Nachrufe - englisch
Ramzi Baroud Pays Tribute to Israel Shahak
Originally published in Arabia.com
Mourning the death of Jewish professor Israel Shahak
Those familiar with Shahak’s work know that making
friends was the man’s least concern.
His unquestionable motive was seeking the truth.
By Ramzy Baroud
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: - On a quiet Wednesday afternoon,
July 5, an Israeli Jewish professor was laid to rest in a Jerusalem
cemetery, Giv’at Shaul. The loss of any dedicated individual is a
tragedy, but when that individual is Israel Shahak, then the loss is
deep, incomprehensible and universal.
Shahak’s intellectual genius made him a renowned
scientist and a distinguished chemist. His dedicated research in
cancer treatment following his appointment as a lecturer at the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem in 1963, garnered him international recognition.
But in Israel, his own country, Shahak was vilified and despised.
The Israeli left and right have hardly embraced a
similar belief as much as there agreement on hating Shahak. In Israel,
the man was, and remains after his death, a unique phenomena perceived
by the liberals as radical and dubbed by the conservatives as "a
self-hating Jew," "Israel hater" and "Arabophile."
Those familiar with Shahak’s work must have known
that making friends was the man’s least concern while writing; his
unquestionable motive that are clearly evident in every word he wrote
was seeking the truth. Yet another undeniable fact is that the core
arguments posed by Shahak were immersed in compassion, devotion and
Born to middle class Polish parents in a Warsaw
ghetto on April 28, 1933, Shahak passed through a cycle of a depressing
life. At the age of 10, he was forced with his parents into the
Poniatowo concentration camp. There he lost his father, escaped and was
re-arrested to spend two years in despair.
From the savagery of the camp, Shahak learned
humanity, and when he was released, he went to Israel because he was
told that the promised land was a safe haven for the Jews. His early
years in Israel, some spent in military service, were an eye opener for
young Shahak, who fought to escape the melancholy of the past and
construct a brighter future.
While Zionist principals were taught to the
newcomers, who were preparing to establish their lives in the new land,
it was only a matter of time before Shahak began questioning the
fallacies of Zionism.
He wrote, "in 1956 I eagerly swallowed all of
Ben-Gurion’s political and military reasons for Israel initiating the
Suez War, until he pronounced in the Knesset on the third day of that
war that the real reason for it is the restoration of the Kingdom of
David and Solomon to its biblical border. At this point in his speech
almost every Knesset member spontaneously rose and sang the Israeli
Shahak’s rejection of racism and championing of human
rights for Palestinians grew mainly out of Israel’s apartheid and
racism. The emergence of his style of writing began as a natural
refusal to submit to the bigotry and political deception promoted by his
Yet the man’s consequential involvement in the world
of politics, and slow abandonment of the world of chemistry rose from
one incident that was deeply troubling and left a never healing scar; it
was when he "witnessed an ultra-religious Jew refuse to allow his phone
to be used on the sabbath in order to call an ambulance for a non-Jew
who happened to collapse in a Jerusalem neighborhood."
Puzzeled by the cruelty of witnessing a fellow
human die with no help simply because he was a "Gentile", Shahak
investigated the matter further, calling a meeting of members of the
Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem. But their answer came cold and heartless,
the Jewish man has acted in accordance with the religion, Shahak was
Shahak was outraged by the treatment of Palestinians
by his own government, a fury that is reflected in his legacy. It is
noteworthy that Shahak was not a foreseen outcome of an Israeli movement
and school of thought. His anti-occupation conviction is unique,
and is viewed by most Israelis, included the so-called peace movements,
"After 1967, when I ceased being just a scientist and
became a political being, my first reason was that after 1967 the
Israeli aim was to dominate the Middle East, which every rational human
being knows impossible. My second reason was that there must be a
Palestinian state. It can come into being with a minimum of bloodshed or
a maximum of bloodshed. Even if the Intifada were defeated, it would
only cause a delay."
Professor Amnon Rubinstein from the Meretz party,
which resembles the Israeli left, urged the government to confiscate
Shahak’s passport to halt his "slander" against Israel abroad.
The diabetes-stricken scholar was probably the
loneliest true peace activist in the Jewish State. Not once did he waste
the chance in a public speech to denounce the Israeli occupation and to
expose the racism of such concepts as "a Jewish State" and "Jewish
settlements". As the vibrant head of the Council against House
Destruction and later the Israeli Civil Rights League, Shahak was
constantly harassed and defamed.
Many prominent Israeli voices demanded that Shahak be
removed from the Hebrew University faculty. Others were consumed in
verbally abusing him through the Israeli media.
Lea Ben Dor had a few ideas on how to deal with
Shahak. Dor wrote in the Jerusalem Post in the mid 1970’s, "What should
we do about the poor professor? The hospital? Or a bit of the Terrorism
he approves? A booby-trap over the laboratory door?"
Nothing but death would have ended Shahak's quest for
justice, not even his failing health, or the ceaseless defamation
campaign launched against him in Israel, the United States and elsewhere.
With Israel Shahak's death, the phenomena has become
a legacy; and the professor’s insightful work shall always testify to
the rightfulness of the Palestinian struggle, the inhumanity of the vile
occupation and the profound racism of the Zionist discourse
American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee
ADC mourns Death of Israel Shahak
(Contact: Hussein Ibish)
Washington, DC, July 5 -- The American-Arab
Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) mourns the death of Israeli chemist
and human rights activist Israel Shahak, who passed away on Monday night
in Jerusalem at the age of 68. ADC Chief Operating Officer Ziad Asali
said "Israel Shahak was an extraordinary voice of moral courage and
fearless honesty, who never shirked from confronting his fellow Israelis
with the truth about their oppression of the Palestinians. He was a
tireless champion of human rights and equality for all Palestinians and
Israel Shahak was born on April 28, 1933 in Warsaw,
Poland. In 1943-5, Shahak and his parents were imprisoned by the Nazis
in the Poniatowo and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. The 12 year old
Shahak and his mother emigrated to Palestine after the liberation of the
camps in 1945. In the 1960s, while working as Professor of Chemistry at
Hebrew University, Shahak became one of Israel's leading voices of
dissent. In 1970 he was elected chairman of the Israeli Human and Civil
Rights League, and spent the next three decades strongly advocating
equality and civil rights. In the 1990s, Shahak emerged as one of the
strongest critics of the Oslo "peace process," which he denounced as a
fraud and a vehicle for making the Israeli occupation more efficient.
