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Editorial Article

Sternhell and the Debasement of the Israel Prize

by Saul Zadka

May 5, 2008

He called on IDF tanks to roll over the settlements, he advised the Palestinians to direct their armed Intifada east of the green line, he maintains that killing Arab children becomes part of national policy, he condemns Israel's "barbaric behavior" in the territories, he branded Israeli ministers as "stupid", "megalomaniac", "trigger-happy gangsters, he opposed Israel's right to fight terrorism and does not even think that he lives in a democracy. Yet, this nightmarish country will award Prof. Ze'ev Sternhell its most prestigious prize on Independence Day and he has the audacity to accept it.

It should be quoted to be believed: "In the end we will have to use force against the settlers in Ofra or Elon Moreh. Only he who is willing to storm Ofra with tanks will be able to block the fascist danger threatening to drown Israeli democracy."

He wrote this call for a civil war twenty years ago (in the late Davar daily), but his pen did not cease to drip the familiar venom that became his hallmark. In May 2001, a year into the "second Intifada", in the height of the suicide bombings, this time in Ha'aretz, he wrote: "Many Israelis, possibly the majority of voters, do not doubt the legitimacy of the armed resistance in the territories proper. If the Palestinians had a little sense, they would have concentrated their struggle against the settlements and would not hurt women and children, fire rockets on Gilo, Nachal Oz and Sderot, or plant explosives on the Western side of the Green Line. In this manner, the Palestinians would themselves draft the solution that will be reached in any case."

Zeev Sternhell was always obsessed with the residents of Judea and Samaria, but he did not confine his hatred to them only. Throughout his academic-political career he did not refrain from viciously attacking the IDF whom he accused of committing crimes against humanity in the service of the settlers. For him, the army is nothing short of a happy trigger gang, hell bent to kill Palestinian children. "We had never experienced such colonial contempt for human life, for the inferior ‘natives’.", he wrote on May 2004, "We have never had cynicism and obtuseness like that seen in recent days in the appearance and the behavior of members of the new army, from the defense minister and the chief of staff to the commander of the Gaza Division, with their cold, alienated and bureaucratic language. The stain on the army uniform is steadily spreading".


"The only sin lies not in

 committing crimes, but in

 failing to conceal them",

he wrote about the IDF.

After an incident in Girit military outpost, in Gaza, where IDF soldiers shot dead a local girl, he wrote: "In the territories they shoot at anything that moves, without asking too many questions. Even after they shoot, they don't ask questions, except when a particularly horrifying case comes to the attention of the media. Then the whitewash mechanism called an ‘investigation’ goes into action".

Sternhell regards the incident as part of a pattern that characterized the army's conduct for many years. "When forces sowed unnecessary destruction and terror, they were operating in the spirit of their commanders and according to their instructions, from Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (former chief of staff) on down. The Palestinian girl who was killed opposite the Girit outpost was not the only one". And he went on to denounce the officer in-command (Brigadier General Shmuel Zakai) who "saw no reason to open an investigation against the company commander because he didn't consider such a pattern of behavior exceptional, but rather a part of combat, in which the killing of children has become an everyday occurrence. These norms were known to all the ranks of command, as well as to the defense minister and the prime minister".

The prize winner does not stop here. In his tendency to smear and generalize, he points a finger at the soldiers and denounces them as criminals. "What do the young soldiers and the petty officers internalize today? They leave the army with the knowledge that human life, when the life is not a Jewish one, is extremely cheap. The death of a Jew by the hands of a Palestinian is a tragedy; the death of a Palestinian by the hands of a Jew is no big deal. They learn that the killing of Palestinian children, women and old people, the destruction of their homes and their property, is permitted not only in cases of self-defense, but even for the sake of operational convenience. They learn that the Palestinian population is of no interest to anyone and force can be used against it unrestrainedly, even when the only real purpose is revenge and scare tactics. From the affair of the commander of the Gaza Division and the company commander from the Girit outpost, they have learned the lesson that might makes right. Because the only sin lies not in committing crimes, but in failing to conceal them".


The assassination of Shehadeh,

who was responsible for a dozens of

suicide bombings, was described by him

as a "barbaric behavior"

Not surprisingly he seized the opportunity to unleash his harsh words at the army following the pilots' letter, protesting at the operation in which the residence building of Salah Shehadeh, the then head of Hamas' military wing was bombed. In what he described as an "uprising", he wrote in his Ha'aretz regular column that the act "draws its strength and authority from the classic distinction between an order that is legal but illegitimate, and an order that is both legal and legitimate. Nobody questions the authority of the Israeli government to drop a one-ton bomb on a residential building, but that fact is not enough to make the act legitimate and to remove the fear that a crime was committed on behalf of the state".

