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On Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s Birthday, Let’s Remember To Be Suspicious

Today is the Jan 29 birthday of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the late Israeli Orthodox Jewish thinker and agent provocateur. I’ve been reading his weekly Torah commentary, Accepting The Yoke of Heaven. The parsha of Veyechi, which passed just before the New Year started, tells of Jacob’s death, while it’s haftarah tells of King David’s death. Leibowitz’ bold and typically prophetic words on the difference between the two deaths struck me with particular force.

First, though, who was the now largely forgotten Leibowitz? Leibowitz was an esteemed Israeli intellectual who won the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honor, in 1993 (then refused the prize). He was a professor of biochemistry, organic chemistry and neurophysiology at Hebrew University where he taught for nearly six decades. Leibowitz was a polymath known for his bold, strongly held, and sometimes confrontational opinions on ethics, religion and Israeli politics. Former President Ezer Weizman, who had previously been Minister of Defence, hailed him as “one of the greatest figures in the life of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in recent generations,” adding that he was “a spiritual conscience for many.”

He may also have been amongst the first people to compare the IDF to Nazis.

Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1903, Leibowitz studied chemistry and philosophy in Berlin and medicine in Basel, Switzerland, before moving to Palestine in 1934. Soon after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, Leibowitz began warning that the occupation of the territories would turn Israel into an agent of oppression, sentenced to send its citizens in growing numbers to police the Palestinians. Israel had to “liberate itself from this curse of dominating another people,” he said, arguing that Israeli rule over the Palestinians would “bring about a catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole.” Leibowitz warned that soldiers in the occupied areas risked becoming “Judeo-Nazis.”

That last phrase would put him on the list of anti-Semitic thinkers according to definitions touted in some quarters today, though of course Leibowitz, a Jewish theologian who followed a strict observance of Jewish law, was anything but. Fifty years after Leibowitz use of the term, the controversy over calling people Nazis in Israel has reached the level of satire:

Harsh rhetoric aside, Leibowitz’ words are eerily prophetic. In a 1968 essay titled “The Territories”, Leibowitz imagine the future:

The Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police — mainly secret police. A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the State of Israel. The administration would suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Forces, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.

In 1993, Leibowitz was selected for the Israel Prize, but before the award ceremony he spoke to the Israel Council for Israeli–Palestinian Peace, where he called upon Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to serve in the territories. This triggered outrage and a threatened boycott from no less than Yitzhak Rabin. Leibowitz turned down the prize “to avoid embarrassing Rabin.”

Leibowitz was a staunch believer in the separation of state and religion. He was a kind of anti-Kook (that applies to both Rav Kook, the mystical nationalist, and his son Tzvi Yehuda Kook, architect of religious Zionism). Again toying with inflammatory references to Nazis, Leibowitz said, “‘Religious nationalism’ is to religion what ‘national socialism’ is to socialism.”

To return to the parsha commentary I referred to above, in it Leibowitz contrasts Jacob’s death, where he is honored as a patriarch and given the lofty vision of the “end of days”, with David’s highly contradictory legacy. Both are flawed heroes with great triumphs and tragedies, yet David closes his life by ordering the deaths of two men: one who cursed him, and one who, although a long time servant of David in the military, poses a potential threat to his son Solomon’s assumption of the throne.

Far from romanticizing God’s “anointed one”, Leibowitz has harsh words to say. “Woe to Lordship, for it buries those who hold it,” he quotes from the Talmud. He then goes on with a further cutting Talmudic quote: “One does not become a leader (rosh) below unless one first becomes a villain (rasha) above.” David, writes Leibowitz, “necessarily becomes a tyrant and a villain by the very fact that he is king.”

This might make one wonder whether Leibovitz is thinking of the modern Israeli state. He doesn’t leave us in suspense for long:

This must be repeated to those who regard the sovereignty of Israel as the realization of the most lofty faith and moral goals. Sovereignty is a lofty and precious value for Israel, for it means that the Jewish people will not be subject to other nations. But elevating the power contained within statehood to a supreme value is a very major source of harm. Proof of this can be seen in the comparison between Jacob, who had no governmental power or force, but who at the end of his life foretold the end of days, and King David, who had the backing of governmental power and force, but who, at the end of his days, was revealed as a man whose political interests shunted aside all his great goals. This is a great lesson for all generations, including ours.

As the great Jewish philosopher Nachmanides wrote so long ago, hamaveen yaveen, “let the understanding understand.” Far from valorizing Jewish power, Leibowitz argues that Jewish power must be suspected. Power is inherently corrupting, and our relationship to it should not be one of trust or devotion, but one of skepticism and critique.

Although Leibowitz is sometimes assumed to be a radical leftist in his politics, he was in fact a libertarian who felt that individuals should live their lives without interference from the state. It was his radical suspicion of all forms of state that allowed him to see through the idol-ization of the Israeli state. I am no libertarian, but I think this is a lesson that is overdue for all of us to learn. Democratic societies do not need us to choose political football teams and line up behind them like obedient cheerleaders. Because of the great temptations of power, democracy requires that we hone the ability to greet power with suspicion and make sure our political leaders- all of them, on all sides of left-right divide- know that we cannot easily be fooled.

(originally published on

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