Shahak gained a wide international audience through
his regular "Translations from the Hebrew Press," which gave the
non-Hebrew speaking world a unique glimpse into the extreme and racist
rhetoric about Arabs, Palestinians and Jewish supremacy that
characterizes much of "mainstream" discourse in Israel. The translations
also clarified Israeli strategic thinking and policy goals in a manner
that directly contradicted official "hasbara" (propaganda) which
presented Israel as a besieged state struggling only for peace and
survival. Shahak's writings continuously exposed and denounced Israel as
an expansionist, chauvinist and racist state bent on the domination of
the surrounding Arab peoples, especially the Palestinians. His recent
books, including Open Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies
(Pluto Press, 1997), Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of
Three Thousand Years (Pluto Press, 1997) and Jewish Fundamentalism in
Israel (Pluto Press, 1999), provide an invaluable insight into Israeli
discourse and policy.
Shahak explained that "After 1967, when I ceased
being just a scientist and became a political being, my first reason was
that after 1967 the Israeli aim was to dominate is the Middle East,
which every rational human being knows is impossible. My second reason
was that there must be a Palestinian state." Edward Said observed "As
someone who spoke and wrote about Palestine, I could not have done what
I did without Shahak's papers and of course his example as a seeker
after truth, knowledge, and justice. It is as simple as that, and I
therefore owe him a gigantic debt of gratitude."
With Israel Shahak’s Death, A Prophetic Voice Is
By Allan C. Brownfeld*
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October
The death of Israel Shahak in July has taken from us
a genuinely prophetic Jewish voice, one which ardently advocated
democracy and human rights, and rejected the ethno-centrism which has
come to dominate both the state of Israel and much of organized
Judaism—not only in Israel but in the U.S. and other Western countries
This writer first met Israel Shahak on a visit to
Jerusalem in 1973. We kept in contact ever since, meeting when he
visited the United States. He wrote a number of very thoughtful articles
for Issues, a journal which I edit.
In many ways, Shahak was a victim of history who
tried to learn from his own experience and apply what he learned to
others. A Holocaust survivor, he preferred to emphasize his opposition
to racism and oppression in any form and in any country.
After being liberated from the Bergen-Belsen
concentration camp in 1945, Shahak and his mother emigrated to British
Mandate Palestine. He went on to have a distinguished career as a
professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and was
repeatedly voted as the most admired teacher by students.
Following the 1967 war, Shahak became a leading
member of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights and was elected
chairman in 1970. He devoted the rest of his life to opposing Israel’s
inhumane treatment inflicted upon its Arab citizens and upon
Palestinians in occupied territories.
While American newspapers, both Jewish and general,
completely ignored the death of Israel Shahak, a July 6 obituary in
The Guardian of London by Elfi Pallis notes that, "Shortly after the
1967 six-day war, he [Shahak] concluded from observation that Israel was
not yet a democracy; it was treating the newly occupied Palestinians
with shocking brutality. For the next three decades, he spent all his
spare time on attempts to change this. He contributed to various
small…papers, but when this proved to have little impact, he decided to
alert journalists, academics and human rights campaigners abroad. From
his small, bare West Jerusalem flat poured forth reports with titles
such as ‘Torture in Israel,’ and ‘Collective Punishment in the West
Bank.’ Based exclusively on mainstream Israeli sources, all were
painstakingly translated into English.
Shahak never let up, he never became blasé.
"World coverage gradually improved, but Shahak never
let up, he never became blasé. Watching him read out a small news item
about an Israeli farmer who had set his dogs on a group of Palestinian
children was to see a man in almost physical distress. Shahak came to
believe that these human rights incidents stemmed from Israel’s
religious interpretation of Jewish history, which led it to ignore
centuries of Arab life in the country, and to disregard non-Jewish
rights. Confiscation, every schoolchild was told, was ‘the redemption of
the land’ from those who did not belong there. To Shahak, this was
straightforward racism, damaging both sides."
Israel Shahak’s vision can perhaps best be found in
his books, Jewish History, Jewish Religion (Pluto Press, 1994)
and Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (Pluto Press, 1994) written
with Norton Mezvinsky. (See Mezvinsky’s remembrance of Israel Shahak in
the Aug./Sept. issue of the Washington Report, p. 11.)
In Jewish History, Jewish Religion, Shahak
points out that while Islamic fundamentalism is vilified in the West,
Jewish fundamentalism goes largely ignored. He argues that classical
Judaism is used to justify Israeli policies which he views as xenophobic
and similar in nature to the anti-Semitism suffered by Jews in other
times and places. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly, in his view,
than in Jewish attitudes to the non-Jewish peoples of Israel and the
Shahak draws on the Talmud and rabbinical laws, and
points to the fact that today’s extremism finds its sources in classical
texts which, if they are not properly understood, will lead to religious
warfare, harmful to men and women of all religious beliefs.
