharett building. “Yavetz didn’t like the food, and he said to me, ‘Tell them Yavetz said it’s no good.’ They didn’t know who Yavetz was. It was a little sad.” Another time, Katz saw two maintenance men carrying a desk down the hallway in the university. They asked him where Yavetz’s room was. “I told them he already had a desk and didn’t need a new one,” he says. The two said it was brand new. “I insisted. I told them he liked his desk and wouldn’t even let us replace his broken chair. And then it hit me that they weren’t referring to him, but rather to his son, Ido Yavetz. That was the moment I realized that there was a new Yavetz in town.”

Three years ago, Zvi Yavetz suffered a stroke. “The first thing he stopped doing was reading and smiling,” says Devorah. “He didn’t want to read a word after that. It wasn’t that he couldn’t. He just didn’t want to. I don’t know why.”

He was buried on Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak, on a day when major winter storms swept the country. In attendance at the funeral was former Knesset Speaker Rubi Rivlin, one of the few who were able to make the trip from snowed-in Jerusalem. “Yavetz was my beloved teacher and mentor. A great father and big brother to me. After my own father, he was the person who had the greatest influence on me,” Rivlin said.

Rivlin was a high-school student when he first met Yavetz. “He was a doctoral candidate at the Hebrew University and he came to teach at the Hebrew Gymnasia in Rehavia. He looked to us like a real salt of the earth type − a sabra, a Palmachnik, the epitome of Israeliness. None of us had any idea that he was a recent immigrant from Czernowitz.”

Zvi Yavetz. Shimon Peres offered him the following advice: 'Build something that could be of particular interest to the 'Old Man.''Credit: Nir Kafri/reproduction
The original university campus, in Abu Kabir.Credit: Yosef Lior/TAU Archives
Yavetz's library in his home in Ramat Aviv. He would read 14 hours a day.Credit: Nir Kafri

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