Yeshayahu Leibowitz Dies in Sleep at 91; Sage Was Opposed to Holding Territories
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Yeshayahu Leibowitz Dies in Sleep at 91; Sage Was Opposed to Holding Territories

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Israel’s best-known and most controversial savant, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, died here Thursday at the age of 91.

Both mentally and physically fit until his last day, he died in his sleep and was laid to rest at the Har Hamenuhot Cemetery.

Leibowitz’s fame as a philosopher, scientist and religious sage extended far and wide, mostly because of his vocal opposition to Israel’s administration of the territories it acquired during the 1967 Six-Day War.

President Ezer Weizman led the outpouring of tributes for Leibowitz on Thursday, calling him “one of the greatest figures in Jewry in recent generations.”

Weizman said that in addition to his many intellectual qualities, “all of us recognized Leibowitz’s courage and moral integrity.”

Controversial in his outspoken beliefs, Leibowitz last year turned down the prestigious Israel Prize awarded him for his life’s work, after remarks he made ignited controversy and drew condemnation in the Knesset.

Leibowitz had been recommended for the prize by a government-appointed committee. In a series of media interviews following the announcement, the scholar compared undercover soldiers operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to fighters of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement.

When prominent voices, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s, rose up against awarding him the prize, he asked, “Why should I cause the prime minister this awkwardness?”

A member of an esteemed family, Leibowitz’s sister, Nechama, a biblical scholar and fellow Hebrew University professor, won the Israel Prize for Education in 1957.

Born in 1903 in Riga, Latvia, Leibowitz received degrees in chemistry in Berlin and in medicine in Bern, Switzerland, at the same time that he was studying both general and Jewish philosophy.


He made aliyah in 1932 and began lecturing in chemistry four years later at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Since then — and well beyond his official retirement age — he continued teaching at the university, becoming one of its best-loved lecturers. He always drew crowds of students to his classes, which varied from science to humanities.

In his later years, Leibowitz’s fame spread beyond academic circles, and beyond Jerusalem, due mainly to his outspoken political positions against the Israeli administration of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

He was one of the first public figures to speak out against Israel’s role in the territories, and remained one of the country’s most consistent and vehement critics of the policies of both Labor and Likud governments for more than a quarter of a century.

He urged soldiers to refuse to serve in the territories, going so far as to compare Israeli forces in the territories to Nazi troops.

Recently he became as vigorous in his praise of the Rabin government’s peace policies as he had been critical of earlier governmental policies.

Leibowitz also gained much prominence, and much controversy, with his writings and lectures on religion. A strictly Orthodox Jew, his religious observance was founded on the stern foundations of halachah, or religious law.

Among the targets of Leibowitz’s unbridled criticism in the religious realm were the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, and Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, for what he saw as mixing politics with religion.

He held similar arguments with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

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