And he continued to illuminate us: "by the force of those principles the secular West created democracy; it exists only in those places where individuals use their judgment as moral beings. But the same principle covers every society and every regime: Even orders given by a government elected by a perfectly formal democratic process can be criminal orders. The French in their colonies and the Americans in Vietnam provided classic examples of war crimes perpetrated by democratic governments".

Sternhell thought that the pilots opened a broad breach in the wall of Israeli conformism. "Indeed, with all its many layers and elements, our political culture was and in many ways still remains a herd culture. The instinctual Israeli need to be part of the 'hevre', the gang, and to accept, without any dissent, the norms of that group, no matter how destructive they may be, is a permanent condition. The phenomenon of refusing orders challenges that crude conformism, placing the individual conscience in front of the thundering herd. That's the root of the fury directed at the pilots, and that's the source of the apathy to the fate of young conscientious objectors like Yoni Ben Artzi and his friends, who, along with their families, are going through a form of suffering that is difficult to describe".

And as he reiterated time and again, the war on terrorism is in fact a war in the service of the settlements and therefore it is political because it involves steps that the conscience cannot tolerate. The uprising "against barbaric behavior, like killing children to reach a terror activist, necessarily has a political character. In our reality, life and death are in the hands of politics".

According to Sternhell, the military, as well as the political leadership are part of a conspiracy to eliminate the Palestinians, while colonizing their territories and perpetuation the hegemony of the settlers. He always puts the blamed on them for the violence in the territories. In June 2006, after a bombing on Gaza beach in which members of the same family were killed mistakenly (although not certainly) by IDF gunfire, he wrote: "It seems that once again, we are being taken over by the same kind of stupidity and megalomania that have characterized most Israeli governments since the War of Attrition, with their collection of generals in both the career army and the reserves, their experts on security and strategy, and their intelligence wizards".

Like Yasser Arafat, Sternhell was searching for "an Israeli De Gaulle”. The reason that such a figure has not yet found lies with "the conformist and establishmentarian culture of being ‘together’". His use of the French president example was not accidental. "For many years there have been many among us in liberal circles hoping for the appearance of a lifeguard who will rise to the occasion as history's emissary and free our society from the swamp of occupation and colonization. But such a de Gaulle has not been found, because so far, Israeli society has been incapable of producing such people. Indeed, before he became a national hero, de Gaulle was a rebel who was sentenced to death for treason by a legal military court. De Gaulle, a professional soldier down to his very bones, refused to obey an order obeyed by the entire army: to lay down its weapons. The order, like the regime, may have been legal, but in his eyes, it was not legitimate".

Sternhell laments the fact that "conformism and establishmentarianism" runs deep even into the Israeli Left. "…The second nature to the vast majority of Israeli politicians, lies in the fact that no organized political body, not even Meretz or Peace Now, dared publicly support the pilots' letter, the writers' petition, or the demand to investigate the circumstances of Shehadeh's assassination. When Shulamit Aloni demanded that her party be avant garde and support the refuseniks, she was left with a few supporters, in inglorious loneliness. One should be able to expect a little more courage from the liberal left and social democrats, a little more instinctive identification with those few fighters who went out to rescue our dignity and honor".

For the new recipient of Israel's prize, the Left in his country is not really Left. "Left is not only the Geneva Accords. Left is also the ability to stand up instinctively, without calculating how many votes are at stake, and to side with the forces of justice and morality against the hurtling herd - even when justice is in the minority, lagging behind in the public opinion polls".

Sternhell made a connection between the bombing of Shehade's house in Gaza to the shooting incidents during demonstrations along the security fence. He was referring to the former Air Force commander, "the man who sleeps well at night and, when he drops a bomb in the heart of a civilian population feels only a "light bump" in his plane. His conscience, in contrast, feels no jolt of any kind. The dominant insensitivity in the top ranks is threatening to turn the youngsters in uniform into an army of robots: That's the other lesson of the incident at the fence".


Sternhell is described as

a world authority on the

study of Fascism.

Is it why he made

Israel a test case of his study?

Sternhell might deserve the Israeli national prize for hypocrisy. While urging IDF tanks to roll over the settlements of Ofra, he accused the Right wing in the country of fomenting a civil war. "The right wing has always preached national unity, while at the same time developing and disseminating an ideology of civil war. This was the pattern throughout Europe and it is the pattern in Israel as well. For those on the right, the term ‘unity’ has one practical meaning: falling into line with their opinions. They believe that anyone who holds an opposing view and does not make do with merely voicing it but also tries to implement it, is a traitor. Therefore it's always the left that pays the price of unity, and it's in the ranks of the left that the victims fall. When the right is in power it is also adept at making substantive innovations: the sole meaning it attaches to democracy is majority rule".

