The New Israel Fund mourns the loss of Professor Zeev Sternhell z”l, world-renowned scholar, man of conscience, and father of our beloved board member, Dr. Yael Sternhell. Zeev Sternhell was one of the world’s most important scholars of modern political ideologies with a particular expertise in fascism.
In a series of major books, especially La droite révolutionnaire, 1885-1914: Les origines françaises du fascism (1978), Dr. Sternhell trained his attention on strains of fascist thought in France that few scholars had identified previously. For decades, he taught and chaired the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University.
Zeev Sternhell knew the ravages of fascism first-hand. He was born in Przemyśl, Poland, in 1935. His world was uprooted four years later by the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland followed by the Nazi take-over of the area. As a young boy, he managed to escape to Lvov, although his mother and sister were apprehended and murdered by the Nazis. He survived the war by adopting a Catholic identity in Poland. In his extraordinarily eventful and tumultuous early life, he was taken to France at 11 to live with his aunt. Five years later, at age 16, he immigrated as part of the Youth Aliyah to Israel.
Throughout his life, Zeev Sternhell remained a devoted Zionist. In fact, he declared in an interview in Haaretz in 2008 that he was a “super Zionist” who believed that Jews had no less of a right to control their fates than any other group.
At the same time, he applied his critical analytical and scholarly skills to his adopted country, and never failed to call out with great clarity and courage dangerous trends in Israeli political life. In The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State (published first in Hebrew in 1995), he traced the guiding ideology of the Labor Zionist movement that shaped the early state of Israel.
He argued that for Labor Zionists such as David Ben Gurion, nationalist ambitions always trumped socialist ideals, which helped account for the shallow roots of democratic and egalitarian principles in contemporary Israel. He was especially concerned by the rise of extremist tendencies in the settler movement, which he voiced loudly. In 2008, an extremist settler placed a pipe bomb at the front of his office, which went off and injured him.
In the same year as the bomb attack on him, Professor Sternhell was awarded the Israel Prize for his contributions to Israeli society. Zeev Sternhell believed that it was his patriotic duty to draw on the past to caution against the resurgence of fascism in the present.
In addition to his daughter Yael, an historian of U.S. history at Tel Aviv University, Zeev Sternhell is survived by his wife Ziva, a distinguished art historian, and his daughter Tali.
Zeev Sternhell’s unsurpassed commitment to justice, equality, and full rights for all remains a profound inspiration for the New Israel Fund, of which he can rightly be seen as a guiding light.
May his memory be a blessing to all, and may his bold scholarship and insight continue to inspire us on the path to justice.
Photo credit: Alexander Bohm via Wikimedia Commons