Yeshayahu Leibowitz: I Told You So

by Mitchell Plitnick

I have been recently reminded of a truly admirable man whose wisdom was truly astounding. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was a brilliant man who saw Judaism through a unique and often controversial lens.

In 1993, Leibowitz, who was a constant critic of Israeli government policies as well as the religious views of most rabbis, was awarded the Israel Prize (Pras Yisrael), which is the highest civilian honor Israel has. Before receiving the prize, Leibowitz caused a great controversy by publicly calling for Israelis to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. The ensuing controversy included then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to say he would not attend the Prize ceremony. Leibowitz ended the controversy by refusing the Prize.

A quarter century earlier, Leibowitz wrote an essay called The Territories {Leibowitz, Yeshayahu (1 January 1992). Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State. Harvard University Press}.in which he warned of the existential threat posed to Israel. That threat was not from Egypt, or Syria, nor was it from terrorism or the Soviet Union. It was the threat posed by occupation, and Leibowitz warned Israel that it should get out of all the territory it occupied in the recent Six Day War. His warnings were not only ethical, but remarkably prescient, predicting a great deal of what would eventually come about in Israel due to its ongoing occupation. In other words, history has proven that Leibowitz was spot-on correct in his dire warning.

There is still time for Israel to change its course. But that is up to Israel to decide. For Jews who live in the Diaspora, however, we can also make a decision. We can decide that the choice is not between mindlessly supporting Israel in its drive to suicide and its daily practices of occupation, settlement expansion, and all the human rights violations that these necessarily imply on the one hand and silence on the other. No we can recognize that the choice is between following groups like AIPAC, the AJC, the ZOA the Israel Project and others as they merrily accelerate Israel’s high-speed dive off the cliff on the one hand and heeding the words of Leibowitz and other progressive and visionary Jews and Israelis on the other.

Here are some excerpts of The Territories. Leibowitz clearly got it right. Maybe we can too.

  • Without an agreement imposed from the outside, our situation will deteriorate to that of a second Vietnam, to a war in constant escalation without the prospect of ultimate resolution.
  • “Security” is a reality only where there is true peace between neighbors, as in the case of Holland/Belgium, Sweden/Norway, the United States/Canada.  In the absence of peace there is no security, and no geographic-strategic settlement on the land can change this.  There is no direct link between security and the territories.
  • Our security has been diminished rather than enhanced as a result of the conquests in this war.
  • Our real problem is not the territory but rather the population of about a million and a half Arabs who live in it and over whom we must rule.  Inclusion of these Arabs (in addition to the half a million who are citizens of the state) in the area under our rule will effect the liquidation of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and bring about catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole; it will undermine the social structure that we have created in the state and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab.
  • Rule over the occupied territories would have social repercussions.  After a few years there would be no Jewish workers or Jewish farmers.  The Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police—mainly secret police.  A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech, and democratic institutions.  The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the state of Israel.  The administration would have to suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other.  There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.Out of concern for the Jewish people and its state we have no choice but to withdraw from the territories and their population of one and a half million Arabs.
  • As for the “religious” arguments for the annexation of the territories—these are only an expression, subconsciously or perhaps even overtly hypocritical, of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism.  Counterfeit religion identifies national interests with the service of God and imputes to the state—which is only an instrument serving human needs—supreme value from a religious standpoint.
  • Not every “return to Zion” is a religiously significant achievement: one sort of return which may be described in the words of the prophet: “When you returned you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination” (Jeremiah 2:7).

Photo of Yeshayahu Leibowitz by Bracha L. Ettinger via Flickr

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.