Zeev Sternhell, Spiritual Leader of the Left, Never Gave Up on the Israeli Society

Prof. Zeev Sternhell was the left’s equivalent of a great rabbinic leader, the really ideal embodiment of an intellectual leader, but the kind whose shoes were stained with the mud of the reality of the street and the battlefield.

The Hebrew University professor, who died on Sunday, could articulate the left’s ideas clearly, making them accessible and stirring. Others more learned than me will certainly write about his titles, his massive amount of knowledge and the admiration people worldwide had for him and his research on fascism. Sternhell, as I perceived him through his writings and correspondences with him, was first and foremost a mensch, full of personal warmth and mischievous vitality, who was generous with young writers and wrote them praise and encouragement. He was always ready to give advice or support, whatever was needed at the moment.

As a young opinion writer, I remember reading one of his Friday opinion pieces (“The Trap of Being Apolitical,” May 24, 2013): I physically understood that I’d come across the perfect opinion piece. Sternhell had formulated the principles of a true left in 445 words of crisp, simple Hebrew. On another occasion, he explained in an interview how his identity was shaped when he discovered freedom and secularism in France, to where he had fled from Poland during World War II, in a manner that was similarly awesome in its simplicity.

For years, I brought to classrooms a copy of the opinion piece, most of which is dedicated to the organizing principle of the right. Even if you didn’t relate to his opinions, note the simplicity and clarity of the man with integrity and an erect posture. He didn’t need pretentious academic terms or highfalutin metaphors. He has his own truth, and it is priceless.

And that was Sternhell’s greatness. He spoke Hebrew. He didn’t give up on Israeli society, even as he warned of the evil ways it was pursuing and saw the worst of his prophecies come true one after another – and their ugly fulfillment repeatedly leaves us astounded with our mouths agape.

Before being a distinguished intellectual, Sternhell was a Golani platoon commander and an operations officer in the Yom Kippur War. He constantly kept his finger on the pulse of Israeli society. We are all bound together in the bloody trenches, regardless of ethnicity, education and socioeconomic status, viewing death together and covering ourselves with an additional layer of skin in the silent knowledge of what a person is, of how valuable life is.

Sternhell was very worried in recent years, possibly even more so than in 2008, when a bomb went off at the entrance of his home. During 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, one of the prominent crossroads in the rise of Jewish ultranationalism, he was interviewed by Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz.