Professor Zvi Yavetz (1925-2013)

posted Jan 8, 2013, 8:42 AM by Professor Katz   [ updated Feb 18, 2013, 11:48 PM ]

Zvi Yavetz, founder of the Department of History at Tel Aviv University and one of the founders of the University itself, passed away on 7 January 2013.  To say that he was larger than life would be an understatement.  Back in the day, the '70s and '80s, there were three 'Rabbinical' Courts in the Faculty of Humanities: that of Yavetz (history), that of Shlomo Simonsohn (Jewish history), and that of Shimon Shamir (Middle Eastern history).  Yavetz spent the second semester of each year teaching in the City University of New York, which gave us some time to recover from his relentless presence, active and engaged.  Yavetz believed in bringing the best and the brightest to the Department, including people he didn't like personally, and was completely gender-blind when it came to scholarship.  He was most certainly old-school: in his devotion to the memory of his service in the Palmach and those who served with him; to the legacy of Yigal Alon in the Labour Party; and to his Romanian roots, which he championed with affectionate irreverence.  He could reel off pages of poetry in Ukrainian; sing songs in Yiddish; quote German literature at length; and argue the fine points of Greek and Latin grammar.  But he never regarded himself as more than a foot soldier of scholarship, not the greatest mind in the highly demanding field of ancient history and classics, a mere pupil of the greater scholars he admired: Ronald Syme, Arnoldo Momigliano, Ernst Badian and his teachers at the Hebrew University.

A few days before the outbreak of the First Gulf War in January 1991, the Israel Broadcasting Authority filmed a programme of 'This is Your Life', dedicated to him.  My job was to get him to the studio in Herzlia in the guise of yet another ordinary TV interview.  When the door to the studio opened, revealing a huge crowd of friends and colleagues, he pulled back for a moment, and I literally pushed him through the door and onto the stage.  At one point during the filming, it was revealed that during his youth in Jerusalem he had been a teacher at a school for the deaf, and the lights came on at the back of the audience, uncovering his former students, all grown up.  They came on stage, and Yavetz began to converse with them in sign language, a skill we never knew he had, and he had to wipe away his tears.  It was a side of this forceful man that showed unexpectedly.

Zvi Yavetz was a great builder, not only of Tel Aviv University, but of the academic potential of the State of Israel itself in the years when we were proud to be associated with these great projects.  We will not see his like again.

Zvi Yavetz: Address Upon Receiving the Israel Prize, 1990