Zeev Sternhell, Leading Voice of Israeli Left and Renowned Political Scientist, Dies at 85

The Holocaust survivor, combat veteran and revolutionary thinker changed how the right wing was viewed in academic circles and warned of the end of democracy in Israel

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Political scientist and intellectual Prof. Zeev Sternhell, November 1, 2009
Political scientist and intellectual Prof. Zeev Sternhell, November 1, 2009Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Prof. Zeev Sternhell, one of the world’s most important political scientists and a prominent figure on the Israeli left, died on Sunday at the age of 85, after a decline in his condition following surgery. Sternhell was a long-time leading op-ed columnist for Haaretz, where he stood out as one of the most vociferous critics of the right wing in Israel and around the world. He warned of the prospect of the collapse of Israeli democracy. 

He is survived by his wife, Ziva, a lecturer in architecture, as well as two daughters, including historian Yael Sternhell, and grandchildren.

>> Read Zeev Sternhell's columns in Haaretz

Both Zeev Sternhell’s personal life story and his academic career were marked by upheavals. He was born in 1935 in Przemysl, Poland. During World War II, which broke out when he was 4 years old, he lost his entire family. His father died a natural death, after returning from combat in the Polish army and his mother and sister were murdered by the Nazis. His aunt and uncle arranged for his escape from the ghetto after which he pretended to be a Polish Catholic, with the assistance of non-Jewish Poles.

Following the war, he was baptised in Poland and converted to Christianity out of concern about rising antisemitism in the country. In 1946, he emigrated to France, where he took on a new identity, studying French and French culture, while leaving his Polish background and Catholicism behind.

At the age of 13, following the news of the establishment of the State of Israel, he decided to immigrate to Israel. “The War of Independence sparked my imagination. My decision to make aliyah was a personal decision, stemming from both my Zionist family history and my desire to take part in building the state of the Jews,” he recalled.

Sternhell was an officer in the Israeli army’s Golani Brigade and commanded a platoon in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. In the 1967 Six-Day War, he was an operations officer in Israel Tal’s Steel Division, and in 1973, he returned from Oxford to serve as an operations officer in a tank brigade in the Yom Kippur War. He also served in the first Lebanon war of 1982. 

Meanwhile, he had embarked on a stellar academic career, which both began and ended at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. By the height of his career, he had been transformed from a victim of fascism into a world renowned expert on the study of fascism. His groundbreaking work stirred decades of strong disagreement and controversy.

Beginning in the 1980s, his books “La Droite Révolutionnaire” (The Revolutionary Right), “Neither Right Nor Left” and “The Birth of Fascist Ideology” changed the way research on fascism was approached. His works also changed the basic, traditional definitions of right and left and made a deep imprint on the study of anti-liberal and anti-democratic ideologies. 

In his research, Sternhell demonstrated that fascism was a cultural problem with deep and wide-ranging roots, a coherent and significant ideology that was the product of social and ideological changes that Europe underwent in looking for answers that neither capitalist liberalism nor revolutionary socialism had managed to deal with. 

“This research offered a new way of looking at European history and politics of the first half of the 20th century. The conceptual change in it sparked heated disagreements in the academic community,” Sternhell explained. 

In the 1990s, he undertook research into another heated topic. In his book, written in Hebrew and later published in expanded form in English as “The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism and the Making of the Jewish State,” Sternhell argued that the primary goal of the Labor Zionist movement was to exert control over the country rather than to instil socialist ideology. 

“I’ve always heard and read about Israeli socialism, but when I immigrated to Israel in 1951, I didn’t really find it beyond the confines of the kibbutz. The Labor movement didn’t have an outlook of changing the social order. The national goal was fully and impressively achieved, whereas in the social field, goals of major proportions were not set and therefore they were not achieved,” Sternhell said. 

In the subsequent decade, he began researching the Enlightenment. In his book “The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition,” he argued that European intellectual history has been a battle between two kinds of modernity. “As opposed to rationalist modernity, which nurtures universal values, there is modernity that is based on the relativity of values and on denying the best of the tradition of enlightenment,” he said. 

In 2008, he was awarded the Israel Prize. In conferring the award on Sternhell, the prize jury said: “Sternhell is one of the leading thinkers in Israel and the world in the field of political thought and the research of ideologies. Over a course of years, he has researched the intellectual foundations of political and social movements that have shaped the modern world and has focused particularly on the same phenomena that undermined the infrastructure of liberal democracy – fascism, radical nationalism and the fight against the Enlightenment.”

For a brief moment in his long career, he also tried his hand at politics. It happened in 1977, when for the first time, the Labor Party was defeated at the polls by Menachem Begin’s Likud. Sternhell was also involved in setting up Chug 77 (Circle 77), a group of intellectuals who sought to “re-establish” the Labor Party. 

“We thought about bringing everything back and achieving the end of the conflict [with the Arabs] based on the 1967 borders. We very quickly understood that it was impossible to speak with [party leaders] Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres or Motta Gur about giving back territory,” he said. 

For many years, Sternhell warned of the collapse of Israel democracy. “There is no society that is genetically immunized against the phenomena that Europe fell victim to. This is the basic historical lesson of our generation,” he said. 

Over a course of decades, he expressed his fervent views in opposition to the Jewish settlement enterprise, (which he called a “cancer”), against the occupation, (he was even prepared to give up East Jerusalem), and about the radical right. He made his views known in a range of settings, most prominently in Haaretz, for which he wrote for half a century, from the 1970s almost until his death.

 “The role of an intellectual who wants to serve society beyond his scientific contribution is to criticize the regime and point out societal flaws,” he explained.

In 2008, he was lightly wounded by a bomb that went off at the entrance to his home in Jerusalem, which had been planted by Jewish terrorist Yaakov Teitel, who sought to do harm to the “leftist professor.” Sternhell responded by saying, “This very act teaches us about the fragility of Israeli democracy.”

In an interview he gave with Ari Shavit in Haaretz that year, Sternhell made some pointed remarks.

"I did not come to Israel to live in a binational state,” he said. “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.

“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,” he added. “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.”

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