This book, Shahak wrote, "is, in a way, a
continuation of my political activities as an Israeli Jew. Those
activities began in 1965-66 with a protest which caused a considerable
scandal at that time: I had personally witnessed an ultra-religious Jew
refuse to allow his phone to be used on the Sabbath in order to call an
ambulance for a non-Jew, who happened to have collapsed in his Jerusalem
neighborhood. Instead of simply publishing the incident in the press, I
asked for a meeting with the members of the Rabbinical Court of
Jerusalem, which is composed of rabbis nominated by the State of Israel.
I asked them whether such behavior was consistent with their
interpretation of the Jewish religion. They answered that the Jew in
question had behaved correctly, indeed piously, and backed their
statement by referring to a passage in an authoritative compendium of
Talmudic laws, written in this country. I reported the incident in the
main Hebrew daily, Ha’aretz, whose publication of the story
caused a media scandal."
The Talmudic World View
In the end, Shahak reported, "Neither the Israeli,
nor the diaspora, rabbinical authorities ever reversed their ruling that
Jews should not violate the Sabbath in order to save the life of a
Gentile…It became apparent to me, as, drawing on knowledge acquired in
my youth, I began to study the Talmudic laws governing the relations
between Jews and non-Jews, that neither Zionism, including its seemingly
secular part, nor Israeli politics since the inception of the State of
Israel, nor particularly the policies of the Jewish supporters of Israel
in the diaspora, could be understood unless the deeper influence of
those laws, and the world view which they both create and express is
taken into account."
The Hatanya—the fundamental book of the Habbad
movement, which is one of the most important branches of
Hasidism—declares that all non-Jews are totally Satanic creatures "in
whom there is nothing absolutely good." Even a non-Jewish embryo is said
to be qualitatively different from a Jewish one. The very existence of a
non-Jew is "inessential," whereas all of creation was created solely for
the sake of the Jews.
Shahak points out that a widespread misunderstanding
about Orthodox Judaism is that it is a "biblical religion," that the Old
Testament has in Judaism the same central place and legal authority that
the Bible has for Protestants and even Roman Catholics. He notes that,
"…the interpretation is rigidly fixed—but by the Talmud rather than by
the Bible itself. Many, perhaps most, biblical verses prescribing
religious acts and obligations are understood by classical Judaism and
by present-day Orthodoxy in a sense which is quite distinct from, or
even contrary to, their literal meaning as understood by Christians or
other readers of the Old Testament, who see only the plain text."
In the Decalogue itself, the Eighth Commandment, "Thou
Shalt not steal" (Exodus 20:15) is taken to be a prohibition against "stealing"
(that is, kidnapping) a Jewish person. "The reason," Shahak writes, "is
that according to the Talmud all acts forbidden by the Decalogue are
capital offenses. Stealing property is not a capital offense (while the
kidnapping of Gentiles by Jews is allowed by Talmudic law)—hence the
In numerous cases, Shahak shows, general terms such
as "thy fellow," "stranger," or even "man" are taken to have an
exclusivist and chauvinistic meaning. The famous verse "Thou shalt love
thy fellow as thyself" (Leviticus 19:18) is understood by classical (and
present-day Orthodox) Judaism "as an injunction to love one’s fellow Jew,
not any fellow human. Similarly, the verse ‘neither shalt thou stand
against the blood of thy fellow’ (Leviticus 19:16) is supposed to mean
that one must not stand idly by when the life (‘blood’) of a fellow Jew
is in danger; but a Jew…is in general forbidden to save the life of a
Gentile, because ‘he is not thy fellow.’"
The differentiation in appropriate treatment for Jews
and non-Jews to be found in Talmudic commentaries is, Shahak shows, not
simply an academic question. Instead, it relates to current Israeli
government practices which are justified by reference to religious law.
A book published by the Central Region Command of the
Israeli army, whose area includes the West Bank, contains the following
declaration by the command’s chief chaplain: "When our forces come
across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so long as
there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our
forces, then according to Halakah [Jewish law] they may and even should
be killed….Under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he
makes an impression of being civilized….In war, when our forces storm
the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakah to kill
even good civilians…."
Many contemporary Israeli policies refer to Talmudic
rules. Thus, Shahak declares, "The Halakah forbids Jews to sell
immovable property—fields and houses—in the Land of Israel to Gentiles.
It is therefore clear that—exactly as the leaders and sympathizers of
Gush Emunim say—the whole question of how the Palestinians ought to be
treated is, according to the Halakah, simply a question of Jewish power;
if Jews have sufficient power then it is their religious duty to expel
the Palestinians….Maimonides declares; ‘When the Jews are more powerful
than the Gentiles we are forbidden to let an idolater among us; even a
temporary or itinerant trader shall not be allowed to pass through our
In the book Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel,
Shahak and co-author Norton Mezvinsky lament the dramatic growth in
recent years of Jewish fundamentalism which has manifested itself in
opposition to the peace process and played a role in the assassination
of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the murder of 29 Muslims at prayer
by the American-born fundamentalist, Baruch Goldstein.
They cite, for example, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, who
wrote a chapter of a book in praise of Goldstein and what he did. An
immigrant to Israel from the U.S., Ginsburgh speaks freely of Jews’
genetic-based spiritual superiority over non-Jews; "If you saw two
people drowning, a Jew and a non-Jew, the Torah says you save the Jewish
life first….Something is special about Jewish DNA….If a Jew needs a
liver, can you take the liver of an innocent non-Jew passing by to save
him? The Torah probably would permit that. Jewish life has an infinite
Shahak and Mezvinsky point out that, "Changing the
words ‘Jewish’ to ‘German’ or ‘Aryan’ and ‘non-Jewish’ to ‘Jewish’ turns
the Ginsburgh position into the doctrine that made Auschwitz possible in
the past. To a considerable extent the German Nazi success depended upon
that ideology and upon its implication of being widely known early.
