Remembering Zeev Sternhell, Fighter Against Fascism – Wherever He Found It

The renowned political scientist and Holocaust survivor was a thorn in the side of the far right in both Israel and France, right up to his death. ‘He stepped on a lot of intellectuals’ toes,’ recounts one friend

David Green
David B. Green
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Prof. Zeev Sternhell pictured at his home in 2008.
Prof. Zeev Sternhell pictured at his home in 2008.Credit: Daniel Bar-On/Jini
David Green
David B. Green

When she eulogized her father at his funeral this past week, Yael Sternhell recalled how, when she finally presented him with a grandchild a few years ago (her older sister, Tali, had already had three children), along with his obvious joy Zeev Sternhell expressed a profound satisfaction.

Addressing him directly, she said that when her daughter was born, “You sat outside my hospital room and carried on a conversation with the same God you had stopped believing in after the war. ‘You and I, our account is even,’ you said. ‘You no longer owe me anything.’”

The war, of course, was World War II. When it broke out, Zeev Sternhell was 4 years old. His father left to join the Polish army at the front, but was back a few weeks later after the Polish were routed. He died a short time later of natural causes. In the meantime, the Red Army occupied not only his hometown of Przemyl, southeast Poland, but also half of the family home.

>> Read Zeev Sternhell's columns in Haaretz <<

Two years later, the Germans invaded and moved the town’s Jews into a ghetto. Zeev lost his mother and his sister, Ada, who was 13 years his senior, when they responded to a call from the Nazis for those without work permits to assemble in the ghetto. He was 7 the last time he saw them.

Zeev survived because his aunt and uncle found a heroic Polish family in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) that agreed to take them in. At the same time, he told Ari Shavit in an interview in Haaretz in 2008, they armed themselves with “false Aryan papers and an assumed Catholic-Polish identity.”

For the next five years, this young boy posed as a Christian, so that his neighbors would see “we were living Catholic lives and talking like Catholics.” With time, he recounted, “it stopped being a game. I started to like it.” After the war, young Zbigniew Orolski, as he was known during those years, was baptized and even served as an altar boy in Kraków’s Wawel Cathedral.

In 1946, the Red Cross sent Zeev, now 11, to France, where he joined another aunt and uncle, in Avignon. There, he tried to shed himself of every part of his Polish identity, including being a Catholic. “Suddenly it looked ridiculous to me, ludicrous, humiliating,” he told Shavit.

Yael Sternhell speaking at a Haaretz peace conference in 2017.
Yael Sternhell speaking at a Haaretz peace conference in 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In a more recent interview, with Educational TV, Sternhell told Dan Margalit how, in France, “I was turned on to secularism, and I remained secular for my entire life.” After what he had witnessed and experienced during the war, he had concluded, like many other Holocaust survivors, that he was “unable to believe in any sort of supreme power.”

‘Super-Zionist’

It was easy for some to misread Sternhell, who died on June 21 at age 85 from complications following surgery. His nonbelief in God, recalled former student and colleague Dan Avnon this week, did not make him “anti-religion – he was anti-metaphysics. That’s why he was so strong about upholding the tradition of the enlightenment, the reason at its center, and critical of the messianic, mystical, mythology-driven perspective of the world,” says Avnon, who is today the chair of the Hebrew University’s Department of Political Science, which was Sternhell’s professional home for a half-century.

Sternhell, who was a longtime columnist at Haaretz, contained within him a number of what some might have seen as contradictions. He was a “super-Zionist,” as he put it, and an Israeli patriot, yet he was sharply critical of the direction he saw Israeli society taking – and of the ongoing occupation in particular. He loved France, studied its intellectual history, returned there frequently, yet he infuriated many French with his doctoral thesis, later a book, in which he made the case that the ideational roots of European fascism could be found in that country, going back at least to the Dreyfus affair in the 19th century – and not, as commonly assumed, in Mussolini’s Italy.

Sternhell didn’t just serve in the Israel Defense Forces – he was an officer in the Golani Brigade and later the Armored Brigade, and fought in four wars. According to Ziva, his wife of 55 years, he slept until nearly the end of his life with army boots and a uniform under the bed.

He was also optimistic, positive and happy, and free of psychological complexes, according to Ziva, “despite going through a million bad things” in his life. In fact, she told Haaretz, it was what he had gone through that “was the basis for his intellectual life: He wanted to understand what happened in the world, in light of his own experience.”

In devoting his life to the study of fascism, said daughter Yael, who is herself a historian, in her eulogy, “You placed before French intellectuals a polished mirror that reflected their part in the ideological creation that destroyed your own personal world, and the world in general.”

His extended family was Zionist and, now in France, Zeev responded to news of the creation of Israel in 1948 with indescribable excitement. In the ghetto, he told Haaretz in 2008, he had felt like someone “whose life is worth absolutely nothing … 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.” Suddenly, he was seeing pictures and newsreels of Jews “fighting and winning … not creatures who can be killed or enslaved or hunted. No longer can they be treated like beasts.”

