Zeev Sternhell, Leading Voice of Israeli Left and Renowned Political Scientist, Dies at 85

Prof. Zeev Sternhell, one of the world’s most important political scientists and a prominent figure on the Israeli left, died on Sunday at the age of 85, after a decline in his condition following surgery. Sternhell was a long-time leading op-ed columnist for Haaretz, where he stood out as one of the most vociferous critics of the right wing in Israel and around the world. He warned of the prospect of the collapse of Israeli democracy. 

He is survived by his wife, Ziva, a lecturer in architecture, as well as two daughters, including historian Yael Sternhell, and grandchildren.

>> Read Zeev Sternhall's columns in Haaretz

Both Zeev Sternhell’s personal life story and his academic career were marked by upheavals. He was born in 1935 in Przemysl, Poland. During World War II, which broke out when he was 4 years old, he lost his entire family. His father died a natural death, after returning from combat in the Polish army and his mother and sister were murdered by the Nazis. His aunt and uncle arranged for his escape from the ghetto after which he pretended to be a Polish Catholic, with the assistance of non-Jewish Poles.

Following the war, he was baptised in Poland and converted to Christianity out of concern about rising antisemitism in the country. In 1946, he emigrated to France, where he took on a new identity, studying French and French culture, while leaving his Polish background and Catholicism behind.

At the age of 13, following the news of the establishment of the State of Israel, he decided to immigrate to Israel. “The War of Independence sparked my imagination. My decision to make aliyah was a personal decision, stemming from both my Zionist family history and my desire to take part in building the state of the Jews,” he recalled.

Sternhell was an officer in the Israeli army’s Golani Brigade and commanded a platoon in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. In the 1967 Six-Day War, he was an operations officer in Israel Tal’s Steel Division, and in 1973, he returned from Oxford to serve as an operations officer in a tank brigade in the Yom Kippur War. He also served in the first Lebanon war of 1982.