Disregarding even on a limited scale the potential effects of
messianic…and other ideologies could prove to be calamitous….The
similarities between the Jewish political messianic trend and German
Nazism are glaring. The Gentiles are for the messianists what the Jews
were for the Nazis. The hatred of Western culture with its rational and
democratic elements is common to both movements…. The ideology…is both
eschatological and messianic….It assumes the imminent coming of the
Messiah and asserts that the Jews, aided by God, will thereafter triumph
over the non-Jews and rule them forever."
It troubled Israel Shahak that the lesson many Jews
learned from the Nazi period was to embrace ethno-centric
nationalism—just what had created such tragedy in Europe—and to reject
the older prophetic Jewish tradition of universalism. He was
particularly dismayed with the organized Jewish community in the U.S.
and other Western countries, which promoted ideas of religious freedom
and ethnic diversity in their own countries, but embraced Israel’s
rejection of these same values.
It was Shahak’s view that bigotry was morally
objectionable regardless of who the perpetrator is and who the victim.
He declared: "Any form of racism, discrimination and xenophobia becomes
more potent and politically influential if it is taken for granted by
the society which indulges in it." For Jews, he believed, "The support
of democracy and human rights is…meaningless or even harmful and
deceitful when it does not begin with self-critique and with support of
human rights when they are violated by one’s own group. Any support of
human rights for non-Jews whose rights are being violated by the ‘Jewish
state’ is as deceitful as the support of human rights by a Stalinist…."
In an article about his childhood for The New York
Review of Books, Shahak recalled listening to some Polish workmen
talking during the Nazi occupation. Discussing the situation, one young
man defended the Germans by pointing out that they were ridding Poland
of the Jews, only to be rebuked by an older laborer, "So are they not
also human beings?" It is a phrase that Shahak never forgot.
During his life, Israel Shahak was rebuked, spat upon
and threatened with death for his defense of human rights. How long will
it take before he is recognized as a genuine Jewish prophetic voice in
an era when such voices were difficult to find? After all, as the Bible
tells us; "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and
in his own house" (Matthew 13:57).
Israel Shahak may be unlamented in his own country
today, but future generations may well look back to his example, much as
contemporary Germans do to figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the
Lutheran pastor who opposed Nazism and was executed for his part in the
plot to assassinate Hitler.
Israel Shahak understood all too well the violations
of human rights and the human spirit all around him. He insisted on
telling that truth to his fellow countrymen and to the world, upholding
a Jewish tradition far older than that established in 1948.
*Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and
associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by
the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of
Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.
by Alexander Cockburn
Whenever people start
complaining about the scandalously biased press coverage of
Israel's conduct towards Palestinians, by way of cheering them
up, I remind them that 20 years ago the coverage was even worse.
Back then, remember,
reviewers gave a respectful welcome to Joan Peters' book From
Times Immemorial, which purported to argue that Palestinians had
no claims on the land of Canaan, and that they had snuck into
Israel from Saudi Arabia in comparatively recent times. The New
York Times lavished praise on this nonsense which was duly
exposed as fraudulent from start to finish. Back then,
newspapers gave similarly polite coverage to prime minister
Golda Meir's pronouncement that there were no such people as
Palestinians. To write, as I often did, about Palestinians' just
claims, as represented by the PLO, was to invite torrents of
abuse. In New York particularly it was virtually impossible to
have a rational political discussion on the topic.
If today the coverage is
fractionally more honest, credit should go in part to a quirky,
cantankerous professor of organic chemistry, born in a
cultivated Jewish family in Warsaw, who died last week in his
apartment in Jerusalem, his body worn out at the early age of
68, thanks in no small measure to the two years he spent as a
boy in the German concentration camp at Bergen Belsen.
Year after year those on
Shahak's mailing list would get, every few weeks, a package
containing six or so single-space typewritten foolscap pages of
his translations from the Hebrew-language press in Israel,
studded with his own acerbic and often eruditely amusing
comments. Each package would usually address a theme, such as
housing demolitions of Palestinians by the Israelis, or
corruption in the IDF and Mossad.
To read them was not only
to learn facts entirely inaccessible in any English-language
publication, but also to realize that in Hebrew-language
newspapers such as Ha'aretz and Yediot Ahronot there were
honorable reporters and editors without any qualms about writing
and publishing material extraordinarily discreditable to
Israel's "official truths," as diligently recycled by the
western press corps in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Of course, these
journalists could have hired translators or even learned Hebrew,
but they didn't. They relied on the Jerusalem Post which,
precisely because it was accessible in English, was wholly
dedicated to "official truths."
I first met Shahak in 1980
in New York. I'd been reading his communiqués and conveying
their import as best I could to an American audience, and wasn't
quite sure what sort of person this tireless translator and
erudite footnoter would turn out to be.
He was on the short side
and looked older than the 47 years he carried at that time. With
accented English, he leapt from the travails of Palestinian
farmers to learned exposition of the famous affair of Sabbatai
Sevi, the mystical Messiah who transfixed seventeenth-century
Jewry. In our very first conversation he drew a line between the
credulity of Sevi's followers and the Gush Emunim or "block of
the faithful" who organized settlers on the West Bank.
He was a singular man, an
original. His loathing of hypocrisy rendered social democracy
unappetizing to him. Politically he always seemed to me to be a
nineteenth-century liberal in the best sense of the term. He was
above all a rationalist, who had reviewed the evidence for God's
existence at the age of 13 and found it wanting. This was a year
after he had been freed from Bergen Belsen and was deciding to
migrate to the Palestine of the British Mandate. Just over 20
years later, after the Six Day war he took an unsparing look at
Israel's brutal treatment of Palestinians and decided that
Israel was not a democracy and that the system of racist
oppression bore many elements that were reminiscent of Nazism.
"Nazi-like" was a much used epithet in Shahak's notations, and
it incensed many. In 1968 he began, as he put it, "to act."
