Two Modern Israeli Prophets

Shalom Goldman


By Shalom Goldman of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia

In October of 1953, a charismatic young Israeli army officer named Ariel Scheinerman was assigned a delicate task. Moshe Dayan, the army's head of operations, had received orders from the government's political leadership to organize a reprisal raid against Jordan. Infiltrators from the West Bank had killed three Israelis during a nighttime raid in the village of Yehud.

The directive to General Dayan, conveyed by Dayan to Scheinerman, was to strike at the Jordanian village of Kibiyeh, from which the infiltrators were thought to have come. The general's orders to his young officer were to punish the village by destroying some buildings and fighting any armed combatants he and his soldiers might encounter. Citizens, especially women and children, were not to be harmed.

Scheinerman had his own ideas as to how the military orders should be carried out. He commanded his unit to take over Kibiyeh by night and mine all of its houses with explosives. The fuses were set and when the charges went off 69 Jordanian civilians, most of them women and children, were killed. The Israeli government, faced with the diplomatic repercussions of the incident, denied responsibility for the bombings and blamed them on "provocateurs." Within the army and government, many officers and officials were dismayed by Scheinerman's initiative, but none of their objections interfered with his advancement in the ranks. Under his command, a further series of reprisal raids was undertaken. Their net result was a cycle of raid reprisals and counter-raids that escalated until they culminated in the outbreak of the 1956 Arab-Israeli War. Scheinerman was soon to change his name to Sharon, and the results of his military-political thinking are still with us today.

One of the few Israeli public voices to speak out against Sharon's adventurism was that of Hebrew University professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz. In his 1953 essay "After Kibiyeh," he provided Israeli readers with a Jewish meditation on the exercise of military power. Distancing himself from the "saintly pacifism" of some of his left-leaning Hebrew University colleagues, Leibowitz opened the essay making a strong case for the necessity of Jewish armed self-defense. The classical Jewish tradition, he noted, did not have to confront the issue of the misuse of power. But now, in Israel, thinking people must confront it. "We, the bearers of a morality which abominates the spilling of innocent blood, face our acid test only now that we have become capable of defending ourselves and responsible for our own security."

It was the line between justifiable action and unjustifiable action that Leibowitz wanted to solidify. Self-defense and proactive military strikes might be necessary, wrote Leibowitz, but reprisals — "cruel mass punishment of innocent people for the crimes of others in order to prevent their recurrence" — these were another matter. As Leibowitz was to note then and in the 1970s, reprisals didn't work as a deterrent. His critique of militarism was not moralistic, but fiercely pragmatic. Repression, reprisals, and the denial of minority rights were not problematic solely because they violated ethical norms. They were policy errors first and foremost, and their continued implementation would lead to more violence and further repression.

Though he did not mention Scheinerman-Sharon by name, Leibowitz condemned political-military actors who confused the categories of religion and state.

Their thinking, he said, grew out of what was then, in the 1950s, a newly formed ideology: the application of the religious category of holiness to social, national and political interests. "[H]oliness," he wrote, "was transferred to the profane." Military action was thus infused with religious meaning, and the possibility of rational debate on the outcome of military actions was diminished. When God was on your side, restraint was not a necessity. From the 1950s until his death in the 1990s, Leibowitz was, for many educated Israeli Jews, the conscience of the country, a latter-day prophet who spoke in prophetic terms of modern situations.

In the aftermath of the 1967 War, Leibowitz's was one of the few voices that called for a pragmatic approach to the Palestinian issue. Here he angered many Israelis and many American Jews for whom the Israeli military victories had transformative religious significance. He commented:

"Shortly after the Six Day war, when most of the Israeli public (and a good part of Jewry in the Diaspora) were overcome by the intoxication of national pride, military arrogance, and fantasies of the glory of messianic deliverance, I expressed, both orally and in writing, my concern lest the great victory that led to the conquest (or 'liberation') of the entire territory of the historical Eretz Israel (with the addition of the Sinai peninsula) prove in the course of history to have been the event initiating the process of the decline and fall of the state of Israel. At the time these words evoked much anger. Today, after the 1973 (Yom Kippur) war and the ensuing developments, including the peace with Egypt, many people refer to those concerns, and many also remark that my fears are being justified."