In a twisted way he sees Israel as everything, but not a democracy, a country in which the majority "has all the rights, including control over the citizen's conscience". Sternhell accused Sharon's last Government as holding an intriguing doctrine that "under no circumstances does anyone have the right to oppose the government that was democratically elected, and that this government is entitled to trample human rights, ignore norms of law and natural morality alike, and make a mockery of the principle of equality. By the same token, the government of the majority is entitled to demand that every citizen put on a uniform and take part in deeds that border on war crimes".

This is the logic, according to the learned Professor, "which refusal to participate in killing civilians, women and children in the course of belligerent activity is perceived by many as being identical with the refusal to participate in removing a settler outpost. It's clear, though, that in the first case the refusal is the revolt of an individual, whose value system does not allow him to be part of a morally unjustified killing campaign, whereas the latter refusal case is purely political resistance".

But what a relief, the Israeli government is not the first to be elected democratically and to order its security forces to perform actions that conscience can barely abide. "France of the Fourth Republic and the United States in the period of the Vietnam War were democracies that forced their soldiers to commit war crimes or that ignored the perpetration of such crimes".

Sternhell's analogies, go beyond those two countries. The shooting of a Jewish demonstrator in front of the security fence was not, for him, an isolated case. "It is a taste of what is liable to happen here in the future". In fact, "the more intense and the more long-lasting the occupation is, the cheaper life becomes and the culture of factionalism takes over. That culture doesn't distinguish between a fighter and an ordinary civilian. Thus the incident last week should have come as no surprise". Yet, he described that shooting incident as a "mishap", since the IDF is normally in the routine business of shooting others, not Jews. "The only difference between it and hundreds, if not thousands, of previous similar events in the territories is really a matter of chance: If a Jew hadn't been wounded and if the incident hadn't been filmed and seen by dozens of Israeli witnesses, it would not have merited even a line in the press. Now every Israeli knows how and why hundreds of Palestinians, including children, who may have taken part in demonstrations but not in belligerent activity, are killed every year by live fire".

And then he reached his favorite conclusion: "Everything stems from the fact that the army serves the settlement enterprise, its commanding officers express their admiration for the Israelis who live across the Green Line, and they strike at the Palestinian population without pangs of conscience. Some of them also make no secret of their enmity for the left. The shooting at the fence was the accumulated result of the trickling down of the hostility toward the ‘bleeding hearts,’ the Oslo and Geneva ‘criminals,’ and toward all those who refuse to do military service in the territories".

The collusion, according to the political scientist, is part of a broad conspiracy, as he explained in another article (24.2.06) in which he argued that the "settlers do not bear sole responsibility for the oppressive regime beyond the Green Line; they only exploit the situation to make the lives of the inhabitants intolerable, in the hope that Palestinian society will disintegrate, so that when the time comes, it will be possible to get rid of it entirely".

But the settlers do not bear sole responsibility for the oppressive regime beyond the Green Line; they only exploit the situation to make the lives of the inhabitants intolerable, in the hope that Palestinian society will disintegrate, so that when the time comes, it will be possible to get rid of it entirely.

He took the opportunity to mock the settlers in Gaza who were forced to leave their homes as part of the disengagement plan. "Now they also consider themselves entitled to psychotherapy, to emotional and political compensation, to unbounded love and embraces, whose practical meaning is nothing but the capitulation of secular society and its consent to the state's becoming semi-clerical. Not to mention the hilltop youth, the uprooters of olive trees and poisoners of sheep, those taking over territories that do not belong to them and trying to turn Israel into a colonialist country".

He lashed out at the "religious Zionism" (4.8.05) to warn us about the future. "Nevertheless, make no mistake: what happened here in recent weeks was the closest thing to a rolling coup that a democratic society has experienced since the Algerian War. Had the system not withstood the test, as it has so far, the settlement movement would have taken control of Israeli society and transformed it into a colonialist society par excellence. The only thing still keeping Israel from sinking into open colonialism is the element of ephemerality and temporariness that accompanies occupation".


Guess who is the only politician

praised by him? Yes.

