The conversation with the historian Prof. Ze'ev Sternhell, on the occasion of his being awarded the Israel Prize, was intended to focus on ideas and take on a political character. Something about the Enlightenment and the anti-Enlightenment in Europe. About the nationalist roots of the Labor Movement. About the rule of law and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. And a provocative remark about the settlers as pieds-noirs, the epithet used for the French in Algeria, wouldn't hurt, either. Nor would a juicy characterization of Israel as an incorrigible theocracy ruled by an obscurantist ultra-Orthodox clergy.
However, an incidental question about Sternhell's childhood in 1940s Europe redirected the conversation. Sitting in a black leather armchair in his modest Jerusalem apartment, the historian of ideas started to tell the story of his life. It is a story of which only the tip of the tip can be told in the space available for a weekend magazine interview.
Here are a few facts that do not appear in the story. In the mid-1950s, Sternhell was an outstanding and charismatic commander in the Golani infantry brigade. His incurable love for the Israel Defense Forces led him to take part in the Six-Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973) and the Lebanon war (1982). In the 1970s he wrote a doctoral thesis on French nationalism and began to be identified as a leading intellectual of the Israeli left. In the 1980s he stirred a furor in France when he maintained (in his book "Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France," Princeton University Press) that the Vichy government was not forced on the French but expressed an authentic French conceptual stream that had prepared the ground for the advent of fascism.
In the 1990s, he fomented a debate in Israel, too, when he argued (in his book, translated as "The Founding Myths of Israel," Princeton University Press) that the historic Labor movement was not truly socialist and that its prime objective was the conquest of Palestine. In the past decade, Sternhell has been occupied with analyzing the Enlightenment as the central axis of modern European history. He has also published scathing articles in Haaretz against the nationalist right and the economic right, against Israeli capitalism and against the occupation. In the eyes of many, Sternhell is the heir to Jacob Talmon, Yehoshua Arieli and Yeshayahu Leibowitz as the professor who is the keeper of the gate, the critical, assertive academic who hurls at the establishment truths it refuses to heed.
Now, however, with his wife, Ziva, and his daughter, Yael, listening to him from the next room, Sternhell is neither assertive nor critical. He adjusts his glasses on his nose and fixes his gaze on an unidentified point in space, from which he seems to draw his words. Reflective, at times emotional, he is as accurate as possible. He evokes image after image, person after person, period after period, as he cautiously tries to relate his Jewish-Israeli story. It is a tale of weakness and power, belief and heresy, evolving identities. It is a story that at times takes even the teller by surprise in the telling.
A world of surviving
Your academic life, for which you are receiving the Israel Prize this year, involves the study of the ideological sources of fascism. Is there a connection between this and the fact that you yourself became a victim of fascism at the age of five?
"Not in the form of a conscious decision. But at the| unconscious level, perhaps. When I was young, the expectation was that I would study law and become a lawyer. But in the end I studied history; more specifically, the history of Europe in the 20th century. It is impossible to ignore the connection between that decision and my childhood.
"I grew up in a very orderly world, the highly protected world of a European bourgeois family. And suddenly, when I was five, that world collapsed. Instantaneously. It is difficult to describe the transition from secure tranquillity to the fall, the disintegration. When things you thought were stable abruptly fall apart. When what you believed was the natural order of things is annihilated. And rapidly, too - from one day to the next.
"I am not sure of this, but it could very well be that at some level, that experience underpinned my academic and intellectual work. It was important for me to understand how a liberal democratic order collapsed so rapidly in sated, cultured Europe. How it came about that everything all at once broke down, fell apart. How it came about that catastrophe descended on the European world and descended on us, too. On our town, on our family, on my parents and on me."
Sternhell was the pampered and beloved younger child of an affluent and almost secular Jewish family in Galicia. "Grandfather is a big textile merchant and father is a partner in managing the business. Mother looks after me at home with the help of a maid and a nanny. My sister, who is 13 years older than me, is a kind of additional mother. And my green room, situated in a large private home, between two floors, is padded with a great deal of love. To this day, my strongest memory is of my father holding me in his arms and placing his cheek up against my cheek. The warmth of his cheek. And the warmth of Mother, of course. Mother and Father and my sister Ada ply me with all the good in the world.