Some American Jewish leaders and pundits were especially angered by the Jerusalem professor's prophetic utterances. Among Modern Orthodox Jews, many of whom have long been under the sway of the messianist ideas of Gush Emunim, the ideological standard bearers of the settler movement, a considerable objection to Leibowitz was that he was a committed Orthodox Jew, a rabbinic scholar and a teacher of Jewish philosophy. He of all people should know better! But Leibowitz's critique was an insider's critique, and therefore all the more dangerous. It unpacked the religious nationalist view of Israel, a view with Messianic pretensions, while at the same time affirming the need for a strong Jewish state. Leibowitz wrote:

"It is a brute fact that the major portion of Jewish history has taken place in the absence of a Jewish state. I might add that it is possible to have a very highly refined Judaism outside of Israel. Still, I am a Zionist, which is to say that I do not wish to live a Jewish life within the framework of the Gentile world, subjected to its rule. I have had my fill of this rule. But important as the existence of the state is for me, I do not attribute to it any elements of sanctity and do not regard religion as functioning in its behalf, any more than I regard it as performing a function in behalf of the Jewish people."

Though his opinions were ridiculed and discounted in the US, within Israel, Leibowitz remained a vibrant oppositional prescence. As Avishai Margalit noted in the New York Review of Books in 1993, "Early this year a ninety-year old man was driving Israelis crazy." The Israeli Ministry of Education had awarded the prestigious Israel Prize to Professor Leibowitz. A public furor ensued; the political right was outraged, and in the end Leibowitz declined to accept the prize.Vilified but uncowed, the nonagenarian scholar continued to warn of the consequences of continued Israeli rule over the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While Leibowitz could be dismissed by American Jewish leaders as a mere ivory-tower liberal, with no political or military experience, it was much more difficult (though ultimately not impossible) to dismiss the message conveyed in the 1980s by Yehoshafat Harkabi, former head of Israeli military intelligence.

Harkabi's early books on the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially his 1972 work, Arab Attitudes Towards Israel, were source books on the seemingly implacable Arab hostility to the Jewish State. The books were often quoted in Israeli government pronouncements, and by extension in American Jewish publications. To this day, any suggestion that Israel too might be responsible for the terrible political-military situation it is in is met by this rejoinder: "Haven't you read Harkabi's books? Don't you know that the Arabs hate Israel? There is nothing Israel can do but harshly control them, and if necessary, fight them and defeat them." That Harkabi's research of the '70s and '80s had led to a revision of his central thesis was news to many American Jews.

According to Harkabi, in the 1980s "Arab attitudes," as expressed in the aftermath of the 1967 War, were changing, and were far from monolithic. If a settlement of the conflict was to take place, Israel1s attitudes and actions would determine it. The 1980s, before the first intifida, was the period in which Harkabi made his most forceful pronouncements on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. In fact, he anticipated the outbreak of the intifada. In his book Fateful Decisions, he warned that without evacuation of the settlements and a resolution of refugee issues, the conflict would remain intractable.

Both Harkabi and Leibowitz died in 1994. Towards the ends of their lives, each spoke in prophetic terms about Israel's immediate political-military future, which they saw as bleak unless some "fateful decisions" (Harkabi's term) were made. Among these decisions were the removal of the settler population from the West Bank and Gaza and the normalization of the political status of the Arabs citizens of the Israel.

The 1982 Israeli-Lebanon War, dubbed "Operation Peace for Galilee" by its architect Ariel Sharon, was seen by General Harkabi, then Professor of International Relations at Hebrew University, as a turning point in Israeli history. "Israel has gained something from all of the wars that it initiated, except for the Lebanon War, which was a great disaster," he said.

"Its main damage wasn't in the number of killed and wounded — one surely wouldn't want to take lightly these great losses to the families and to the nation — but it its lasting negative effect on Israel's strategic situation." Of Sharon's policies in the West Bank and Gaza, Harkabi said that "the settlements are an obstacle to peace, and they are a military liability, not an asset." For Harkabi, self-criticism, not territorial expansion, was the key to Israel's political and military survival:

"Of course we are not wholly responsible for the worsening of our political-military situation," he wrote. "But self-criticism is essential if we are to overcome a tendency to self-righteousness, a tendency which results from Jewish approaches to history, from our historical experience, and from the 'ethos' of self-righteousness as promoted by Prime Minister Begin. In my opinion, there is no greater threat to our survival than this ethos of self-righteousness. It renders us blind and unable to understand our situation — and it gives legitimacy to bad national leadership."