Back at the start of the
1980s the image of Israel as a rational exercise in social
democracy flourished mightily and thus it was all the more
startling to hear Shahak's expositions of the racist, mystical
strains in Israel's religio-political culture.
"This mysticism," he told
me, "is extremely dangerous. If you accept religiously the
validity of 16th and 17th century mysticism, then you have the
basis for their conclusions. It has parallels to Christian
fundamentalism. If you accept the idea that Jonathan Edwards was
right in the 17th century, many things that Jerry Falwell says
now follow. In normal Judaism the messiah will redeem Israel;
the Jewish people will conquer the land of Israel, build the
temple and that is all. There will be a Jewish state and the
world will go on as before. In Jewish mysticism the coming of
the messiah is a cosmic event. The messiah redeems the fall of
Adam and Eve. The world is full of the power of Satan ? I don't
have to give you the parallels ? and Satan prevents cosmic
salvation. It will be the messiah, with the help of mystic
contemplation of right-thinking Jews, who will redeem the whole
world. No sacrifice is too great to achieve this goal." He
paused. "The right-wing religious fanatics compose the most
dangerous group, socially and politically, that has existed in
the entire history of Israel."
Looking back at my record
of that first session with Shahak, I see that our conversation
started with a typical Shahakian comparison: "It would be a good
thing, I think, for Americans to ask themselves once a year
whether the USA was a democracy before 1865; that is, before the
constitutional abolition of slavery. The situation of the state
of Israel and of the territories occupied by it is quite
analogous. Just as the situation of the occupied territories
resembles that of the pre-1865 South, so the situation inside
the state of Israel resembles that of many states of the USA
some 50 or 60 years ago when racism was popular, and when the
really influential Ku Klux Klan made and unmade politicians,
just as Gush Emunim now does in Israel."
Shahak was full of
unexpected learning. He delighted in ironies. Though they had
virtually no imperial tradition, the Danes, he told me, had
imposed in their tiny colony of St. Croix one of the most
ferocious labor codes in history. A moment later he was
discoursing on a strange international tribunal of judges that
toured through the Congo in full ceremonial judicial regalia in
the early twentieth century, interviewing people about the
horrors of their subjugation by King Leopold. Then he embarked
on a discourse on Jewish jokes, a topic on which he claimed to
be a great authority. We agreed that I should come to Israel and
he would show me around, outlining his views on Jewish jokes as
he did so. Alas, I never found time to take him up on the offer.
What effects did Shahak's
unsparing explications of the situation in Israel have on public
opinion? I would say, over the years, that he exercised great
influence, ripples from his bulletins and, later, from his
books, spreading slowly, often imperceptibly out through the
pond. He didn't always get things right. For years he prophesied
a war between Israel and Syria that never came. He could be
volcanic in his disputes. He was a great man, a great
conscience, because he understood not only the broad outlines
and historical origins of systems of oppression and racism, he
understood the sting of these oppressions and racisms in all
their pettiest details, like a military bureaucrat in the
Territories bullying a Palestinian tomato farmer because his
permit for sale was torn.
"Here is a practical
proposal to you," he said to me at the end of our first meeting.
"Discuss the basic facts of the oppression of the Palestinians
by Israel as much as you can, going right down to the basics of
everyday racism. Point out the obvious contradiction between
what the majority of American Jews demand for themselves in the
USA and what they defend in Israel. Do not be intimidated in the
struggle against racism and for human dignity, equality and
freedom by any demagoguery about peace and democracy, if they
are used in the cause of discrimination, and perhaps the words
of the prophet (Amos, 5.15) will come true. ?Hate the evil and
love the good and establish judgment in the gate, it may be that
the Lord God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of
Dr. Israel Shahak
By Richard H. Curtiss
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1989,
"There is nothing that
frightens Israeli society so much as Palestinian
moderation. Yossi Sarel has said that the reason
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 was because the
PLO held its fire for 11 months."
For persons knowledgeable about the state of Israel,
a conversation with Dr. Israel Shahak, who in June will be making his
second visit of 1989 to lecture in the United States, can be extremely
informative. But for those unfamiliar with the current state of the
Zionist state, Dr. Shahak's candid observations about his troubled and
troubling country can be shocking, irritating, and profoundly
This Warsaw-born concentration camp survivor, who
until this year was a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University in
Jerusalem, has lived in Israel since its creation in 1948. His broad
powers of observation are matched only by his ability to convey, in
vivid, carefully crafted phrases and anecdotes, arresting and
unforgettable pictures of the Israel society in which he lives. His
monthly "Translations from the Hebrew Press," painstakingly selected to
convey the essence of issues that now perplex a deeply polarized Israeli
public, provide the most illuminating reading on contemporary Israel
available to non-Hebrew speakers.
In preparing these insights, and presenting them on
lecture tours in Europe and the United States, Shahak violates a basic
canon of the Jewish diaspora: Don't discuss Jewish problems outside the
This does not deter Shahak, a self-motivated, human
rights-obsessed 56-year-old academic turned prophet. He acknowledges no
contradictions among his obligations as a loyal citizen of Israel, a
good Jew, and a believer in universal human values. He brushes aside
suggestions that Israeli authorities may someday devise a way to muzzle
"Israel is still a democracy for Jews," he explains
impatiently The problem is that the civil liberties Israel so zealously
protects for its Jewish citizens are not transferable to others. In
seeking to change that, Israel Shahak has no doubt that he is serving
the best interests of Israel, and that his way offers Israel's best hope
to assume its self-appointed role as "a light unto the nations."
Shahak's parents were Polish middle-class, orthodox
Jews who became Zionists and forbade their sons from speaking Yiddish.
