From Humanity to Bestiality, an encounter with Y. Leibowitz


This post is the first part of the “From Humanity to Bestiality” series in which I discuss the thoughts of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the famed Israeli intellectual known for his outspoken opinions on Judaism, ethics, religion and politics. I first discovered Yeshayahu Leibowitz when I came across an essay he wrote in 1968, barely a year after the Six-Day War, entitled ‘The Territories’ and published in his “Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State” in which he predicted a grim future for Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories:

“The Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police—mainly secret police. A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the State of Israel. The administration would suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.”

Here we are reading this in 2014 and, clearly, he turned out to be right. I’m hardly the only one to think so given the large response I got when I tweeted the above paragraph.

The following interview appeared in the 37th edition of “Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes”, the French quarterly version of the Journal of Palestine Studies published by the Institute for Palestine Studies, in 1990. It was done by Eyal Sivan, the Paris-based Israeli documentary filmmaker, for his movie “Itgaber: He will overcome“. Here’s an extract:

This is my own translation. Sadly the original French is not available online but I do have screenshots of the interview for those who wish to verify specific quotes and whatnot. They are available at the bottom of the post. The interview will be followed by my commentary in a separate post.

From Humanity to Bestiality

Yeshayahu Leibowitz and his wife Greta.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz and his wife Greta.

Eyal Sivan: Professor, you often meet up with hundreds of students. On which principles do you feel their education is based on?

Yeshayahu Leibowitz: I was recently invited to participate at a gathering of Israeli school directors, and I asked them this question: when you talk of success in education, aren’t you first and foremost interested if these boys will make excellent tank drivers, excellent pilots? Doesn’t this question matter more to you than whether they’d become honest men? Most admitted that, though regrettably, this was the prevalent state of mind in our country. They were honest about it.

Today, when we speak in Israel about a ‘New Man’, what we mean by that is that he’s a good soldier, or that he’ll be a good soldier, or was a good soldier, rather than if he beats his wife or not. The youth is formed, educated into receiving orders and being blindly obedient is considered a superior moral duty of Man.

If I had to qualify this education system which produces such a Man, even if those who practice it aren’t fully aware of it, I’d say that this system hails from a fascist idea. An Austrian philosopher, who wasn’t Jewish, Franz Grillparzer who, in my view, was one of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century, a witness of the rise of nationalisms in South-Eastern Europe, movements which were presented as the embodiment of progress, warned against such a movement which leads people “Von der Humanität über die Nationalität zur Bestialität, in other words “from Humanity to nationality to bestiality.”

As soon as we reduce human values into what is manifested by the Nation and the State, or what they produce in essence, Man is reduce to a cruel beast.

Was he thinking of ‘nationalism’ or ‘nationality’?

I don’t distinguish between them. The word ‘nationality’ can have several meanings. One of them is simply a matter of stating a fact. A man is, as a matter of fact, the son of a given people. In that sense, he doesn’t choose. He’s born and lives in a sort of ‘natural reality’. But the word nationality can also mean a certain ‘program’, and that is when it’s at its most vile and most contemptible.

In Israel, is there a ‘program’?

Yes, in Israel there is a program. It is against this program that Franz Grillparzer warned, against this path that, starting from humanity, goes to nationality and ends up in bestiality. It’s this path that the German people went through until the end. It is the one we’ve taken after the Six Days War [1967 war in which Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank, now considered Occupied Palestinian Territories].

How is that possible?

What does it mean “how is that possible?” What happened to the German people can happen to the Jewish one!

But here, in Israel, have they forgotten?

What does it mean “have they forgotten?”. No, here, there is both a will and a fertile ground for it.

Towards what?

Towards what Grillparzer called Bestiality. Here [in Israel], we call it nationality. But deep down, we mean the same thing.


Perhaps we’re prisoners of our own memory?

No. We use this memory to distract our thoughts from the real question: what are we really? What is our nature? What duty do we recognize?

We can avoid all problems, even the most difficult ones, whether those of Man in general or the Jewish man in particular, by deviating these questions into “what harm have they caused us?” As though the wrongs that we have suffered from have a role to play in defining our essence.  What has happened is significant for the ‘Goyim’ world [the non-Jewish people], not to our essence!

And since our educational system is absolutely incapable of providing us with any form of Jewish values adapted to our present reality, the escape towards the past, what happened to us, is very well exploited to distract our minds from all problems, from all obligations.

From all responsibility as well. We have no responsibility regardless of what we do because in the end we have become the people who did this to us. [note: translating this was difficult. The original French was “Nous n’avons aucune responsabilite quoi que nous fassions, puisque enfin nous sommes precisement ceux a qui on a fait tout cela!” could be understood as him saying that “‘we’ (the Israeli Jews) have become the oppressors”]

This “subjective” memory is perhaps a need?

What kind of need? We’re speaking about what Man is doing, not what is happening to him… If a man was run over by a car, is that a need? However, if a suicidal man jumps under a moving car, it becomes an act. We’re speaking about what Man is doing, not what is happening to him.

Perhaps these acts are somehow part of what happened to us?

On the contrary. What does it mean “what happened to us”? Nothing that a Man does is the result of what happened to him. Nothing. Everything a Man does is done because he wanted to do it.

The argument “we act because of what happened to us” can perhaps be made..

No, it makes no sense!

And yet it is the great lesson that our education system takes from the Holocaust.

There are no lessons to take from the Holocaust. And, perhaps, this is what’s terrible about the Holocaust; that it has no lesson! This, many people are starting to understand today. The Holocaust is horror itself [French: l’horreur], and that this horror has no use.

Do you think that memory is important? Do we have to remember?

Important how? For what? When you say “it’s important” you have to immediately continue with “for”. There’s nothing important for its own sake.

So that we don’t go around tying children up to beat them up..

And yet this is exactly what we do. The Israeli Defense Force, armed to the teeth by American weapons, has assassinated 150 children in the past two years alone – [note: On average, one Palestinian child has been killed by Israel every 3 days between 2000 and 2013.]

These soldiers were however educated in the shadows of the Holocaust [sur les genoux de la Shoah]. We have been educated about the Holocaust for 12 years in school.

No they were not. They were educated to follow orders.


But isn’t the Holocaust being used in Israel as an excuse for our education [isn’t the Holocaust being used in Israel as an excuse for this way of thinking]?

So what? Did you learn from it that you should assassinate children? You haven’t reached such a conclusion! It is perfectly clear that such a conclusion isn’t necessarily reached. It’s you who reach it.

But the majority do reach such a conclusion.

No no, no, no, no! If these soldiers weren’t ordered to break arms and legs, not a single one of them would have done so.

Concerning soldiers, the young soldiers, it’s very interesting. Many of them live in great psychological distress. I know this personally. I told you earlier that I was overwhelmed by the number of young men and women who visit me to talk about it. In contras, I also know that there are others who don’t visit me, others whom my visitors talk about. Those people find great pleasure in breaking and entering a house in an Arab village and kicking a pregnant Arab woman.. And you still ask me what a Judeo-Nazi is…

You always go back to World War II and you use words like “Judeo-Nazis”. Why?

The minister of Defense [Yitzhak Rabin] who gave the order to break the arms and legs of Palestinian prisoners is a Nazi. And the president of the High Court [Moshe Landau] who judged that torturing prisoners was allowed is a Nazi.

But how could those “Judeo-Nazis” be raised here, in Israel?

Because they have no other value than patriotism. No other value. No other value for the people of the State of Israel than their nationality!

So are all of these days dedicated to “memory” pure fabrications? Part of a process that, starting from humanity, passes by nationality and ends up in barbarism..

Ends up in bestiality! Don’t avoid using the same term! He talked specifically about “bestiality.”  Yes.. bestiality is when a man receives the order to break the arms and legs of another man and obeys it! Without hesitation!

But how is it possible that students who learned about the Holocaust for 12 years are capable of acting like Nazis?

Ask them!

But what do you think?

I don’t think. I simply determine what the facts are. I know for a fact that those soldiers who received the order to break the legs and arms of prisoners obeyed such order, exactly like the German soldiers who obeyed their orders.

A very common slogan repeated in Israel is “the whole world is against us”. Why?

Because it’s very comfortable! There’s nothing more comfortable for a man than to convince himself that the others are bad and the he is in the right. It’s extremely cheap. Whereas in fact, no state has ever been so spoiled as the State of Israel. It was created solely thanks to the Goyim world. You think we had the strength to create it on our own? I know how much we did during the 60 years that preceded the creation of the State. But all of that would’ve been insufficient if the Goys hadn’t decided that this state should be created. In fact, it was one of the anomalies of the cold war: both the US and the USSR had agreed on the creation of the State.

What tools did we use during the War of Independence? I can tell you that. I had a Soviet weapon in my hand, as did all the soldiers who were with me. We all had Soviet weapons. But the money was American. And these were all gifts. Soviet weapons and American money! I know today that the young men and women who hear this from me are astounded. We fought in the War of Independence with Soviet weapons via Czechoslovakia. Those of the Stalin era, not those of today. I still remember how durig the night of the 5 to 6th of May 1948, the first military plane from Prague landed, piloted by one of my colleagues from Prague University! Prague during the time of Stalinist Czechoslovakia. This is what’s called “the whole world is with us”. It was the mistake of the Arabs who didn’t understand that by opposing the creation of the State of Israel, they were fighting against the entire world. That was their folly. Today, it’s ours. We do not understand that we’re fighting against the world world. Yes, the whole world is now on the side of the Arabs.

