The following article appeared in the Jan. 18, 1995 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative newsweekly, Downtown:
Prior to his death in August 1994 at the age of 91, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz never received as much publicity on the Big Media screen as past and present Israeli government officials (like Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, Abba Eban, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin) have received.
Yet, as Noam Chomsky wrote in his 1983 book The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, Leibowitz was “one of Israel’s best-known scholars” who spoke out against both the Israeli government’s continued military occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Chomsky also noted that after the September 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians in the West Beirut refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila, Leibowitz wrote in the Sept. 22, 1982 issue of the Israeli newspaper Haolam Hazeh:
“The massacre was done by us. The Phalangists are our mercenaries, exactly as the Ukranians and the Croatians and the Slovakians were the mercenaries of Hitler, who organized them as soldiers to do the work for him. Even so have we organized the assassins in Lebanon in order to murder the Palestinians.”
Leibowitz did not settle in Palestine until 1934, when he was 31-years-old. He was born in Riga, Latvia in 1903, but his family moved to Germany in 1919. Leibowitz spent the early 1920’s studying chemistry and philosophy at the University of Berlin, which awarded him a doctorate in 1924. Leibowitz then spent the next few years studying medicine at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute at Koln and Heidelberg. But because of the growth of anti-Semitism in Germany as Hitler’s Nazi party rose to power, Leibowitz ended up completing his medical studies in Basel, Switzerland.
After arriving in Palestine in the 1930’s, Professor Leibowitz began teaching chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He became active in the 1950’s and 1960’s in a committee of Israeli scientists and public figures who opposed Israel’s nuclear weapons development program at Dimona. Yet, unlike other dissident Israeli intellectuals, in the 1950’s Leibowitz apparently did not realize that the U.S. government’s espionage charges against Lower East Side residents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, prior to their execution, had been fabricated. In an essay titled “After Kibiyeh,” for instance, Leibowitz wrote that “some of our intellectuals, pretending to represent Jewish teaching of mercy and charity, addressed themselves to the ruler of another state and petitioned him to pardon spies who had threatened the security of the state.” (Judaism, Human Values, and The Jewish State by Yeshayahu Leibowitz) [Harvard University Press, 1992]
With regard to the June 1967 Middle East War, Israeli Professor Leibowitz wrote that “when in 1967 we launched a preventive war, we turned it into a war of conquest” and he argued within Israel that “we have no choice but to withdraw from the territories in which one-and-a-half-million Arabs live.” Leibowitz also argued that after 1967 “Israel ceased to be the state of the Jewish people and became an apparatus of coercive rule over another people” and “today is neither a democracy nor a state abiding by the rule of law, since it rules over a million-and-a-half people deprived of civil and political rights.” He also asserted that “the state of Israel…has earned contempt and hatred throughout the world” and he was one of the first prominent Israeli figures to call for direct talks with PLO representatives, long before it became fashionable to negotiate with the PLO. (Judaism, Human Values, and The Jewish State by Yeshayahu Leibowitz).
When the Israeli military invaded Lebanon in 1982, Leibowitz not only demanded the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, but he also expressed support for Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in Lebanon or who resigned as military officers because they opposed the invasion. Israeli conscientious objectors, who refused to serve in the Occupied Territories and suppress expressions of Palestinian resistance to foreign occupation, were also supported by Leibowitz.
For taking such anti-militarist positions within Israel during his lifetime, Professor Leibowitz earned the nickname of “the conscience of Israel.” But he received little recognition for his moral integrity in U.S. Big Media circles. Leibowitz’s anti-militarism apparently stemmed from the particular philosophy of Orthodox Judaism which he had developed.
Although Leibowitz differed from most Orthodox Jews in the United States in his evaluation of Israeli foreign policy, he apparently shared some of their philosophical criticisms of Reform Judaism. In Leibowitz’s view, “Reform Judaism is the second historical distortion of the Jewish religion” and “empties Judaism of its religious content and reduces it to ethical humanism.” He did, however, realize that the status of women needed to be improved within Orthodox Judaism’s institutions, in order to provide equality of opportunity for Orthodox Jewish women to study the Torah. (Judaism, Human Values, and The Jewish State by Yeshayahu Leibowitz)
As the New York Times (8/19/94) noted in its obituary of him, Leibowitz “warned” that Israeli soldiers “risked becoming `Judeo-Nazis’” and “of a danger that the country would become a `fascist state’ that would imprison political dissidents like himself in concentration camps.” But he did not support the idea of a unified, democratic Palestinian secular state of Jews, Muslims, Christians and freethinkers in all of Palestine. In 1976, he argued that “the partition of the country between the two nations is the only feasible solution.” (Judaism, Human Values, and The Jewish State by Yeshayahu Leibowitz).
Professor Leibowitz should probably be remembered and respected most for his willingness to dissent from Israeli government policies which he found morally objectionable. But he also once wrote that “Ever since I reached maturity and became a Zionist, Zionism meant for me the endeavor to liberate Jews from being ruled by the Gentiles” and “the state of Israel completely satisfies the demand for freedom from domination by others.” (Judaism, Human Values, and The Jewish State by Yeshayahu Leibowitz)
This Jewish middle-class nationalist notion that the best way to respond to Gentile anti-Semitism in Europe before 1934 was to split from Europe and establish a Jewish-dominated settler-colonialist state in Palestine without the consent of the Palestinians, however, is debatable. The alternative Jewish radical assimilationist approach (of resisting anti-Semitism in Europe, classism and sexism within the Jewish community, and the special oppression of all religious, national and ethnic groups) can, perhaps, be more easily defended on democratic philosophical grounds.
But among the European settlers who sought their liberation at the expense of Palestinian self-determination rights during the 20th-century, Leibowitz was among those who realized earliest what a moral disaster the state of Israel was in danger of becoming, as a result of its militaristic foreign policy.
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