Zeev Sternhell, a Holocaust survivor and an expert in 20th-century European fascism and the kind of extreme nationalism that he viewed as a threat to democracy in Israel, died on Sunday in Jerusalem. He was 85.
His death was announced by the Hebrew University, where he had taught political science from 1966 until his retirement in 2003. No cause was given.
An author and public intellectual, Professor Sternhell was awarded the Israel Prize in Political Science in 2008, a prestigious award that West Bank settlers and their supporters had unsuccessfully petitioned the country’s Supreme Court to block.
That same year, his leg was slightly injured when a pipe bomb exploded shortly after midnight as he walked out of the front door of his home in Jerusalem to shut a courtyard gate.
A 37-year-old Florida-born religious Jew, Jack Teitel, who had resettled in the West Bank, was arrested. He was later sentenced to two life terms after being convicted of killing a Palestinian taxi driver and a West Bank shepherd and of committing a number of attempted murders, including the pipe bomb attack.
While Professor Sternhell described himself as a “super Zionist,” in his books, speeches and regular columns for the liberal newspaper Haaretz he vigorously opposed the proliferation of settlements in the occupied West Bank. He called them “a cancer,” propagated by people he characterized as religious Zionists. He argued that Israel lacked a moral imperative to retain West Bank land seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
“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,” he wrote in his book “The Founding Myths of Israel,” first published in 1996. (An English-language edition was released two years later.)
Among his fundamental arguments was that the Labor Zionist founders of Israel had proved to be much less committed to instilling socialist ideology than to imposing political control over the new nation.
After an escalation in hostilities in recent years between Israeli forces and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, Professor Sternhell again identified what he considered the precursors of fascism in Israeli society: “deification of the nation,” “ethnic determinism” and, as a recent editorial in Haaretz put it, “making the supremacy of the society and the interest of societal redemption a central value, at the expense of the individual and of equality among the participants in societal activity.”
“The left,” Professor Sternhell wrote in 2018, “is no longer capable of overcoming the toxic ultranationalism that has evolved here, the kind whose European strain almost wiped out a majority of the Jewish people.”
In “The Birth of Fascist Ideology” (1989), which he wrote with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri, Professor Sternhell challenged traditional definitions of the political left and right in exploring the evolution of an alternative to revolutionary socialism and capitalist liberalism in Europe.
Zeev Sternhell was born on April 10, 1935, in Przemysl, in southeastern Poland, to a well-to-do family in the textile business. He was 4 years old when World War II began in September 1939, and within two weeks German forces bombed and invaded the city. When he was 7, his mother, Ida Sternhell, and sister were murdered as Jews by the Nazis. His father, Adolph Sternhell, served in the Polish army and died after returning from combat.
By posing as a Roman Catholic boy, Zeev escaped the Przemysl ghetto with the help of an aunt and uncle and Polish gentiles. With anti-Semitism still rife after the war, he was baptized a Christian and served as an altar boy in Krakow. In 1946, he was sent on a Red Cross train to France, where he reinvented himself again. He migrated to Israel when he was 16, stirred by its declaration of independence in 1948.
Professor Sternhell earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1960, a master’s there in 1964 and a doctorate from the Institute of Political Science in Paris in 1969. He headed the Hebrew University’s political science department from 1974 to 1978 and became a full professor in 1982.
As a soldier and reservist, Professor Sternhell fought in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the Suez Crisis in 1956, the Arab-Israeli War in 1967, the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 (sometimes called the Yom Kippur War) and the Lebanon war of 1982.
While he acknowledged having “the military thing in the blood,” he was a founding member of Peace Now, which describes itself as a “Zionist left-wing movement” that favors a Jewish and democratic Israel and a separate Palestinian state based on 1967 borders.
Professor Sternhell once said that “the role of an intellectual who wants to serve society beyond his scientific contribution is to criticize the regime and point out societal flaws.” By his definition, as a relentless critic, he served it well.
“I did not come to Israel to live in a binational state,” he said in an interview with Haaretz in 2008. “If I had wanted to live as a minority, I could have chosen places in which it is both more pleasant and safer to live as a minority. But neither did I come to Israel to be a colonial ruler. In my eyes, nationalism that is not universalist, nationalism that does not respect the national rights of others, is a dangerous nationalism.
“That is why I think the time is pressing,” he continued. “We have no time. And what worries me is that the good life here and the money and the stock market and the homes at Manhattan prices are producing a terrible delusion. What haunts me is knowing that what exists today is liable to fall apart tomorrow.”