Letting Leibovitz Speak for Himself
A short interview with the late israeli philosopher and scientist Yeshayahu Leibowitz who was once infamous for his designation of the israeli army as' judeo-nazis'
Quote:Letting Leibovitz Speak for Himself
By: Egon Friedler
Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz was one of the most controversial figures whom I interviewed in my nearly three decades of journalism. And he literally victimized me; it was as though we were acting the sado-masochistic roles of professor and student in Ionesco’s play "The Lesson".Leibovitz answered me well enough, but he did so in explosive tones. He pontificated rather than lectured; envisioned rather than conversed; and he broke all the polite bounds of academic courtesy. And at the slightest hint of disagreement, his intellectual airs made it clear that I was an imbecile…any other explanation for not parroting his opinion was impossible.But truth be told, this most implacable of all of the critics of the Israeli establishment (including several confrontations with Ben-Gurion), played his role to the hilt. Biochemist and philosopher, born in Riga and educated in Germany, arriving in Israel in 1934, deeply Orthodox and radically left-wing, is considered by many in Israel to have been a true genius. Reader, be warned: he spares no one……..
The Jewish People: Our problem isn’t Israel, it’s the Jewish people. The state is simply a milestone…and the crisis that began two centuries ago runs so deep that I am far from certain regarding the future of the Jewish people. What is the collective content of Jewish life? Is there anything that really unites these roughly thirteen million people? Because the existence of the people depends on that content. Do you know what it is? Because I don’t.
Zionism: Zionism was the tool which created a political matrix for the Jewish people. But a political matrix is no guarantee for the future. Zionism really fulfilled its mandate when it achieved the realization of the Jewish state; it doesn’t have to be the watchdog of the Jewish people. Herzl wasn’t particularly concerned on that point. But the Jews have been around before Zionism and Herzl. And only authentic Jewish content will guarantee its survival.
Jewish Content: I have no easy recipes for you. And nobody would accept my proposals anyway. Even those who have some inkling of Jewish content. No political content can fill a spiritual vacuum. And the only content the Jews share today is their mere existence. This cannot go on. Individuals are suffering. And Jewish leaders are totally impotent here…this is no problem of mere organization.
Religion and politics: What do I think of the religious parties? What can I think? They don’t play any spiritual role. They are cogs in the wheel of the state. The Chief Rabbinate is an appendage of the Jewish state and has nothing to do with our religion. What religious authority can it have, anyway? As for Gush Emmunim, they are fanatical nationalists with messianic pretensions. The fact that they are religious is irrelevant. So were the idolaters of antiquity, after a fashion, that is.
Prospects for Peace: All spiritual and material resources in Israel are channeled in one direction: to maintain the Palestinian occupation in the eventual hope that we may seize their land. We are truly Bolshevik. And we should get out of the territories just as the Portuguese left Angola, the British left India, and de Gaulle abandoned Algeria. Then there might be a real possibility of peace. Maybe Jews in the Diaspora like the image of the iron fist; I don’t. It’s pretty hypocritical to call us a democracy while we deny the Arabs their rights. Our national structure is starting to crumble…and without US aid we would be cast adrift in the space of a single day.
Universities and their Spiritual Message: From an academic point of view our universities aren’t any worse than the average pickings in any Western country. But our universities aren’t cultivating or transmitting any spiritual message. That is in keeping with their being a loyal reflection of Israeli society as a whole. But now the universities are in trouble because their budget, as well as those of children and the elderly, is being cut; it seems that we need more money for West Bank settlements.
A Simple Creed: From an ideological point of view I am indefinable. I’m Jewish and I believe in Judaism, namely Torah, Obligations, Study, Commandments, and Devotion to God. That’s my creed, it doesn’t have to be your cup of tea. I can’t sell anybody my belief-faith isn’t merchandise. But the fact of the matter is that the majority of Jews have no desire to uphold Judaism and the physical continuity of the people is in doubt.
Spiritual Confusion: The majority of the student world, like that of people everywhere, are not causing much of a stir. They perceive content at the heart of the state. They are unaware of the fact that they are fascist; conscious fascists, however, are few and far between. On the other hand, many try to make hay out of the political symbols of the state. A lot of young people are enmeshed in a deep spiritual turmoil, and they visit me often, always wanting to speak of Judaism, from kibbutzniks to army people, and including Arabs.