In 1951, at age 16, he sailed alone to Israel, under the auspices of Youth Aliyah, which placed him on Kibbutz Usha, in the north. Determined to earn a high school diploma, after finishing work at 5 P.M., each day he would take the bus to Haifa to attend night school, returning home only late at night to sleep.

Zeev Sternhell speaking at a protest in Jerusalem in 2010.
Zeev Sternhell speaking at a protest in Jerusalem in 2010.Credit: Emil Salman

Then came the army and studies at the Hebrew University, followed by a doctorate at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. While his master’s thesis had dealt with de Tocqueville’s study of American democracy, a chance encounter with the novels of the 19th-century writer Maurice Barrès so captured his attention that he decided to change gears entirely for his Ph.D.

In a piece published posthumously in Haaretz Hebrew on Friday (an essay originally written for the literary journals Ho!), Sternhell described that it was in Barrès’ book trilogy “The Novel of National Energy” that he found “express proof that the war on the values of the enlightenment, liberalism and democracy preceded World War I by a quarter century” – and began in France.

Sternhell’s work, says his friend Charles Enderlin, the longtime correspondent of French TV in Jerusalem, “stepped on a lot of toes” among French intellectuals, and continued until his dying day. But he didn’t shy away from a fight, continues Enderlin, who has had his own experiences with controversy in his life as a reporter: “You stick to your ideas,” he says. “You know you’re right, that you did what you had to do.”

According to Renee Poznanski, emerita professor of Holocaust studies in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva: “When Zeev wrote what he wrote, it was revolutionary. Everybody in France who wrote on fascism for years suddenly felt under attack. Everybody tried to review, reanalyze and reread fascism in order to respond to him. … They were asleep, and now they had to wake up. How many people can say they did that?” she asks.

Provocateur till the end

Sternhell continued to the end his decades-long fight to establish his vision of fascism as having its sources in 19th-century France, says Enderlin. Just last year, Sternhell published a book in which he charged a World War I military hero, François de la Rocque, head of the rightist organization the Croix de Feu, with being a fascist. This this month, notes Enderlin, a new volume of essays, “Fascism Francaise” (edited by Serge Berstein and Michel Winock) appeared in France, billing itself as “an answer to the controversy [on that subject] started by Zeev Sternhell.” 

Nicole Hochner, a political science lecturer at the Hebrew University, stresses that her former colleague and mentor was “a historian of ideas, not of culture, not of events or economics. He believed in ideas. But he also believed that no society was immune.” And so, he worked to understand how “French society, and also Israeli society, with so many humanistic, universal ideas, and which contributed so much in terms of ideas and morality to humanity, is still able to deteriorate.”

Hochner continues: “He looked at the foundations, and tried to understand how things went wrong. How did something that started out as positive – the enlightenment; a socialist or national movement; the French revolution – how could it lead or give birth to things so problematic? This is where his main contribution was. To look at processes and see how they could become so poisonous.”

Poznanski says that she felt a special affinity with Sternhell because, in her research too, she has challenged the conventional, self-forgiving view of the French regarding their treatment of the Jews during World War II. “These are important topics. They touch upon the question of French identity – especially at a time when [its behavior during] the Shoah is a topic by which you gauge the value of a nation. You see if a country is ethical or not,” she says.

It was especially heartening for Poznanski when, in September 2008, her book on the French resistance and its “Jewish problem” was launched with an event at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris and Sternhell traveled from Jerusalem to be present. Three days after his return home, with his and Ziva’s suitcases still waiting to be unpacked, Sternhell opened his front door and was wounded when an explosive device attached to the door handle went off. An American-born Jewish religious nationalist later confessed to the crime (he wanted to hurt, not kill, the “leftist professor,” he said), as well as to the murder of two Palestinians.

Protesters gathering outside the home of Zeev Sternhell after he was injured in a terror attack by a right-wing extremist in September 2008.
Protesters gathering outside the home of Zeev Sternhell after he was injured in a terror attack by a right-wing extremist in September 2008.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Yuli Tamir, who studied with Sternhell as an undergraduate, knew him in the late 1970s when both were involved in the founding of Peace Now. “He was part of what we called the Peace Now PTA” – more established academics for the most part, who supported the dissident group – “although they weren’t much more than 10 years older than us,” she says. In 2008, when she served as education minister, Tamir had the pleasure of presenting Sternhell with the Israel Prize for research in political science.

She describes him as a “super-patriot,” noting that “he was somebody who was totally committed to Israel, and was fighting for it, not somebody who was against it,” she says. “The fact there were people who suspected him of not being loyal, or not being aware of the importance of the State of Israel – I think that was very painful to him. He was eager to be understood, like many of us.”

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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