Editor’s Note: This essay was acquired in July 2023 and was not written in response to Hamas’s attack on Israel. It nevertheless provides useful historical context to current events.
“Israel has a right to defend itself.” It is a refrain frequently invoked to justify Israeli responses to attacks launched against its citizens by Palestinian militants. Yet not every Israeli has accepted that truism. Indeed, if there is a single individual who best represents the challenge to such thinking it is the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
A fierce embodiment of the Socratic gadfly, Leibowitz (1903-1994) was unafraid to use strong language to criticize Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people and territories, which commenced in 1967.
“The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the State of Israel,” he said in his typically provocative style. For Leibowitz, the occupation meant that Israel forfeited its right to retaliate in self-defense, and he was ever vocal about this position. For his opinions, he was called “the conscience of Israel” by no less an eminence than Sir Isaiah Berlin. Revisiting Leibowitz’s views now—more than five decades after he first articulated them—provides observers with a unique, and often overlooked, perspective in contemporary discourse on the conflict.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz was born in Riga, Latvia in 1903 into a family of religious Jews. They were Zionists, adherents of the pan-national movement founded in Europe whose goal was to establish a sovereign state for the Jewish people in their historical homeland, namely, the land of Israel. A brilliant pupil, Leibowitz studied chemistry and philosophy at the University of Berlin, and then medicine in Koln and Heidelberg, before moving to Basel to finish his medical degree while the Nazis rose to power in Germany. In 1934, he immigrated to Palestine and took an appointment as a professor of biochemistry, and later neurophysiology, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he taught for nearly six decades. In addition to publishing numerous books and articles on everything from the history of science to the philosophy of Maimonides, he was the editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica, and a frequent public speaker on Jewish thought, ethics, and philosophy. His outspokenness, eloquence, and polymathy helped establish him as Israel’s premier public intellectual.
Like his relatives, Leibowitz was a committed lifelong Zionist, yet he grew disillusioned by the use of Judaism as a political tool and as a justification for Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories. As an antidote, he developed his own secular brand of Zionism, which was simply “the endeavor to liberate Jews from being ruled by the Gentiles,” as he wrote in his 1992 book Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State.
Leibowitz’s positions were shaped by his understanding of Judaism as a religion of praxis, i.e., a normative system of mitzvot, biblical commandments in the Torah observed by practicing Jews, not as a political ideology or a national identity. Contrary to recent interpretations of Zionism inflected with religious and messianic flavors, Leibowitz challenged the notion that the Jewish people have a divine right to the land of Israel. He moreover warned of the dangers of idolizing sovereignty and military power. Divinely sanctioned land claims were, for Leibowitz, tantamount to a form of tyranny, or as he called it, “Judeo-fascism.”
Unfazed by any backlash, Leibowitz condemned the invocation of messianism and the sanctification of military power. These, he said, amounted to “a modern incarnation of false prophecy” and “a prostitution of the Jewish religion.” The occupation led to the erroneous belief that military force can be useful for solving political problems, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
After 1967, when Israel captured the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the so-called “Six Day War,” after fighting Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, Leibowitz warned about the heavy moral price Israel would pay for using sacred terminology to describe its victory. Ascribing religious significance to the state and hiding its aggression behind a facade of religious piety constitutes a form of idolatry, he argued, that leads to moral atrocities committed in the name of the state. On the massacre in the village of Qibya in 1953, Leibowitz wrote (my translation from Hebrew):
We must ask ourselves: where do these young people come from, who have no moral qualms about carrying out such atrocities, and who have the urge to carry out such acts of vengeance? These young people are not the rabble. Rather, they grew up on and were educated in the values of Zionism. They are the product of applying the religious language of the scared to social and national affairs. This practice is common in our education system and in our public advocacy.
In Leibowitz’s schema, there can be no religious claim to the land of Israel, because any such a claim is based on a confusion “between the Jewish people as the bearer of Judaism and the sovereign state instituted by these people as its instrument.”
Though Leibowitz recognized the value of Israel being a sovereign state with supreme authority within its territory, he also warned of the danger that would come from elevating Israel’s sovereignty above all else. “Sovereignty is a lofty and precious value for Israel,” he said, “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.”
From the perspective of the government of Israel, the 1967 War was a spectacular victory. Israel defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in less than a week. It also captured the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Leibowitz did not celebrate the win. Instead, he articulated his prediction that Israel would now become the rodef (persecutor) rather than the nirdaf (persecuted) as the Jewish people were in the golah (diaspora) before the 1948 establishment of the state.
“What happened in June 1967 transformed Israel,” he said in an interview in 1985, “into an instrument for the violent domination of another people.” That victory mean that Israel was now engaged in a war of conquest, rather than defense as evidenced by continuous settlement expansion.
It is important to emphasize how radical Leibowitz’s ideas were at the time—almost heretical. After all, European Jews were themselves victims of persecution and genocide only decades before. Leibowitz forced his fellow citizens—many of them concentration camp survivors and refugees—to question whether the trauma of the Holocaust justified occupation of the Palestinian people.
Furthermore, he warned of the negative consequences for both sides of the conflict. The occupation, Leibowitz predicted, would corrode Israel’s social fabric. It will “bring about a catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole; it will undermine the social structure that we have created in the state and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab.” The occupation would also hasten the destruction of democracy in Israel, where Jews enjoy rights and liberties, such as freedom of expression and movement, while in the occupied territories, Palestinians are denied those same freedoms. There can be no true democracy when people are deprived of their civil and political rights, Leibowitz argued. For that reason, he supported conscientious objectors and called on Israeli soldiers to refuse to serve in the occupied territories.
Leibowitz also advocated for what is known as a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is premised on the idea that just as the Jews cannot deny the existence of the Palestinians, the Palestinian people cannot deny the existence of the Jewish people. Both have a right to exist. In his book, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State (1992), Leibowitz wrote, “Only one way out of this historically created impasse is feasible in the present situation, even if neither side recognizes it as just nor finds it really acceptable: partition of the country between the two peoples,” recognizing that a two-state solution requires an unconditional withdrawal from occupied lands.
After the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, came close to implementing a two-state solution with the backing of the Clinton Administration. But extremists on both sides sabotaged the effort.
These days, a two-state solution seems like a distant, fading memory. In 2005, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resigned in protest at the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip. Since then, right-wing governments—including the current one headed yet again by Netanyahu—have focused more on managing the conflict than on finding a long-term resolution to it through peace negotiations.
Although they both supported a two-state solution, Rabin and Leibowitz were hardly political allies. In 1993, when Leibowitz was set to receive the prestigious Israel Prize, the highest honor the government can bestow, Rabin—who was army chief of staff during the Six Day War—threatened to boycott the ceremony should organizers proceed with such plans. Rabin objected to the philosopher’s persistent call for conscientious objection to military service in the occupied territories. Leibowitz withdrew his nomination but remained a fierce social critic.
Earlier this year, a group of Israeli reservists announced their refusal to serve in protest of a proposed controversial judicial overhaul led by the religious-nationalist and messianic factions of Netanyahu’s government. In an interview for 60 Minutes, members of the organization Ahim La’neshek (Brothers in Arms), called the overhaul “an existential threat” to Israel, echoing the same dire warnings Leibowitz sounded decades ago.