The education minister who

 handed him the prize…

One should wonder how out of touch is Sternhell with reality. Despite the pull out from Gaza, he insisted that Israel did its utmost to use the downfall of Sadam Hussein for killing off Palestinian aspirations. "…instead of regarding the fall of Iraq as a divine gift that could enable putting an end to the Israeli-Palestinian war, the Israeli regime is trying to exploit Arab weakness to the fullest: in the eyes of Ariel Sharon and the ruling security establishment, now is the time to eliminate, once and for all, any possibility for an autonomous Palestinian existence. In that context, there is logic to the policy of body counts and the killing and punishment campaigns in Gaza and Nablus". In short, Israel is not interested in a settlement, or even in being accepted by its neighbors. "Nowadays, Israel no longer makes do with the demand that the Arabs recognize it as a sovereign state but also demands acceptance of its hegemony". And the reason is very simple:" Nowadays, Israel no longer makes do with the demand that the Arabs recognize it as a sovereign state, but also demands acceptance of its hegemony". And the reason is very simple:" Since the use of our military and technological superiority has been so successful, why not continue to use it the same way, while constantly improving the methods of operation?"

Sternhell is certain that if all else fails to preserve Israel's domination in the region, the country can always resort to its familiar weapon. ": Nobody is more expert than Israelis at emotional extortion. That's why every condemnation of the killing of Palestinian children, even by friends, is immediately interpreted as an expression of anti-Semitism".

Sternhell does dot believe, therefore, that the Jewish State is interested at all in peace. "Who needs peace if the price is conceding a unique opportunity to turn into a local empire? Under such ideal circumstances, only a fool or dreamer would agree to a fair compromise that means jumping into the unknown".  And why anyone, even those who are currently members of the current cabinet, may desire peace? After all, "anyone who believes that on this basis we can reach any kind of reasonable settlement should give his vote to Shaul Mofaz, an extremist Likudnik who is now heating up the field as much as he can, Avi Dichter, the targeted assassination specialist who cannot see past the tip of his nose, and the quick-on-the-trigger gang around them (24.2.06). In other words, Israeli ministers not only turn their back to any negotiated solution, they are doing their best to sabotage it by waging a murderous campaign against the Arabs. (Curiously, the only minister that Sternhell heaps praise on is Yuli Tamir, his sister in arms, who fixed this year Israel Prize for him. "She is working within her province to implement principles and policies for which she was elected. If only the same could be said of the entire government", he wrote in 15 December 2006, after she said that the "Green line" should be regarded by the school system as the country's final borders).


"I am not only a Zionist,

I am a super-Zionist!"

Sternhell's outrageous remarks in his articles were not lost by Israel's enemies. One of them, Edward Said, praised him in Al-Ahram, May 1998. Said wrote that Sternhell is "author of a very important book on the myth of Israeli society", in which he demolished completely the notion that Israel is a liberal, socialist, democratic state. In Said's words, the book exposed Israel as "illiberal and quasi-fascist state".

The notorious Noam Chomsky, in the British Guardian (May 2002), took a note of some other Sternhell's lines according to which the Israeli leadership is engaged in "colonial war policing, which recalls the takeover by the white police of the poor neighbourhoods of the blacks in South Africa".

Various Palestinian websites display his articles on a regular basis and Arab spokesmen often cite them in their propaganda campaigns.

After the news about the prize was announced by Ms. Tamir, a few groups filed a petition to the High Court, asking its judges to revoke the minister's decision. The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, Professors for a Strong Israel and the community of Ofra, cited the 2001 article in which he advised Arab terrorists to target settlements outside the Green Line. They also quoted his earlier article in which he called upon the IDF to storm Ofra with tanks.

The State Attorney's Office was quick to ask the Court to reject the petition on the ground that the decision to grant Sternhell the prize was based on "professional and research-related considerations". The state emphasized that accepting the petition would be "an injustice" since it would diminish his life's work "to the level of a sticker".

In the end the High Court accepted the State Attorney's arguments and Sternhell himself granted an interview to Ha'aretz weekly magazine in which his past controversial comments were ignored. In that interview he sounded conciliatory and declared himself "super-Zionist" and “Israeli-nationalist". "I Do not delude myself”, he said. "If the Arabs could have annihilated us, they would have gladly done it…the Egyptians and Palestinians would be happy. Therefore we are facing a danger to our existence and the strength is still our insurance policy to exist".

The Prize Panel's judges described Sternhell as "one of the leading scholars in the field of political thought in Israel and the world." Will they take note of what he thinks about the justification for the establishment of Israel 60 years ago? Look no further than an article he published on 28 June 2002: "The land was not empty of people: The slogan "A land without a people for a people without a land" was nothing but a gimmick for purposes of internal conviction, for silencing the conscience and for maintaining good public relations".


Op-Ed articles appearing on are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinion of