Zeev Sternhell, Spiritual Leader of the Left, Never Gave Up the Fight for Israel's Soul

This world-renowned scholar of fascism, who died on Sunday, was the Israeli left's equivalent of a great rabbinic leader

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Prof. Zeev Sternhell
Prof. Zeev Sternhell in a 2009 file photo.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Prof. Zeev Sternhell was the left’s equivalent of a great rabbinic leader, the really ideal embodiment of an intellectual leader, but the kind whose shoes were stained with the mud of the reality of the street and the battlefield.

The Hebrew University professor, who died on Sunday, could articulate the left’s ideas clearly, making them accessible and stirring. Others more learned than me will certainly write about his titles, his massive amount of knowledge and the admiration people worldwide had for him and his research on fascism. Sternhell, as I perceived him through his writings and correspondences with him, was first and foremost a mensch, full of personal warmth and mischievous vitality, who was generous with young writers and wrote them praise and encouragement. He was always ready to give advice or support, whatever was needed at the moment.

As a young opinion writer, I remember reading one of his Friday opinion pieces (“The Trap of Being Apolitical,” May 24, 2013): I physically understood that I’d come across the perfect opinion piece. Sternhell had formulated the principles of a true left in 445 words of crisp, simple Hebrew. On another occasion, he explained in an interview how his identity was shaped when he discovered freedom and secularism in France, to where he had fled from Poland during World War II, in a manner that was similarly awesome in its simplicity.

For years, I brought to classrooms a copy of the opinion piece, most of which is dedicated to the organizing principle of the right. Even if you didn’t relate to his opinions, note the simplicity and clarity of the man with integrity and an erect posture. He didn’t need pretentious academic terms or highfalutin metaphors. He has his own truth, and it is priceless.

And that was Sternhell’s greatness. He spoke Hebrew. He didn’t give up on Israeli society, even as he warned of the evil ways it was pursuing and saw the worst of his prophecies come true one after another – and their ugly fulfillment repeatedly leaves us astounded with our mouths agape.

Before being a distinguished intellectual, Sternhell was a Golani platoon commander and an operations officer in the Yom Kippur War. He constantly kept his finger on the pulse of Israeli society. We are all bound together in the bloody trenches, regardless of ethnicity, education and socioeconomic status, viewing death together and covering ourselves with an additional layer of skin in the silent knowledge of what a person is, of how valuable life is.

Sternhell was very worried in recent years, possibly even more so than in 2008, when a bomb went off at the entrance of his home. During 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, one of the prominent crossroads in the rise of Jewish ultranationalism, he was interviewed by Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz.

“What we’ve seen here in the past few weeks is absolute conformism on the part of most of Israel’s intellectuals. They’ve just followed the herd. By intellectuals I mean professors and journalists. The intellectual bankruptcy of the mass media in this war is total,” he said.

“Democracy crumbles when the intellectuals, the educated classes, toe the line of the thugs or look at them with a smile. People here say, ‘It’s not so terrible, it’s nothing like fascism – we have free elections and parties and a parliament.’ Yet, we reached a crisis in this war, in which, without anyone asking them to do so, all kinds of university bodies are suddenly demanding that the entire academic community roll back its criticism.”

Later, in wake of a series of articles I edited about rising stars on the Israeli right – which included interviews with Bezalel Smotrich and Miki Zohar, among others – he wrote me his analysis of these people. He employed his enormous knowledge and deep familiarity with the ascendency of right-wing leaders in history and the harbingers of evil they represent. He put these analyses in a January 2018 opinion piece.

“In both [Smotrich and Zohar] we see not just a growing Israeli fascism but racism akin to Nazism in its early stages,” he wrote. “Like every ideology, the Nazi race theory developed over the years. At first it only deprived Jews of their civil and human rights.”

It’s a shame that the last images he saw in his life were of a chaotic, corrupt and deteriorating political reality, part of the world climate of crude, dangerous populism. These images were certainly a severe blow to him. It’s also hard to escape the forlorn thought that the generations after him didn’t foster figures of his stature, who combine his lofty idealism, bravery and uncompromising connection to Israel and Israeliness. That is how the leader of the left should look. 

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