Prof. Zeev Sternhell, political scientist and left-wing intellectual, dies at 85
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Prof. Zeev Sternhell, political scientist and left-wing intellectual, dies at 85

Israel Prize winner claimed for decades that Israeli democracy was eroding; was a controversial figure, called settlements ‘cancer’ and was injured in pipe bomb attack on his home

Prof. Zeev Sternhell on January 12, 2010. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Prof. Zeev Sternhell on January 12, 2010. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Renowned Israeli historian, political scientist and veteran left-wing political commentator Prof. Zeev Sternhell has died at age 85, Hebrew-language media reported Sunday.

Sternhell, who reportedly died from complications of an unspecified surgery he underwent, won the Israel Prize in 2008 and for many decades was one of the leading voices warning against the erosion of Israeli democracy as a result of the military rule of the West Bank.

The reports did not give a date for his death.

Sternhell was involved in several controversies during his long career as an academic and public figure, including calling the settlement enterprise “cancer” and advocating attacking the West Bank settlement of Ofra with tanks in a 1988 column for a now-defunct daily.

He was a regular contributor to left-wing broadsheet Haaretz for some 50 years and published his last op-ed in April.

Several months after winning the Israel Prize for his decades-long research on political thought and particularly on fascism, Sternhell was injured by a pipe bomb hidden at his home by US-born Jewish terrorist Jack Tytell. He was injured in the leg and hospitalized.

Sternhell was born in Przemyśl, Poland, to a Jewish family. His father, a soldier in the Polish army, died in World War II when he was five, and his mother and sister were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust two years later.

He was smuggled by his aunt and uncle to Lwow and lived there as a Catholic with false Aryan papers, and was baptized after the war. In 1946 he was taken to France on a Red Cross children’s train, where he renounced his Christian identity. He moved alone to Israel in 1951, aged 16.

“The establishment of the state was like the creation of the world for me,” he told Haaretz in 2008. “It transported me to a kind of rapture. I am not only a Zionist, I am a super-Zionist. For me, Zionism was and remains the right of the Jews to control their fate and their future. I consider the right of human beings to be their own masters a natural right. A right of which the Jews were deprived by history and which Zionism restored to them. That is its deep meaning.”

Zeev Sternhell attends a rally outside his house in Jerusalem, in protest of a pipe bomb attack against him, October 2, 2008. (Michal Fattal/FLASH90)

As a soldier and reservist, Sternhell fought in the Suez Crisis in 1956, the Six Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the First Lebanon War in 1982.

He gained fame as an academic at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He became a world-leading researcher on fascism, studying the rise of Nazism, but increasingly criticized Israel as going down a similar path until he said in 2014 that the Jewish state was displaying “fascist characteristics.”

He was an early critic of Israel’s decision to hold onto the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip which it won in 1967 from Jordan, Syria and Egypt, respectively. He led a failed campaign to persuade the then-ruling Labor Party to end the Israeli-Arab conflict by giving up the land.

“No leader was capable of saying that the conquest of the West Bank lacked the moral basis of the first half of the twentieth century, namely the circumstances of distress on which Israel was founded,” Sternhell wrote in 1998. “Whereas the conquests of 1949 were an essential condition for the founding of Israel, the attempt to retain the conquests of 1967 had a strong flavor of imperial expansion.”

Sternhell for many years argued that the rise of the right wing was slowly eroding Israeli democracy. In 2014 he said even those who still believed Israel was a democracy wouldn’t be able to do so in the future.

Sternhell is survived by his wife, Ziva, their two daughters and grandchildren.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the predominantly Arab Joint List party, mourned Sternhell on Twitter: “During his childhood in Poland, Zeev Sternhell experienced the terrible consequences of fascism and later in his life gathered the courage and power to study and fight it.

“For decades he was a prominent force in favor of human rights for the Palestinians and against the occupation regime in the territories. My meeting with him has resonated with me ever since and his writings will continue to illuminate the path to justice and freedom for everybody,” Odeh added.

Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, expressed “deep sorrow” and called Sternhell “a wholehearted left-winger and an ardent Zionist, a strong fighter for peace and equality, one of our greatest beacons of light.”

Center-right MK Yoaz Hendel, the newly installed communications minister, also sent his condolences to the family and wrote: “I didn’t agree with many things he wrote and said, sometimes with vitriol, but notable intellectuals like him, from right and left, are the basis for our existence as the ‘people of the book.'”

In his last op-ed for Haaretz in April, Sternhell quoted IDF officer Israel Tal who said after the Yom Kippur War in 1973: “We can now announce our recognition of the Palestinian entity. That could be the beginning of a process of peace and our integration in the region. But we didn’t have a visionary statesman to make diplomatic moves to avoid the war, and we don’t have such a leader to now initiate a peace process.”

Sternhell wrote: “The remarks sound like they were made today. The two [former] IDF chiefs of staff [Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi] now entering the government… should consider them very seriously.”

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