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Leibowitz: Faith, Country, Man

Distributed by Ruth Diskin Films Ltd., P.O.Box 7153, Jerusalem, 91071, ISRAEL
Produced by Haim Slutzky, Dari Shay, Dana Cohen
Directed by Uri Rosenwaks
DVD , color with b&w, Hebrew with English subtitles
College - General Adult
Activism, Israel-Arab War, Jewish Religion, Philosophy

Reviewed by Rebecca Adler Schiff, College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 9/9/2014

Biochemist, neuroscientist, philosopher, theologian, activist, the Israeli polymath Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) was a towering figure in Israeli life, bringing the scourge and moral fervor of a Biblical prophet to what he saw as the excesses and transgressions of the country’s political and ethical policies. Probably best known for his stern opposition, from the very first days after the Six-Day War, to the occupation of captured Arab lands—thus rendering Israel no better in his eyes than any other despotic colonial power – and even going so far as to urge military recruits to refuse to serve, he brought upon himself the scorn of a large segment of the population. He never backed down from those views, however, repeating them fearlessly as long as he lived. When nominated in 1993 to receive the country’s highest award, the Israel Prize, for his lifelong contributions, including scientific ones, the nomination was so angrily denounced by some (then Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin vowed to boycott the ceremony) that Leibowitz withdrew his name. (A tragic irony followed. When Rabin soon afterward was called a traitor by Israeli extremists for shaking Yasir Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, Leibowitz prophetically worried what citizens were prone to do to persons they called traitors. Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli citizen a year after Leibowitz’s death.) In 2010, Leibowitz’s papers were placed in the National Library of Israel.

Originally a three-part television biography, Leibowitz: Faith, Country, Man runs as three more or less independent intersecting films, each roughly an hour long, labeled, respectively, as in the title. Included are archival footage and interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives, and fellow dissenters. Leibowitz is seen in the round not only as a political gadfly but someone fast on his feet with something insightful to say about almost anything. His theological opinions are by turns controversial and profound. Though an observant Jew, his ideas about God conform more to those of an agnostic, or even a mystic. If there is a God, He is unknowable. If the Messiah ever comes, he’s a false Messiah. God is not a health care plan, there to answer the prayers of the sick. Nor is He to blame for the horrors humans have heaped upon humans. There is no such thing as death, there is only life and the absence of life. Throughout, Leibowitz’s views are colored by a deep personal skepticism.

If there’s an aspect of the man one would have liked to be treated to but is mostly missing, it’s some discussion, if only in lay terms, of Leibowitz’s scientific work. The film hints that he was interested in how the anatomical material brain becomes an instrument of consciousness. Somewhere he pronounces, “A brain doesn’t think, a person uses a brain to think!” A fascinating portrait of a public intellectual for the ages. Highly recommended.