In an interview from his hospital bed during his final illness, Harkabi told a reporter that he feared that a rightist fanatic would assassinate Rabin in order to prevent the end of the settlers' dream of permanent occupation of what they dubbed the "liberated territories." Within a year of Harkabi's death, his prophecy was fulfilled.

In my title, I spoke of "prophets" and "warnings." I am of course borrowing the idea of prophecy from the biblical tradition. In the Hebrew Bible, one of the hallmarks of the true prophet was the willingness to speak up against injustice, especially injustice committed by the state. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in his study of Hebrew prophecy: "Of paramount importance in the history of Israel was the freedom and independence enjoyed by the prophets, their ability to upbraid the kings and princes for their sins."

As Ariel Sharon's followers have dubbed him "Arik, king of Israel," it is only appropriate that prophets should arise to condemn his policies and warn against the consequences of his actions.

What exactly were these modern prophetic warnings?

Leibowitz wrote: "Israeli policy in the occupied territories is one of self-destruction of the Jewish state, and of relations with the Arabs based on perpetual terror. There is no way out of this situation except withdrawal from the territories." Writing in 1976, the Israeli philosopher saw two processes that would facilitate the process of Israeli self-destruction. One would occur within the West Bank and Gaza: "The colonizing situation will lead to the establishment of a political structure combining the horrors of Lebanon with those of Rhodesia — the state of a people possessing a common national heritage will turn into a system of imposed rule over two peoples, one ruling and the other ruled."

The second process was the worsening of Jewish-Arab relations within the borders of the State of Israel. "The occupation in the West Bank and Gaza will bring about solidarity of the half a million Israeli Arab citizens with their brothers in the occupied territories. This will lead to a radical change in their state of mind. Inevitably, they will no longer regard themselves as Arab citizens of the state of Israel, but rather as members of a people exploited by that state. In such a situation, one must expect the constant incidence of terror and counterterror." Leibowitz wrote this a quarter of a century ago. Sadly, his prediction has come true.

Leibowitz did not live to see Sharon elected to the Israeli Prime Minister's office. For decades his prophetic voice railed against earlier prime ministers. He was especially exercised when Prime Minister Begin appointed Sharon Minister of Defense in 1982. When Israel moved into Lebanon, Leibowitz called for Israeli soldiers to refuse to serve in the invasion forces which laid siege to Beirut.

Harkabi, writing in 1986, spoke critically of the Jewish settlers in the territories (and here he was writing before the first intifada). "Some of the settlers will exploit Palestinian hostility to them to bring into being a system of extreme repression. The greater the repression, the greater the Arab rebellion will be . . . We won't be able to turn the Arabs' lives into hell without our own lives turning into hell. The harm to us will be both internal and external. The international community will condemn us."

Let us compare the predictions of these two Israeli "prophets" with the pronouncements and actions of Ariel Sharon. During the 1970s and 180s, when Leibowitz, Harkabi and others were warning of the high political price of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sharon as a government minister was the great facilitator of settlement construction and expansion in those same territories. Sharon and Gush Emunim, the religious Zionist settler movement, became intimate political bedfellows. Sharon assured his political allies that the combination of Israeli military action in Lebanon, which would install a "pro-Israeli" government, and the expansion into the territories, which would "pacify" the Palestinian population, would bring peace and prosperity to the Israeli people.

Twenty years have passed since Sharon made that prophecy. Now, as Israel's Prime Minister, he is presiding over the fulfillment of the nightmare that his critics foresaw. Leibowitz and Harkabi, whose voices still reach us though their terrifyingly prescient writings, were accurate in their predictions that Israeli actions would determine that country's future. In any other country and context, that message might seem so obvious as to not require the services of a "prophet." In the Israeli context, and especially in the context of American Jewish opinion on Israel, that simple message required a number of prophetic voices. Tragically, they went unheeded.