Yeshayahu Leibowitz: I Told You So

I have been recently reminded of a truly admirable man whose wisdom was truly astounding. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was a brilliant man who saw Judaism through a unique and often controversial lens.

A t-shirt depicting Leibowitz. The text says "I told you"

A t-shirt depicting Leibowitz. The text says “I told you”

In 1993, Leibowitz, who was a constant critic of Israeli government policies as well as the religious views of most rabbis, was awarded the Israel Prize (Pras Yisrael), which is the highest civilian honor Israel has. Before receiving the prize, Leibowitz caused a great controversy by publicly calling for Israelis to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. The Leibowitzensuing controversy included then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to say he would not attend the Prize ceremony. Leibowitz ended the controversy by refusing the Prize.

A quarter century earlier, Leibowitz wrote an essay called The Territories {Leibowitz, Yeshayahu (1 January 1992). Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State. Harvard University Press}.in which he warned of the existential threat posed to Israel. That threat was not from Egypt, or Syria, nor was it from terrorism or the Soviet Union. It was the threat posed by occupation, and Leibowitz warned Israel that it should get out of all the territory it occupied in the recent Six Day War. His warnings were not only ethical, but remarkably prescient, predicting a great deal of what would eventually come about in Israel due to its ongoing occupation. In other words, history has proven that Leibowitz was spot-on correct in his dire warning.

There is still time for Israel to change its course. But that is up to Israel to decide. For Jews who live in the Diaspora, however, we can also make a decision. We can decide that the choice is not between mindlessly supporting Israel in its drive to suicide and its daily practices of occupation, settlement expansion, and all the human rights violations that these necessarily imply on the one hand and silence on the other. No we can recognize that the choice is between following groups like AIPAC, the AJC, the ZOA the Israel Project and others as they merrily accelerate Israel’s high-speed dive off the cliff on the one hand and heeding the words of Leibowitz and other progressive and visionary Jews and Israelis on the other.

Here are some excerpts of The Territories. Leibowitz clearly got it right. Maybe we can too.

  • Without an agreement imposed from the outside, our situation will deteriorate to that of a second Vietnam, to a war in constant escalation without the prospect of ultimate resolution.
  • “Security” is a reality only where there is true peace between neighbors, as in the case of Holland/Belgium, Sweden/Norway, the United States/Canada.  In the absence of peace there is no security, and no geographic-strategic settlement on the land can change this.  There is no direct link between security and the territories.
  • Our security has been diminished rather than enhanced as a result of the conquests in this war.
  • Our real problem is not the territory but rather the population of about a million and a half Arabs who live in it and over whom we must rule.  Inclusion of these Arabs (in addition to the half a million who are citizens of the state) in the area under our rule will effect the liquidation of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and bring about 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.
  • Rule over the occupied territories would have social repercussions.  After a few years there would be no Jewish workers or Jewish farmers.  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 have to 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 Force, 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.Out of concern for the Jewish people and its state we have no choice but to withdraw from the territories and their population of one and a half million Arabs.
  • As for the “religious” arguments for the annexation of the territories—these are only an expression, subconsciously or perhaps even overtly hypocritical, of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism.  Counterfeit religion identifies national interests with the service of God and imputes to the state—which is only an instrument serving human needs—supreme value from a religious standpoint.
  • Not every “return to Zion” is a religiously significant achievement: one sort of return which may be described in the words of the prophet: “When you returned you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination” (Jeremiah 2:7).

4 thoughts on “Yeshayahu Leibowitz: I Told You So

  1. Sadly, all Jews are being blamed for the misdeeds of Israeli fanatics, just as all Arabs are being judged by the actions of a minority who justify their crimes as the work of Allah. Peace might come if more of us were to forget tribal loyalties and had the courage to say NOT IN MY NAME.

  2. Thank you, Mitchell, for this tribute to a truly great man and brilliant Torah scholar.

    I want to respond to a few excerpts (taken somewhat out of order)…

    –“Leibowitz and other progressive and visionary Jews and Israelis”

    Leibowitz was far from progressive. Not to say he was reactionary, but such political constructs and polarities were not the realm from which his thought sprang, and can only mislead as descriptors of it.

    –“Rule over the occupied territories would have social repercussions… The Arabs would be the working people”

    Halavai. But yes, the rest of this paragraph has, in the main, come to pass, and continues to intensify.

    –“Inclusion of these Arabs (in addition to the half a million who are citizens of the state) in the area under our rule will effect the liquidation of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and bring about 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.”

    1) Israel is not the state of the Jewish people; it is the state of Israeli Jews (which, when it acts in the name of the rest of us, does so falsely), and what’s so great about that institutional exclusion of the non-Jews who likewise call it home?

    2) Why would the liquidation of the state of Israel as a Jewish state bring catastrophe for Israeli or American or world Jewry? (I ask not as an advocate of such dissolution, but as one who sees it as the most likely outcome of Israel’s political choices, and as one who no longer fears it.)

    3) As the flippant coda of my first question hints at, isn’t the social structure of the state (within the fading Green Line, if you like) a colonialist one, and wouldn’t undermining it be a good thing?

    4) Why and how would this necessarily be corruptive of persons? And,

    5) In what way do you think history has proven that any or all of the dire warnings in this sentence, none of which have come to pass or appear imminent, were prescient?

    –“Not every ‘return to Zion’ is a religiously significant achievement: one sort of return which may be described in the words of the prophet: ‘When you returned you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination’ (Jeremiah 2:7).”

    I’m afraid this defilement, this abomination of our Divine heritage, is indeed, alas, an achievement of terrible religious significance.

  3. Left wing propaganda. Disgusting! Judea and Samaria are Israel. Israel is a mere 0,5% of the Middle East and the Arabs invaded Israel in 1920. All the territory given by Israel (Jordan, Sinai, Gaza) did not result in peace, because the Arabs want to obliterate Israel. You are traitors, such as this man.

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