An Israeli prophet sees signs of hope: Yeshayahu Leibowitz tells Sarah Helm in Jerusalem why he thinks change is coming

YESHAYAHU LEIBOWITZ slumps deep into his chair, his arms outstretched like a wizened crow. But ensconced in his small book-lined study in Jerusalem, the 90-year-old professor is as combative as he ever was.

'A 10-year-old girl has been shot dead in Gaza by the soldiers of the army of Israel,' he thunders, raising a claw- like hand for dramatic effect, and driving home his point with a fixed stare.

Since the 1967 Six-Day war, Professor Leibowitz, born in Riga in 1903, has been predicting that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would lead to Israel's moral degeneration, to a growing 'bestiality' on the part of the army.

His prophecies, he says, have come true. 'It was unavoidable that such atrocities as this would come about. It is the mentality brought about by accepting the violence of nationalist politics.'

The deportation of 413 Palestinians was 'a terrible mistake', he says. 'A moral defeat for the government.' But again, he adds: 'It was absolutely unavoidable. If we maintain the violent repression of people they will revolt and commit terrorist acts. And we will use all means to suppress this . . . The moment nationality becomes the highest human value that is fascism.'

It is hardly surprising that Prof Leibowitz's views should outrage most Israelis, particularly the right wing, the settlers, and all who rally behind the banner of Eretz - or greater - Israel.

What is surprising is that after all these years of listening to him slaying their sacred cows - arguing for the separation of religion and state, for soldiers to refuse service in the West Bank and Gaza - Israel has not learnt to assimilate his views. The recent announcement that Prof Leibowitz was to be awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for his life's work - he is a scholar of chemistry, philosophy and medicine, and editor of the monumental Hebrew Encyclopedia - caused a political storm verging on hysteria.

At first, he took the attacks in his stride. But when the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, announced that he too opposed the award and would boycott the ceremony set for April, Prof Leibowitz said he would turn it down.

Commenting on the uproar, he says: 'Many people see me as a traitor. What I am saying to them must amount to treason. That is understandable. This cleavage exists here and has for many years.' What angers the majority of Israelis is the emotive language Prof Leibowitz uses to make his points: comparing the settlers to 'Judeo-Nazis', and declaring that Israeli undercover army units are no better than Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. But Prof Leibowitz - a pious Jew - does not see himself as particularly radical. And, shorn of colourful vocabulary, his views seem hardly more extreme than those of the doveish members of Mr Rabin's own cabinet.

Until 1967 the fault was all on the other side, he says: it was the Arabs who prevented the 1948 partition and then invaded Israel. It is only since 1967 that Israel has become the oppressor.

And he stresses that his motivation is to save Israel, to restore the state to the moral high ground by ending its corrupting occupation. He is not primarily interested in campaigning for Palestinian rights. 'It is not a question of liberating Palestinians but of liberating the state. That is important.'

Whatever the attempts to demonise him in recent weeks (he has been described variously as mad, bitter and disgusting), he says a substantial minority of Israelis agree with him. And this gives him hope for the future.

Prof Leibowitz is prophesying again - on a more positive note. 'The direction of Israeli politics is changing, which means there is a chance for a voluntary agreement between the state of Israel and the PLO. That is a possibility.

'What is more probable is that the partition will be effected not by voluntary agreement but by pressure of the United Nations - which means the US. There is this chance now. Five years ago there was no chance for an agreement at all.'

(Photograph omitted)

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam