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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Training Coordinator - Financial Services

£32000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, inte...

Recruitment Genius: Supply Chain Administrator

£8000 - £10800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Supply Chain Administrator is ...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor