Prominent Israeli Intellectual Who Criticized the Occupation Dies Age 83

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Prof. Yirmiyahu Yovel, a prominent Israeli philosopher, intellectual and media personality, in 2007.
Yirmiyahu Yovel, in 2007. Notable for his work on Kant, Spinoza and Hegel, and an outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank.Credit: Dan Keinan

Professor emeritus Yirmiyahu Yovel, one of Israel's most prominent intellectuals, who combined successful careers in academia and in the public sphere, died Sunday at age 83. The noted philosopher and journalist, who had waged a long battle with cancer, won the Israel Prize in 2000, at which time the awards committee wrote of him, “He is admired in the world as one who broke new ground in the research of contemporary philosophy.”

In particular, Yovel made a notable contribution in his research to contemporary understanding of the philosophy of Kant, Spinoza and Hegel. He wrote dozens of articles and books, edited an anthology and translated works of philosophy and history. His most famous book, “Spinoza and Other Heretics,” was published in 1988.

An outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank, he made many appearances on local public radio and television, and Army Radio. In the 1980s, Yovel called for peace with the Palestinians and withdrawal from Lebanon.

One of the founders of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and of public television, in the late 1960s, Yovel edited and presented several of Israel Television’s first programs; in the 1970s, he created a series on Israeli society called “Hasha’a hashlishit” (The Third Hour). He also wrote for Haaretz and for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

When Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977, Yovel attempted to enter politics, and together with his friend and colleague Zeev Sternhell, founded Chug 77 (Circle 77), within the Labor Party.

“We had nice intentions, but I lasted only six months until I got out of it. I discovered that politics is absolutely not for me,” he told journalist Noa Limone in a 2013 interview.

Yovel's main work, however, was in the realm of academia, as a philosophy professor and eventually head of the philosophy department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. His first book, based on his Ph.D. dissertation, was called “Kant and the Renewal of Metaphysics.”

He founded the Jerusalem Spinoza Institute in 2013, the same year of the publication of his translation of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” one of the most important and influential works in contemporary philosophy. Yovel also wrote a book entitled “The Other Within” about the Marranos of Spain and Portugal.

Yirmiyahu Yovel on Spinoza in Kant's critique.

Born in Haifa in 1935 to parents from Eastern Europe, he studied at Haifa’s Reali School and did his military service at Army Radio. Later, as a philosophy student at Hebrew University, he worked at Israel Radio as a senior reporter and editor. During the Six-Day War, he reported from the battlefront. Initially he was embedded with the division led by Ariel Sharon, the Israel Defense Forces general who ultimately became prime minister, and later with an armored division headed by Gen. Israel Tal. Six years later, during the Yom Kippur War, Yovel also reported from the field.

Yovel is survived by his wife, the author Shoshana Yovel; his son Jonathan Yovel, a law and philosophy professor at the University of Haifa; his daughter Ronny Yovel, a musician and television host; and grandchildren.

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