"And then the war breaks out. I am awakened in the middle of the night and all the lights are on and father comes to bid me farewell dressed in the uniform of the Polish army. He is off to war. A few weeks after he returns from the defeat, all his systems break down. Father dies. Fortunately for him, it is a natural death. Grandfather dies, too. And the Russians seize control of eastern Poland and also take over half the house. Suddenly there is no maid, there is no nanny, half the house is confiscated. Mother has to work. With a great effort, food is gleaned in villages. Still, even though there is no more protection, my mother and my sister try to protect me as best they can. In a world in which there is no more stability, only they are stable. They are the only anchor."
When do the Germans arrive?
"When I am six, in the summer of 1941. Operation Barbarossa begins right under our home, which is on the bank of the Vistula River. I remember the windows of the house shattering. The hellish shooting. The incredible might of the Germans. And very quickly: long convoys of frightened Russian prisoners. A few months later, we, too, are moved into the ghetto. It is an abrupt transition: from our big house with the green room of my childhood to a hovel in the ghetto. The terrible overcrowding. The diseases. And then the aktions."
What do you remember of the aktions?
"The ghetto was liquidated in stages. One aktion followed another and each was of a different type."
Do you remember yourself being hunted?
"I remember myself being hunted. And I remember myself hiding with mother and my sister for three days in some pit under the ground. It was some sort of cave in which there were also other people and where we hid, while outside, the ghetto was being liquidated. There was a kind of crack there through which I peeked out. And what I saw outside was a hunt. I saw how people who were trying to escape were shot. How people hiding in treetops were shot. Children, too. Very quickly I learned how to tell the difference between the German soldiers and the German officers by their headgear. But also because the officers shot with pistols and the soldiers with rifles. That was their method to thin out the ghetto. To remove the population. Those whom they killed at that time were killed in the ghetto itself. And I was a boy who saw it through the crack. From the pit in the ground. I was a boy who saw other boys, who were hiding in the treetops, being shot and falling."
And your response, your feeling in the pit?
"I can't say. I was already in a world in which one thing after the next collapsed. A world of surviving. Surviving at any price. But I know that when friends of mine and soldiers of mine were killed next to me in the Sinai Campaign and in the Six-Day War, I thought that they were at least killed like human beings. They were not killed by being hunted in the streets. In this sense, Israel for me is not a political matter. It is something far more basic. Far more elemental. It is a return to humanity. A return to living like human beings, because there, in the ghetto, you lost your human element. Your human identity. You stopped being human altogether. You were not a person."
The first aktion concludes but after a time comes another. What happens this time?
"It was a summer day and the Germans were hunting the Jews again. A genuine hunt. Then came a proclamation that people without work permits were to assemble at a certain place in the ghetto. And my mother and sister went. I remember it as though it were today. I remember my sister saying to my mother: We are young, we will work, we will get through this. They know they are parting with me. They know that only God knows what will come after this. But they didn't want to frighten me. And they wanted to hope."
How do you explain the fact that they went so easily?
"Because they hoped. Because when people face an incomprehensible reality like that they create a world of illusions for themselves. They wanted to believe that they had a future, that they had life, that they would come back to me. And I, too, never imagined that I would never see mother or Ada again. They hugged me and kissed me and left me with my aunt. I remember them going and fading into the distance."
And from that moment you are alone?
"I am with my aunt, who did all she could to make up for the absence of my mother, and I am with my uncle, who displayed extraordinary resourcefulness and got us out of the ghetto. But despite all my aunt's efforts to pad the trauma for me, in the deep sense I am alone. From the age of seven I am alone. I have no one to tell things to. No one to talk to. I know that no one will help me. That I have to get along on my own, to survive on my own. And I know that anything I will not do myself, no one will do for me. That loneliness, the knowledge that I have no one to rely on and no one to ask for anything, even though I am still supposedly a child."
After the escape from the ghetto, your aunt and uncle, your cousin and you pose as Catholics.
"Yes. Something happened to us that bordered on the miraculous. My uncle found a home owner in Lvov who was a Polish officer and who not only was not anti-Semitic but was ready to cover for Jews. In the horrific anti-Semitism that existed in Poland, this was a case of one in 100,000. And there was another family that helped us, a working-class family. Thanks to those two families, we survived. You have to know that there was not one Jew who remained alive in Europe during those years without someone helping him. But the anti-Semitism was all around. Poland was absolutely afflicted with anti-Semitism. It was a place that was impossible to live in, both during the war and afterward, too. And in a certain sense the worst actually came after the war. After all that had happened. After everyone knew what happened. Nevertheless, one breathed in the hatred for Jews with every step in the street. I remember a woman shouting at Jews: Filthy animals, you came out of your holes, too bad they didn't finish you off. And I remember Jews who survived, who returned from the camps, hiding their identity; and when their identity is discovered they are cursed and beaten. Rumors abound of the pogroms perpetrated after the war. So it is precisely then, with the Nazis already gone, that it becomes clear that the Jews have no future in Poland. And after all we saw, it is clear that we have to be done with it, to change identity absolutely, and do it so that it will be anchored in the church."
Nostalgic for Christmas
What you are saying, then, is that you not only posed as Catholics, you actually became Catholics. You really and truly converted to Christianity.
"I was formally baptized as a Christian. As far as the Church is concerned, I am a Catholic."
Were you baptized during the war or afterward?
"After the war. During the war it was too dangerous. Anyway, because of the race laws it wouldn't have helped. But when the war ended and we saw that the Jews could not live in Poland, we became Christians. With holy water and everything. With my Polish name: Zbigniew Orolski."
I still don't understand. Are we talking about a game of survival, like the Marranos in Spain, or are we talking about a true act of belief?
"During the war it started as a game. We had false Aryan papers and an assumed Catholic-Polish identity. That is why - to avoid being caught - my aunt taught me all the prayers and concepts and stories. It was important for the neighbors to see that we were living Catholic lives and talking like Catholics. But then, little by little, it stopped being a game. I started to like it. Easter, Christmas. The Christmas presents. And the story of Jesus, the picture of the Virgin. You know, it is a religion of genius, Catholicism. Jesus sacrificed himself for mankind, and also for you personally, and Mary watches over the world and you pray to her and you want her to help you. You feel that there is a source of salvation here. You are not alone, like the Jews and the Protestants. You appeal to some human entity, not something abstract. And when you are a boy in the midst of a terrible war, and all around is horror, and your father has died and your mother is gone, you easily seize on that religious faith and hope that rescue will come from it. You are not alone, not forsaken. You have someone to turn to, someone to look to. And you look at that altar and you genuflect in front of it and you utter whatever is supposed to be uttered."
Did you yourself have an altar at home?
"I had a small altar that I arranged for myself."
What was on it?
"Mary and the little Jesus and a candle or two, a bit of greenery. It was a kind of emulation of the stable in which Jesus was born."
And did you pray in front of the altar?
"I prayed every night. It was good for the neighbors on the other side of the wall, yes, but it was also good for me. Catholicism is truly an extraordinary religion. Caressing, forgiving. And its rituals work on all the senses. And when you go to church, it is filled with the scent of incense and the organ plays and the choir sings and you feel something. You are elevated together with it, there is no doubt. Jesus and Mary imbue you with some sort of feeling that transcends this cruel and terrible world that you see around you. There is something else, something better. Despite everything, there is hope. All that is terrible passes, but the good is eternal. That is consoling. In a world in which everything is falling apart, that gives you strength."
Did you cross yourself?
"Of course, I crossed myself every day. More than that: After the war I was an altar boy in the Cathedral of Krakow. My role was to walk behind the priest while wearing a gown and carrying incense. I prayed with the priest, genuflected with him, helped him give the host. I was effectively the servant of the priest, who served God, and to be a servant of a servant of God gives you a certain closeness to God."
What you are saying is that for three years and more you denied being a Jew.
"I wanted to forget that I was a Jew. To be a Jew was to be constantly on the run, to hide things, to lie. I cut myself off from that. In order to live I was compelled to be a Catholic. That is why I erased my being Jewish. I cut myself off completely from being a Jew. I think I can say that at that time I was not a Jew. In those three years I was not a Jew."
And when did you stop being a Catholic?
"In 1946 I was taken from Poland to France in a Red Cross children's train. I was 11 years old, and again completely alone. When I got to France, I erased everything that had existed in Poland. I did not want to remember anything from Poland. I even erased Polish, my mother tongue. And in erasing that whole past, I erased the Catholicism with it. Suddenly it looked ridiculous to me, ludicrous, humiliating. For a long time I did not want to remember that I had ever been part of it."
The young man from Avignon
And in France you adopted a new identity - you became French?
"I learned French very quickly; it became my first language. I went through a stiff competition to be accepted to a high school in Avignon, and two years after being accepted, I was already immersed in the culture of France. France gave me a boundlessly deep appreciation for freedom, for human rights and for secularity. To this day, I believe that these are the fundamentals of a meritorious society. France gave me the principle of universality and of separation of religion from state. Very quickly I became proficient in the language, the history, the culture. Even my accent is not that of a foreigner. Still, I never felt myself French. I knew I was not authentically French. And even though I was on a course that could have easily led me to practice law in Paris or become a professor at the Sorbonne, I knew that France was not home. It's hard for me to explain, but that's how it was.
"I think it was the past: no matter how much I wanted to erase the past, there are things I did not erase. I did not erase the memory of my parents or the memory of my sister. Or the fact that my mother and my sister went because they were Jews. My mother and my sister died because they were Jews. And I, as a Jew, I am from a different place. I can never be whole in France. There is always some sort of barrier."
When do you start to think about Israel?
"Before the war, in Poland, the family was Zionist. And the aunt who looked after me in France was active in the Jewish National Fund. There were posters, there was activity, I heard things. And as a youth in Avignon I read three newspapers a day and through them followed developments in Palestine. Then came the declaration of the state's establishment, in May 1948. Your generation cannot understand the excitement that seized us. It was just four years after the Red Army liberated us, six years after the Nazis liquidated the ghetto. And the transition from that horror, that helplessness, to a Jewish state that wins a war.
"As a boy of 13, I was very much afraid that the Arabs would slaughter the Jews. There seemed to be only 60,000 Jews and all around millions of Arabs. And then the fact that the army of the Jews fought and won and the state arose - for me that was something beyond all imagination. The very fact that these Jews who had gone to the ghettos, who were hunted in the streets, who had been killed and butchered, were now rising up and creating a state for themselves. I truly saw it as a miracle. It was a historic event informed by an almost metaphysical dimension. Suddenly there are Jews who are cabinet ministers, Jews who are officers. And a passport, uniforms, a flag. Now the Jews have what the goyim have. Now the Jews are like the goyim. They are not dependent on the goyim. They can look after themselves. The establishment of the state was like the creation of the world for me. It transported me to a kind of rapture."
What you are saying is that the excitement at the state's creation was due in part to the fact that what happened there, in the ghetto, was not only a terrible catastrophe: it was also a humiliation.
"Humiliation is hardly the word. There was something far beyond that in the ghetto. It was the transformation of the Jew into a grain of sand. Into nothing. Into someone whose life is worth absolutely nothing. That was the awful thing in those years. The child who sees his mother and sister being taken from him. The child who sees the Jews being beaten like beasts and led to their annihilation. And suddenly now, in the Land of Israel, the Jews are fighting like people should. Fighting and winning. There they are, in photographs and in cinema newsreels - young and strong, shouldering rifles. Yes, they are human beings like all human beings, and are capable of fighting for their freedom like the Italians in [Edmondo] De Amicis' 'Heart.' They are not creatures who can be killed or enslaved or hunted. No longer can they be treated like beasts."
You are saying something brutal: that in the previous world, the Holocaust world, the Jews lost their human image, and only with the state's establishment was it restored.
"It is not even the loss of the human image. Because there never was a human image there. The Jew there was nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. The Jews there were human dust. They were people who were shot in a way that cats and dogs are not shot. I mean they were nonentities, less than animals. For an animal you can feel pity; for Jews no pity was felt. The Jew was subhuman.
"And now, just a few years later, the Jew becomes a full and complete being. From a defective being, the Jew becomes a complete being. And he flourishes. He displays the human qualities of courage and self-sacrifice. And for me, in southern France, there was something wondrous about that, something for which I have no definition."
The last stop
Be careful, you sound like a Zionist.
"I am not only a Zionist, I am a super-Zionist. For me, Zionism was and remains the right of the Jews to control their fate and their future. I consider the right of human beings to be their own masters a natural right. A right of which the Jews were deprived by history and which Zionism restored to them. That is its deep meaning. And as such, it is indeed a tremendous revolution that touches the lives of each of us. I felt that revolution when I immigrated to Israel alone at the age of 16. Only then, when I disembarked at Haifa from the ship Artza, did I stop being an object of others' action and became a subject. Only then did I become a person who is in control of himself and not dependent on others."
You arrive in Israel in the winter of 1951. Austerity. You have no one. Wasn't it depressing?
"The ship carried a large transport of children from Marseille. It was very crowded, but happy. I remember us standing on the deck and seeing Mount Carmel get closer. The soil getting closer. The soil of the Land of Israel. And when we disembarked, a few people did actually bend down and kiss the wharf. I did not. But there was some sort of strange feeling that I had arrived. That this was the last stop."