In the end, the “whole world is against us” is therefore justified..

Yes, but it’s a situation that we provoked, because we are against the whole world! Do you realize how comfortable that is?

For who?

For us. We therefore avoid asking ourselves “What have we become?”, “What should we do?”. Nothing more comfortable than reducing our reality into what they have done to us. We’re evading any conscience evaluation. Who are we? What do we value? What should we do? What values do we recognize? We are those who have gone through horrible things and this exempts us from all responsibility. This is our psychological back drop today.

Is our education system aware of that?

I already told you that I don’t know if teachers are aware of this. But when you do ask them such questions as “Who are we?”, “What are we?”, “What are our values?”, the question is very hard to answer so we avoid it because we are those to whom all the wrongs have been inflicted. So we allow ourselves to be pretentious, immoral… but who cares since we are those to whom all the wrongs have been inflicted! We just need to be reminded of that and we’re immediately exempted from everything! We can therefore massacre Arabs in refugee camps. Aren’t we those that have once caused us all of this?

What sort of person would this education system produce?

A fascist.

Are teachers aware of this?

I already told you that they don’t seem to be fully aware of their actions.

What would all this lead to?

To the ruin of the State of Israel.

Can you explain why?

What does that mean, “why?”. Why did millions of German soldiers march to Stalingrand to die?

I repeat my question

Why did they march 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) to die in Stalingrand?

Leibowitz (third from left) with students at Tichon Beit Hakerem, 1947
Leibowitz (third from left) with students at Tichon Beit Hakerem, 1947

Towards what are we marching?

Towards the ruin of the State of Israel. If we continue marching this way. You understand that the key word here is “if”. If we continue marching the way we currently are, if this current situation continues, the situation meaning that which we’re maintaining through violence inflicted upon another people to whom we’re denying independence.

If this continues, the State of Israel will go towards its own destruction. But I do not know if this situation will remain unchanged. Because this Status Quo is facing an opposition which might become decisive. Because there is also the fact that the great powers may impose a resolution. This seems to be to be the most likely scenario. A solution to me only means partitioning the country into two peoples. This is very clear to me.

Do you consider yourself, despite your analysis, a member of this society?

I belong to them. This is a fact. But it doesn’t mean that I want to be like them. But I do belong to them. I’m one of them.

Despite your points of view

What does that mean, “despite”? A fact doesn’t exist despite. It just does. “Despite” refers only to a decision: I decide to act “despite”…!

Until when would you be part of this people?

“Until when”? Until a die, which isn’t that far away.

So you’re ready to continue until the end?

Ready? Do I have a choice? Did I decide to be alive? You know this deep passage from Proverbs which goes: “Against your will, you are created, against your will you are born, against your will you live, against your will you die.” This isn’t a matter of decision. And similarly, the fact that I’m Jewish and not Paraguayan is a fact.

You’d walk alongside this people and this State towards bestiality?

I am walking alongside it and since this State is heading towards bestiality, so am I, even though it is clear that this State isn’t affected by either my choice nor by my will.

What are you doing to avoid such an end?

I can not prevent it. Despite this, many conscientious objectors, several of the 105 [objectors who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories] have written me or have come to see me to thank me and tell me that my positions have inspired their act. Today, they are the heroes of Israel, they show great psychological heroism. It is not being behind bars for 28 or 35 days that is heroic. What is heroic, is daring to stand against the people you belong to, not against strangers. Standing against your own community requires huge psychological heroism.

Even more so in Israel?

What does that have to do with it? It’s a general rule, a human one. It means a victory over oneself, and is verified in one’s every day life, with no link to a State, an army or war. You know the first words of “Shulhan Arukh”[Code of Jewish Law], “will triumph over oneself”. “He who decides to wake up in the morning to serve God will triumph over himself”. Why does one require heroism to wake up? Why is not just written “Man will wake up in the morning to serve God”? High above, the Almighty says that man triumphs every day against death. And this has nothing to do with not fearing war or in facing one’s fear to go to war. If that were the case, wouldn’t members of the S.S. be heroes, they who knew how to fight with heroism, to the point where a 6 years coalition between the British Empire, the USA and the Soviet Union was needed to defeat them?

The assassins, the S.S. fought with heroism and sacrificed their life for Hitler. But this heroism, which consists of going to War and dying, is a rubbish form of heroism. In my eyes, it is more heroic for a poor man who finds a wallet full of money to go and return it. That heroism is greater, rarer, than the one of the brave soldier.

Are there people in Israel who fit your definition of heroism?