He lived in the Warsaw ghetto from 1940 until the Jewish uprising
against the Nazi occupiers in the spring of 1943. Then he was
transported with his parents to the Poniatowo concentration camp. His
mother escaped with her son just long enough to bribe their way onto a
register for Jewish citizens of foreign countries. When they were
re-arrested, they were sent to a compound for foreign nationals in the
Bergen-Belsen extermination camp. Although not subject to the
"selection" procedures which led to the gas chambers, Shahak watched
heaps of naked corpses being dragged daily to the crematorium.
He was near death from starvation when he and his
mother were liberated by American troops in April 1945. His father had
died in the camps. His elder brother, who had joined the Royal Air
Force, had been killed in the Pacific. Israel Shahak was 15 when he
traveled with his mother to Israel in 1948.
He was 23 when, during Israel's 1956 war with Egypt,
he was shocked to hear his erstwhile hero, Prime Minister David Ben
Gurion, say Israel had undertaken the campaign (which aimed to draw in
Jordan as well) not for "defensive purposes but to establish part of the
Kingdom of David and Solomon".
By the early 1960s, he had become critical of Zionism
"for both Jewish and general human reasons. " After Israel seized the
West Bank and Gaza Strip, Shahak began publicly criticizing "the
suffering that was being inflicted on the Palestinians." He explains:
"After 1967, when I ceased being just a scientist and
became a political being, my first reason was that after 1967 the
Israeli aim was to dominate is the Middle East, which every rational
human being knows i impossible. My second reason was that there must be
a Palestinian state. It can come into being with a minimum of bloodshed,
or a maximum of bloodshed. Even if the intifada were defeated, it would
only cause a delay.
Shahak joined the radical opposition and, in 1970, he
was elected chairman of the Human and Civil Rights League, formed by
Jews and Arabs in 1937 to support a prisoners' hunger strike against the
British colonial administration.
'The platform of my election was that you have to
oppose torture, and that whatever you say inside Israel you must say
outside," Shahak explains. When he is accused, just as are American
Jewish critics of Israel, of being a "selfhating Jew," he responds with
"That is a Nazi expression. The Nazis called Germans
who defended Jewish rights self-hating Germans."
Shahak peppers his lectures with such illuminating
observations as these:
-Israel's ideological division is made on internal
Jewish affairs. The question of opening of Israeli cinemas on Fridays is
more important than the killing of Palestinian children.
-Israelis must choose whether to adopt Khomeinism or
imitate the West. Half of society believes very strongly that the land
of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Half the people don't believe
this and want to imitate the United States. This is not for the sake of
the Palestinians, but because the other way will give too much power to
-Israel is in the midst of its worst economic crisis.
The kibbutzim alone now owe $3 billion from bad management and from
playing the stock market very badly. Such speculation was not only
against all of their socialistic principles, but they went bankrupt in
the process. The weight of the crisis has fallen upon institutions
connected with the Labor Party. This is the chief reason Labor has
remained in the government. The Labor Party sold itself to Likud for
money. For its part, Likud needs Labor to obtain money from the US.
-By doing this, Labor has betrayed its own supporters
and its own peace policy The Labor Party has collapsed morally and
intellectually. It is a dead body that just takes up space. People are
voting Labor only from hatred and fear of Likud. The poor vote Likud or
the religious parties. Even the majority of the workers in the
Histradrut factories vote for Likud.
-To get the money it needs from the United States,
Israel can go in one of two ways. It can move toward peace, which it has
rejected. Or it can use blackmail. The present government will begin to
threaten moderate Arab states. The first state will be Jordan. Israel
will say "Jordan is the real Palestine" and tell the US "we will stop
only if you give us money."
-Alienation between Israeli society and American Jews
has never been greater. The feeling among Israeli Jews that they have to
go it alone is especially great. American Jews are not going to have any
influence on Israel except for those who support right-wing fanatics
like Meyer Kahane, who draws most of his backing from the United States.
Israelis will not be upset about anything that upsets American Jews.
-What will trigger expulsion is a cold-blooded
decision by the Israeli government. No excuse is needed but if one is
sought it will be provided by the Israeli death squads and settler
underground ... We will hear that troublemakers are being expelled to
"establish quiet." We will hear that we are not expelling Palestinians
because "Jordan is Palestine. We are only transferring them. " Every
Palestinian will be obliged to sign a declaration that he is moving of
his own free will.
As Israeli society has become increasingly polarized,
many of Israel Shahak's formercritics now agree that Israel cannot
remain a Jewish state, a democracy, and an occupying power. The dispute
now is over which two of the three incompatible elements Israel should
Characteristically, Shahak, who realized all this 20
years ago, is presently concerned with reaching what he considers the
inevitable two-state solution.
"What is the future for Israeli-Palestinian contact?"
he asks rhetorically. "The long way is through change in Israeli
society. The quick way is pressure by America, which provides $5 billion
a year to Israel."
Richard H. Curtiss is chief editor of the
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
Israel Shahak, 1933 – 2001
Von Marc Dow
(anscheinend im Oktober 2001 veröffentlicht in einer
amerikanischen Monatsschrift mit dem Titel
"Between the Lines")
It is not easy to unravel the political brainwashing
that complicates one's emotional response to the photo of Palestinian
policemen, many of them in riot gear, storming protesters at the Islamic
University in the Gaza Strip in early October. The students were
protesting the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, which of course followed in
the wake of attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. If you
look at the policemen's grimacing faces, you may think of young
Palestinian stone-throwers; if you see their uniforms and helmets and
rifles, you might think instead of young Israeli soldiers.
Below the photograph, in what the New York Times so
arrogantly and preposterously calls "News Analysis" -- presumably to
distinguish it from the Straightforward Objective Reporting elsewhere in
the paper -- correspondent James Bennet writes a sentence which could
only be penned by someone "analyzing" the world through the filter of
official government logic.
