Remembering a Loving Warrior Ilan Gur-Ze'ev 1955–2012

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On the morning of 5 January 2012, the esteemed Israeli philosopher, Professor Ilan Gur-Ze'ev, passed away at the Italian Hospital in Haifa. The day prior to his passing, he was brought by ambulance from the hospital and wheeled into room 363 of Haifa University's Faculty of Education to deliver his final lecture. In a voiced weakened by fatigue and aided by oxygen, he addressed in words animated by a love of humanity his family members, friends and colleagues who had assembled to honor one of Israel's greatest educational thinkers and one of the world's leading critical theorists. Just weeks after being diagnosed with cancer, his remains were laid to rest in the Garden of Eden Cemetery of Kibbutz Ein Carmel, close to the graves of his mother and brother.

A senior faculty member at the University of Haifa, Professor Gur-Ze'ev grew up in a politically right-wing family in the mixed community of Halissa. He later moved to the working-class suburb of Kiryat Ata, and eventually Ilan settled in Timeon, a quiet town located within an oak forest and home to artists and writers and supporters of the Waldorf education tradition (but its irenic setting was sometimes shattered by the occasional Hamas rocket that would careen across the border in times of intense conflict). Ilan was the devoted husband to Alona, and father to his children Keyla, Hadas and Nimrod.

Professor Gur-Ze'ev was internationally renowned for his profound and nuanced articulation of critical theory and critical pedagogy, postmodernism and education, higher education, multiculturalism, peace education, feminism and improvisation. In Israel, Professor Gur-Ze'ev was also known as a harsh critic of normalizing Zionist education.

Over several decades, Professor Gur-Ze'ev set himself the task of reconstructing the history of the pessimistic philosophy of the modern era, from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to Adorno and Derrida, directing special attention to the Frankfurt School and in particular to Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. According to Dr Arie Kizel, Professor Gur-Ze'ev viewed the work of the Frankfurt School as ‘a negative Jewish theology that attempted to rescue Negative Utopianism from within pessimism’. Kizel describes Gur-Ze'ev's work as ‘a philosophical struggle with and criticism of the Enlightenment project. Throughout, he remains committed to it, indeed faithful to the spirit of humanitas it engenders and the capacity for personal transcendence that overcomes the drive for “home-returning” towards nothingness in the form of consensus, collectivity, joining the pleasure machine and other forms of self-forgetfulness.’

Two of his earlier books remain seminal in their importance: Philosophy, Politics, and Education in Israel (1999) and Destroying the Other's Collective Memory (2003). In these works, writes Kizel,

Gur Ze'ev examined Israel's complex, schismatic reality by means of a rich, elegant language that ruptured structures of the Hebrew language. With the precision of a surgeon's sharp chisel, he has dissected the world of the taken-for-granted to reveal a view of reality that is both traumatic and enlightening. The topics he examined included: Palestinian domination of the memory of the Holocaust and Nakba, the Israeli military's philosophical revolution, the metaphysics of car accidents and education to alternative civility, status of the teacher, literacy as form of Israeli cultural reproduction, academic education in the Zionist state, and such penetrating questions as: Was Hitler actually defeated? What is the status of knowledge in face of the exile of God in the era of postmetaphysical Diaspora?

In addition to fighting the globalization of neoliberal capitalism and its effect on the Israeli academy, in works such as The End of the Israeli Academy? (2005), Professor Gur-Ze'ev founded an organization with elected representatives of the Senates of each of the seven Israeli research universities for initiating a common resistance to the government's neoliberal policies. Kizet describes this initiative as follows:

Among the organization's initiatives was establishment of an inter-senate committee for protection of the independence of Israeli universities, conferences, and a state-wide council of faculty members that serves as a ‘popular’ democratic assembly of academic faculty members, given the conservative reactions of senates, rectors, and presidents, who in practice collaborate with the policy of the Israeli government. In his many lectures on this topic, Gur-Ze'ev insists on his call for preservation of the universal academic freedom and responsibilities of the critical spirit. In parallel, he argues against yielding to European forces seeking to boycott the Israeli academy as part of the struggle with Israel's political establishment.

In 2009, Professor Gur-Ze'ev had accompanied his father back to Slovakia for the first time ‘since his neighbors took the family to the woods and killed them with kitchen knives and sticks only in light of the information that the Nazi army [was] under way ... we found the family estates, locations of childhood memories, and so much more. It was so important for the two of us as father and son’ (Professor Gur-Ze'ev's own words from a letter sent to Richard Kahn; personal communication).

During the intense travels undertaken by Professor Gur-Ze'ev over the past several years, he began developing and publishing his thesis of the ‘new anti-Semitism’, which he saw as the transformation of progressivism from a humanist to a antihumanist-oriented form of critique.

Beginning in 2002, and in ensuing years, Professor Gur-Ze'ev began to convene an international workshop in Europe organized around a discussion of critical pedagogy (Oslo, 2002; Madrid, 2004; Oxford, 2006, 2007, 2008) that became famous among critical educators worldwide. His speaking engagements had taken him to, among other venues, Zurich, Copenhagen, New York, Los Angeles (where I had the privilege of taking him to dinner at a restaurant on the Sunset Strip), the University of London, Winchester, Brighton, Cambridge and Stirling, as well as numerous appearances on Israeli television.

Professor Gur-Ze'ev's work on anti-Semitism was an important part of the pedagogical project in which he was passionately engaged, especially during the last decade of his life. As Richard Kahn points out, this work was important ‘not just on behalf of a kind of international intercultural pedagogy from the Jewish standpoint, but to speak to currents that were true and very much alive and always articulated within the Frankfurt school proper and which arguably got lost as the next generations came to power, especially in the United States’ (Richard Kahn, personal communication). Professor Gur-Ze'ev and I had our own intense disagreements with respect to my work on revolutionary critical pedagogy forming connections with Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution—I being a supporter of the revolution, and Ilan a harsh critic of Venezuela's alliance with Iran—and we discussed this theme at great length in one of his last books, On the Possibility/Impossibility of a New Critical Language in Education, and subsequently in a slightly expanded version that appeared as a dialogue, ‘New Anti-Semitism as the Meta-Narrative of the New Progressive Thinking and Critical Pedagogy Today,’ in a recent issue of Policy Futures in Education (9:2, 2011, pp. 206–247).

It might be said that Ilan took up the question of anti-Semitism, ‘which had come up numerous times with the original critical theorists and which they themselves had valorized’ by asking the question: ‘To what degree does this theory articulate a radical Jewish messianic sensibility that non-Jews cannot really understand save that they are forced to engage with it in dialogue’? (Kahn, personal communication). Many of us, Jew and non-Jew alike, felt that this was of significance for the tradition of critical theory, for critical multi/intercultural pedagogy, and for a wider public sphere in which Jewish tradition and sensibility is not altogether welcomed into the public sphere save, perhaps, as a kind of ethnic clothing (with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn being notable exceptions but in their cases they emphasized the secular and anarchistic qualities of their thought and identity).

The last decade also saw Professor Gur-Ze'ev venture into the stormy realm of counter-pedagogy, publishing widely on his theory of a new negative dialectics and theology in education that would engage with various currents and trajectories in critical theory and pedagogy, attempting to allow for improvisational and creative and democratic potentials to emerge, both supporting power blocs within fields and disciplines through diplomatic conversations with leading representatives, while at the same time trying to catalyze new alliances and organizational understandings.

This was his storied counter-pedagogy project—contributions to founding an alternative, non-dogmatic counter education—the seeds of which could be seen in Education in the Era of Post-modern Discourse (1996) and which was brought to fruition in the magisterial Critical theory and Critical Pedagogy Today: Toward a New Critical Language in Education (2005). The latter book was received as a pedagogical tour de force which he made available on his website for free and which represented a varied collection of papers that came out of his initial conferences on the subject, which he had organized in prior years through the PES and other networks. This monumental volume was saluted in a series of conversations on the book in Studies in Philosophy of Education (2008) as the finest of its kind, especially in light of the conditions that had ensepulchered higher education in the rag-and-bone shop of neoliberal globalization and calcified the most innovative currents of critical pedagogy into pillars of immobility that rivaled the fate of Lot's wife. To this, Ilan framed a ‘diasporic education’ as a concrete engagement with everyday life in search of truth rather than the Promised Land, and he would go on in his last works (which many believe to represent his crowning achievements) to further elucidate this idea and its possible forms.

Professor Gur-Ze'ev brought more than intellectual depth and theoretical eloquence into the field of critical education, he participated in a tough-fisted style of working for change on the ground, both within the University of Haifa and throughout Israeli society. He did so fearlessly, with an indomitable will and fierce courage, not only as a philosopher of education, but also increasingly as a public thinker whose opinions were heard and discussed by global A-list intellectuals.

Professor Gur-Ze'ev's work was powered by a principled opposition to all forms of oppression and a universalist humanism that connected him to important dimensions of the Jewish tradition. As a Jew, he was more sensitive rather than less sensitive to the oppression of others. He did not elevate the interests of his own community above that of humanity as a whole. This was one of Professor Gur-Ze'ev's great gifts to us; especially considering the fact that we inhabit an agonistic contemporary world in which people often suffer from a lack of compassion and reciprocal care outside their own familial, ethnic, and geopolitical context. Was it not Socrates who taught us—against Polemarchus—that justice exists not only in order to care for your friends and family but also for the weaker and less fortunate, including your enemies?

We remain signally indebted to Professor Gur-Ze'ev for his creation of a powerful set of theories, ideas, pedagogies, and organizational forms, and not least for his transformational and transnational leadership. His work will profoundly influence the field of education for generations to follow. Professor Arie Kizel offers a prophetic glimpse into the way Professor Gur-Ze'ev will be engaged by critical scholars and educators in the decades to come:

The life possibilities articulated by Gur-Ze'ev as mature improvisation in a post-metaphysical world are neither modernist nor postmodernist, neither Zionist nor post-Zionist, neither seeks to establish legitimization as a renewed ‘monotheistic’ kind of colonialism nor is it enraptured by currently celebrated post-colonial rhetoric. It is an original voice that offers a unique edification of critical education.

Ancillary