In what way was it the last stop?
"The last stop of the wandering, of the changes of identity. Of a certain falseness that was an integral part of it all. Of not being you, not being yourself. And here, here you suddenly shed that falseness. Something artificial peels away, something that could sometimes be frightening, having to do with the constant need to justify yourself, to explain why you are here. But here, in Israel, you no longer have to explain anything or justify anything, and that is a very great relief. You do not yet know Hebrew, you do not yet know what will become of you. And you are alone, you have nothing. But what you do have is a powerful feeling that the intolerable journey you have gone through has reached its end."
You are a well-known left-winger, you are a critical historian, and now you are coming out of the closet and turning out to be a Zionist of the old school, a veritable national-Israeli.
"I am Zionist old left, in both the national sense and the social sense. If you want, I am a national-Israeli. Some of my friends in the world will undoubtedly not take this well, but I never asked them to take me well. A person who went through the Second World War and saw the establishment of the state and immigrated alone before he was even 16, came here for the sole purpose of living in a Jewish nation-state.
"There are two dimensions here. One dimension is that I do not believe it is possible to defend our existence here without a nation-state. I am under no illusions. I think that if the Arabs could annihilate us, they would do so happily. If the Palestinians and the Egyptians and all those who signed peace agreements with us could make it happen that we would not be here, they would be delighted. The upshot is that we still face existential danger, and strength is still our insurance policy for survival. And even though I am against the occupation and even though I want the Palestinians to have rights identical to mine, I understand that I need a nation-state framework to defend myself.
"But there is another dimension here. I have no religion. I do not have the security of religion or the prop of religion. Therefore, without the nation-state framework, I remain a person detached, lacking. There is a paradox here. Today the religious elements are those who speak in the name of a nationalism I do not accept because it does not respect the other - Palestinian - nationalism. But the truth is that our need, that of the secular Israelis, for the nation-state framework is far greater than that of the religious. If you take Israel from me, I am left with nothing. I am stark naked. That is why Israel is so important to me. And I cannot treat it as a fait accompli, as regular and normal. I treat it as something that must be constantly safeguarded, something we have to ensure will not fall apart in our hands. Because things fall apart easily - that we have already learned. And sometimes fast: from one day to the next."
You are receiving the Israel Prize in the state's 60th year. Everything is growing all around, Israel is flourishing. Fifty-seven years after you stepped onto the shore, what danger of falling apart are you referring to?
"I do not think Zionism was a colonial movement. It did not set out to seize control of a local population or of natural resources or of the route to India. In order to ensure the right of the Jews to freedom and security, it needed a plot of land on which to lay its head.
"But the danger is that because of the occupation of 1967, Zionism will become a colonial movement in retrospect. Already now we are in a semi-colonial situation from which we are not succeeding in freeing ourselves. If we do not muster sufficient mental fortitude to evacuate part of what exists across the Green Line, we will reach a dead end. We will be forced to choose between full colonialism and binationalism. In both of those situations I see the liquidation of Zionism. A colonialist state will ultimately give rise to a terrible uprising by the occupied population, and a binational state will not lead to any solution and will end in a bloodbath.
"I did not come to Israel to live in a binational state. If I had wanted to live as a minority, I could have chosen places in which it is both more pleasant and safer to live as a minority. But neither did I come to Israel to be a colonial ruler. In my eyes, nationalism that is not universalist, nationalism that does not respect the national rights of others, is a dangerous nationalism. That is why I think the time is pressing. We have no time. And what worries me is that the good life here and the money and the stock market and the homes at Manhattan prices are producing a terrible delusion. After all, it's clear that things cannot go on like this for another hundred years - I am not sure they can go on for another 10 years.
"My generation, which is the generation of the first decade of the state's existence and for which the state's very existence is a miracle, is slowly leaving the stage. And for us, it is a tragedy to see what is happening. For me, it is truly the end of the world. Because a person wants to ensure the future of his children and his grandchildren. As a citizen, I want to ensure the future of the society in which I live. And as a person I aspire to leave something, to leave fingerprints. I want to know that when I check out, my daughters and my granddaughters will continue to live a normal life here. That is all we wanted. But today I do not see that normal life as assured. I do not see the future of my daughters and granddaughters as assured. And that truly haunts me. What haunts me is knowing that what exists today is liable to fall apart tomorrow."W
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now