Referring to what he calls Arafat's willingness to
use "deadly force against Palestinians to suppress a demonstration in
support of Osama bin Laden," Mr. Bennet writes: "It was the most
dramatic evidence to date that the terrorist attacks on the United
States have dented the entrenched thinking of the enemies in the
conflict here and created a new chance for peace at the same time as
causing a spike in violence." Who would have suspected such dialectical
thinking from the Times, praising the killing of a few Palestinians as a
paradoxical step toward peace? The catch, of course, is that the "peace
process" has never been about co-existence but rather about
There are a handful of thinkers and writers who help
us to see what is happening in the world, and, ultimately, to see with
our own eyes, even while teaching us not to depend blindly on what they
are telling us. Israel Shahak was one of those. Consider the following,
which he wrote nearly a decade ago, and which still serves to clear the
fog of New York Times "analysis." Shahak begins by quoting (in
translation) from Yediot Ahronot: " ' . . . Rabin said, "I prefer the
Palestinians to cope with the problem of enforcing order in the Gaza
Strip. The Palestinians will be better at it than we were, because they
will allow no appeals to the Supreme Court and will prevent the
[Israeli] Association for Civil Rights from criticizing the conditions
there by denying it access to the area." ' " (The related Times news
article about the protests succinctly noted, "Foreign journalists were
not permitted into Gaza today," without saying whether it was
Palestinian or Israeli authorities that blocked them.)
Shahak continues with the Rabin quotation: " [The
Palestinians] will rule by their own methods, freeing -- and this is
most important -- the Israeli soldiers from having to do what they will
do. All Gaza Strip settlements will remain where they are. The Israeli
Army will remain in the Gaza Strip to defend them..."
It is quite clear [this is Shahak himself now] that
the most important point for Rabin is that Arafat's faction in the PLO
will become, or already is, a part of Shabak in order to perform its
work better than Israel can by itself. The main point is that the PLO is
expected to be more immune to criticism than Israel. The parallel with
the methods employed by the US in countries dependent on it, such as El
Salvador or Guatemala, in which the worst kinds of oppression are
entrusted to local forces, is inescapable."
It is significant that my quotation of Shahak becomes
his quotation of an Israeli paper quoting Rabin. For one thing, Shahak
often expressed his view that it was easy to see the realities of
Israeli policies if one looked at what Israeli leaders did, and what
they said locally, as opposed to what they said for foreign consumption.
(He would add, certainly, that this is not true only of Israel.) In
addition, many journalists and others, myself included, benefited
enormously over the years from Shahak's English translations "From the
Hebrew Press," and his reports based on them, so generously distributed
to us here -- before everybody was on-line -- by Shahak's friend Frank
Collins. Shahak also published three books in English: Jewish History,
Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (1994); Open
Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies (1997); and Jewish
Fundamentalism in Israel (co-authored with Norton Mezvinsky, 1999), all
available from Pluto Press. As the quotation about Oslo demonstrates,
these works will not seem dated any time soon.
When I interviewed Shahak at his Jerusalem home in
1995, he used the word "liberated" twice. The first was when I asked him
about his time in Bergen-Belsen.
He answered very, very briefly, wanting to say little
beyond the dates of his internment, in 1943, and his liberation by the
American army in 1945 after a week of transport. This is the place to
note that I am as guilty as other commentators in feeling the need to
frame Shahak's dissent from Israeli policies within the skewed
contemporary discourse -- and to point out that he was a Holocaust
survivor. When I asked him about this phenomena, he said: "I dislike
this, but I also don't like to quarrel with my friends who are sometimes
my only distributors. . . . But you also have seen that when I
distribute my work, I don't add any biographical detail."
He continued: "If I add something for my protection,
I am adding only the fact that I am an Israeli citizen . . . who lived
in the country from '45. . . I may even add sometimes that I served in
the Israeli army all the time that I had to serve." He further explained
that by pointing out his military service and his willingness to fight
if Israel were to be invaded, he wanted to distinguish himself from the
Shahak could not tolerate any ideology, left or
right, because he believed in pragmatism and reason. If this made his
views, or, in any case, his method, seem frustratingly strident itself
sometimes, for those of us wanting some understanding of the human
motivations of the oppressors around the world, his insistence on
pragmatism served to teach us the limits of our understanding, and the
ways in which those very limits are part of our understanding. In the
introduction to Open Secrets, he writes that "the very act of 'looking
for specific reasons' for political behavior . . . is a suspicious form
of activity. . . .What is the 'reason' for the Law of Gravitation or for
the Second Law of Thermodynamics? There is no reason except that they
happen to predict what is actually observed. . . . Thus, while I regard
it as a proven fact that the aim of Israeli policies is to establish a
hegemony over the Middle East, if someone asked me why Israel behaves in
this way a part of my answer would be that this behavior is 'natural' to
all or most states, as experience has shown. The question of why such
behavior is 'natural' to most states we must leave until the time when
our knowledge of human nature is greater."
Shahak is careful to note, even in passing, that he
is not writing about Israel as an exception; indeed, he is trying to
counter commentary about Israel which depends on Israel's supposed
uniqueness, whether seen as positive or negative. Likewise -- and this
point will have particular resonance for many readers of this magazine
-- Shahak never confused his defense of the Palestinian people with
either a defense of Arafat or a romanticizing of the victims. When he
told me in 1995 that any state run by Arafat (though he did not believe
any such state would come into existence) would be "a worse dictatorship
than Assad's in Syria," I asked him about the longstanding claim that
the PLO was a democratic body.
"Well, I never said it," he replied, and then gave me
evidence of the PLO's authoritarian functioning.
What does this do to the Left's claim or some
Palestinians' claim that the PLO was the sole legitimate representative
of the Palestinian people?