Peace Now: Peace Now as a movement can be categorized as a failure, since they didn’t really follow through on their goals. They confess that what I am saying is right on target, but they prefer not to air it in public. Their slogan should not be peace now, but rather, territorial withdrawal now! Only if we tackle the issue of the territories can we see any chances for peace. The Palestinians don’t have the where with all to seriously pose a challenge, so any negotiations within the existing status-quo are pretty irrelevant. But peace isn’t going to solve our existential problems. But maybe if we achieve a real peace, we can stop pending all our money on the military and begin to investigate the theme of Jewish being, for a change.
North American Diaspora: The USA created a society in which approximately 250 million people share a relatively high standard of living; but by trying to mimic that society we wrecked havoc upon ourselves. We’re used to living well-on the Americans’ cash account. About seven years ago I was visiting the states; supposedly there are about 6 million Jews in all. I only met a few, but then, it’s difficult to discern just who is Jewish over there. I was told that on the university level, over 85% of the Jewish student population don’t want anything to do with anything Jewish. There is a sizable minority who are very involved, maybe one or two million. Some see Judaism as a way of life….and the Jewish lifestyle is far from identical with the American Way. Nonetheless, one may be a US citizen and maintain the Sabbath, give one’s children a good Jewish education, and perpetuate Jewish family and sexual norms. The main thorn in the side of this pretty picture is that the Jews are quite divided and their identity is becoming quite diluted.
The Kibbutz: The kibbutz movement in Israel is only important for its own members. It is an economic institution that functions well; the fact that they all eat together in a dining room rather than in their own homes is not necessarily negative. But the kibbutz is utterly lacking in spiritual values which could influence the Jewish people in the long run. It was crucial in the state’s formative years, for sure. And without the kibbutz’ agricultural contribution, the state might never have gotten off the ground. But the kibbutz never forged the new culture which it touted; and today the kibbutz youth is increasingly disoriented. Are they sure of their Jewish identity? Are they even convinced of the need to perpetuate the Jewish people?
A Divided People: There is a huge amount of Jewish people who cannot even sit down together at the same table. They cannot even marry each other. Because of the Sabbath laws, they cannot even work together. Of course in the army the religious and non-religious serve together. Together they can live or die, but once the uniform goes off they have nothing at all in common. That is the Jewish people in Israel. The divisions are profound, and the state does nothing to alleviate them. Remember, no formal Italian state existed for 1000 years, but look what came out of those divisions: Michelangelo, Dante, the Renaissance, Macchiaveli, Da Vinci…..
Priorities: If I had any political power to speak of, the first thing I would do would be to get out of Lebanon and all the occupied territories. Then I would concentrate on the social issues facing our society: education, the economy, etc. No government can focus seriously on these matters because the army devours all of our resources and all of our energy.
Once our pens and pads were carefully put away, we asked the Professor what he thought might happen to a Syrian version of himself, who would speak out in sharp terms against the Syrian government just as he did against the Israeli. He did not miss a beat, and retorted, "No! And what difference does it make anyway?"
And while I walked out into the cold Jerusalem night I realized that that response was the key to Leibovitz’s stance: this radically left-wing Orthodox Jew, at the end of the day, echoed certain elements found in the tightly sealed communities of Mea Shearim. Just as they do, he can deride the existing political structures of the Israeli state, and dream in absolute terms, take ethical norms from their innately political context, demand political perfection from the Jews but not from their neighbors. And ironically, it was just that freedom which the Israeli political matrix conferred upon him which allowed him to air his opinions, often with a shocking grade of irresponsibility. Nothing would ever happen to him, and he would never have to come face to face with the results of his utterances.
I was genuinely relieved when the interview was over. And I was happy to hear the Professor over the radio the next day, in a discussion about the philosophy of science. If you think about it, Israeli democracy, for all its flaws, could not have been that skewed: after all, it not only lets its dissidents speak, but accorded them a fair measure of respect.