Israeli Peace Activist, the Historian and Critic Zeev Sternhell, Dies at 85

Israeli historian, political scientist and peace activist Zeev Sternhell, has died at age 85, Jerusalem’s Hebrew University announced Sunday, June 21. Sternhell was an early critic of Israel’s 1967 decision to occupy the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Golan Heights, Sinai and Gaza Strip. In the 1970s, he led a failed campaign to persuade the then-ruling Labor Party to end the occupation of Arab lands.

MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, (left) meets with Zeev Sternhell at the home of the late Israeli historian and political scientist's in 2017.

MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, (left) meets with Zeev Sternhell at the home of the late Israeli historian and political scientist’s in 2017. (Photo: Reut Mor)

Sternhell, who reportedly died from complications following an unspecified surgery, won the Israel Prize in 2008 and for many decades was one of the leading voices warning against the erosion of Israeli democracy due to the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.

Several months after winning the Israel Prize for his decades-long research on political thought and particularly on fascism, Sternhell was wounded by a pipe bomb hidden at his home by a settler, the US-born Jewish terrorist Jack Tytell. He was injured in the leg and hospitalized. In the wake of the attack, Sternhell increasingly warned about the dangers posed to Israel’s democratic spaces. From his hospital bed he said that “if this act were not committed by a deranged person but by someone who represents a political view, then it would represent the beginning of the disintegration of democracy.” An Israeli court sentenced Tytell to two life sentences in 2013 for the murder of two Palestinians and the attempted murder of several others, including Sternhell.

Hadash MK Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, eulogized Sternhell: “During his childhood in Poland, Zeev Sternhell experienced the terrible consequences of fascism and later in his life gathered the courage and power to study and fight it. For decades, he was a prominent force in favor of human rights for the Palestinians and against the occupation regime in the territories. My meeting with him has resonated with me ever since and his writings will continue to illuminate the path to justice and freedom for everybody.”

Born to a Jewish family in 1935, Sternhell survived the Second World War by being disguised as a Catholic. The Nazis murdered his mother and sister. He moved to France after the war and studied in Avignon, but immigrated to Israel in 1951 before completing his studies. He received his bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science in 1960 from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He earned his master’s degree four years later, and completed his PhD in Paris in 1969. After receiving his doctorate, Sternhell began teaching political science at the Hebrew University.

Sternhell served as an Israeli soldier in the country’s wars during four decades but believed in the necessity of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Following Israel’s 2014 war against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (“Operation Protective Edge”), Sternhell told Haaretz — for which he was a regular columnist — that “Israeli democracy has become increasingly eroded, until it reached a new nadir in the current war. The indicators of fascism definitely exist here.”