In Israel, we are taught to obey and call that heroism. If obedience is heroism, then Adolf Eichmann was a hero. Because in the end, his whole defense during his trial was that he was just following orders. Just an officer who followed orders. Here as well, we tell each other that the supreme duty of an officer is to follow orders. But Adolf Eichmann was just following orders as well, because whether we want it or not, Hitler’s power was legal since it was supported by the vast majority of the German people. I even think that, if that is the criteria of legality, that Hitler had a more honest support from the German people than any Israeli minister has had in Israel. And we can even say that, if we remain within that logic, Hitler’s power was “more democratic” than ours.

Except that we forget that the essence of democracy isn’t the rule of the majority, but the limitation of the authority of the majority. Democracy is that the majority is not allowed to do whatever it wills. If you define democracy as whatever the majority wills, then the Third Reich was the perfect democracy!

You always go back to this period in Germany, the Third Reich. What attracts you in these analogies, do you really think that…

The fact that they exist! They exist. Look at De Klerk in South Africa negotiating with the “terrorist” Mandela. But the State of Israel categorically refuses any talk with Yasser Arafat, just like Hitler refused any talk with Jews.

Why this psychological obstacle? Because of what we previously referred to as our “program”?


But how did we get to this point?

What lead to the program of the Nationalsozialismus in Germany that attracted the vast majority of the German people? Pay attention to how terrifying this analogy is. Terrifying. Did the German people really need to see its sons march until Stalingrad or El Alamein in Africa? Did they need that? Dying in Stalingrad, dying in El Alamein? They deemed it necessary for the domination of the German race. Heroism, Eternal Glory, and we use such notions to march until Beirut and make war on Lebanon. It isn’t yet the distance between Berlin and Stalingrand …

But what of the values of society?

We don’t have values. Except that we are those to whom these these things were done and in that we are, yes.. the super race, yes.. We are, aren’t we, the superior race which was burned in the Gas chambers.

You don’t expect any Humanism from the State of Israel?

No… no expectation whatsoever … Remember the phrase of Grillparzer: “From Humanity to Nationality to Bestiality.”

What should we insist upon to avoid reaching bestiality?

Two things. The first is negative. We have to admit that the People, the Nation, the State, the Homeland aren’t the supreme value, and that he who holds them as Supreme Values is the Fascist. Then, we have to promote two types of attitudes. That of the believer who views his essence as residing in his conscience and in his relationship with God. That of the Humanist Atheist who values his relationship with other men and with Man in general. These two types of individuals, the religious man and the humanist man, refuse to see the State and the Nation as Supreme Values.

[Version Francaise: Il Faut promouvoir deux types d’attitudes. Celle de l’homme croyant qui estime que l’essentiel reside dans sa conscience et sa relation a Dieu. Celle de l’humaniste athee pour qui le critere des valeurs est l’attitude vis-a-vis des autres hommes et de l’humain en general. Ces deux types d’individus, ‘homme religieux et l’homme humaniste, refusent de voir en l’Etat et la Nation des valeurs supremes.]

Given your analysis, towards what are we heading?

We are heading towards the certain destruction of the State of Israel which, I think, will be transformed into a Judeo-Nazi state from within and in a relentless war with the whole of the Arab World, 150 million individuals, from without.

Will Israel lose that war?

Well, since the sympathy of the world will go to the Arab side this time..


For the simple reason that we are the Occupiers and they are the Freedom Fighters.

You seem disappointed.

I am not disappointed. I think that Zionism in itself worked fully, 100%. Not 99%, 100%. It is Socialism which hasn’t been accomplished anywhere on Earth. Humanism either. Zionism was achieved in creating the national independence of the Jewish People.

What do you mean by that? That Zionism was realized, that its function is over, that it has therefore reached its purpose?

It reached its purpose.

Version Originale:

12 thoughts on “From Humanity to Bestiality, an encounter with Y. Leibowitz

  1. Thank you for sharing this interview! Extremely interesting and really an eye opener. And good job for the translation ( even though i don’t agree with the “Nous n’avons aucune (…) on a fait tout cela!” part). Can’t wait for your commentary!

  2. Brilliant. The best post I’ve read by you, Joey. It corresponds in so many ways with my own thinking on the rise of nationalism in Ireland before independence, and on its present revival in the wake of the collapse of the economy, as the centenary of the Easter Rebellion approaches in 2016. I will read it again and again over the next few days. Much obliged.

  3. Thank You Joey,

    for writing this important article. I admire your command on so many languages.

    It was very interesting for me, as an Israeli and a Jew, who was born and raised in Israel but left it of all places to Germany, to read this. I was touched by the following quotation:

    “What is heroic, is daring to stand against the people you belong to, not against strangers.”.


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