"I never said it," he replied again. "Very many leftists all over the
world have a tendency to beautify the victims. I, on the contrary, say
that while supporting the rights of the victims, and certainly trying to
prevent suffering as much as one can, one has to say the truth." The
point is worth repeating now as the Left struggles to respond to the
World Trade Center attacks and the US military action that has followed.
Perhaps Shahak is best known for his ongoing
criticism of Zionist ideology, and of the notions of religious
exclusivity which underlie not only the Right's positions but, more
insidiously, more silently, and more hypocritically, the Left's. I said
that he used the word "liberated" twice when we spoke. The second time
was in this context. He explained that he "was a complete Zionist . . .
a Ben Gurionist, I should say," when he came to Palestine in 1945. He
believed in co-existence with the Arabs, but on the premise "that the
Land of Israel belongs to Jews. That Arabs should be given only personal
rights and limited by security considerations, but should not have
national rights, nor any rights which hinder Jewish settlement." He
mentions the confiscation of Arab land for the benefit of Jews, a
subject to which he often returned, seeing it as being at the heart of
the discriminatory policies inherent in Israel's being a "Jewish state"
rather than a state of all its citizens.
Then he said of these early views: "It took much,
much time until I liberated myself from those principles, which I fully
Israel Shahak died on July 2, but he left us with
crucial lessons about liberation -- of victims from their oppressors,
and of ourselves from blind belief. He will be missed.
October 12, 2001
Copyright Between the Lines © 2000
1933 – 2001
von Christopher Hitchens
(veröffentlicht in The Nation, July 23/30, 2001)
In early June I sat on a panel, in front of a large
and mainly Arab audience, with Thomas Friedman of the New York
Times. Our hosts, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination
Committee, had asked for a discussion of contrasting images of the
Israel-Palestine conflict. The general tempo of the meeting was
encouragingly non-tribal; there were many criticisms of Arab regimes and
societies, and one of our co-panelists, Raghida Dergham, had recently
been indicted in her absence by a Lebanese military prosecutor for the
offense of sharing a panel discussion with an Israeli. However, it’s
safe to say that most of those attending were aching for a chance to
question Friedman in person. He was accused directly at one point of
writing in a lofty and condescending manner about the Palestinian
people. To this he replied hotly and eloquently, saying that he had
always believed that "the Jewish people will never be at home in
Palestine until the Palestinian people are at home there."
That was well said, and I hadn’t at the time read his
then-most-recent column, so I didn’t think to reply. But in that article
he wrote that Chairman Arafat, by his endless double-dealing, had
emptied the well of international sympathy for his cause. This is a very
Times-ish rhetoric, of course. You have to think about
it for a second. It suggests that rights, for Palestinians, are not
something innate or inalienable. They are, instead, a reward for good
behavior, or for getting a good press. It’s hard to get more patronizing
than that. During the first intifada, in the late 1980s, the
Palestinians denied themselves the recourse to arms, mounted a civil
resistance, produced voices like Hanan Ashrawi and greatly stirred world
opinion. For this they were offered some non-contiguous enclaves within
an Israeli-controlled and Israeli-settled condominium. Better than
nothing, you might say. But it’s the very deal the Israeli settlers
reject in their own case, and they do not even live in Israel "proper".
(They just have the support of the armed forces of Israel "proper".) So
now things are not so nice and many Palestinians have turned violent and
even – whatever next? – religious and fanatical. Naughty, naughty. No
self-determination for you. And this from those who achieved statehood
not by making nice but as a consequence of some very ruthless behavior
I am writing these lines in memoriam for my dear
friend and comrade Dr. Israel Shahak, who died on July 2. His home on
Bartenura Street in Jerusalem was a library of information about the
human rights of the oppressed. The families of prisoners, the staff of
closed and censored publications, the victims of eviction and
confiscation – none were ever turned away. I have met influential "civil
society" Palestinians alive today who were protected as students when
Israel was a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University; from him
they learned never to generalize about Jews. And they respected him not
just for his consistent stand against discrimination but also because –
he never condescended to them. He detested nationalism and religion and
made no secret of his contempt for the grasping Arafat entourage. But,
as he once put it to me, "I will now only meet with Palestinian
spokesmen when we are out of the country. I have some severe criticisms
to present to them. But I cannot do this while they are living under
occupation and I can ‘visit’ them as a privileged citizen." This
apparently small point of ethical etiquette contains almost the whole
dimension of what is missing from our present discourse: the element of
elementary dignity and genuine mutual recognition.
Shahak’s childhood was spent in Nazified Poland, the
Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; at the end of the
war he was the only male left in his family. He reached Palestine before
statehood, in 1945. In 1956 he heard David Ben-Gurion make a demagogic
speech about the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt, referring to this
dirty war as a campaign for "the kingdom of David and Solomon". That
instilled in him the germinal feelings of opposition. By the end of his
life, he had produced a scholarly body of work that showed the
indissoluble connection between messianic delusions and racial and
political ones. He had also, during his chairmanship of the Israeli
League for Human and Civil Rights, set a personal example that would be
very difficult to emulate.
He had no heroes and no dogmas and no party
allegiances. If he admitted to any intellectual model, it would have
been Spinoza. For Shahak, the liberation of the Jewish people was an
aspect of the Enlightenment, and involved their own self-emancipation
from ghetto life and from clerical control, no less than from ancient
"Gentile" prejudice. It therefore naturally ensued that Jews should
never traffic in superstitions or racial myths; they stood to lose the
most from the toleration of such rubbish. And it went almost without
saying that there could be no defensible Jewish excuse for denying the
human rights of others. He was a brilliant and devoted student of the
archeology of Jerusalem and Palestine: I would give anything for a
videotape of the conducted tours of the city that he gave me, and of the
confrontation in which he vanquished one of the propagandist guides on
the heights of Masada. For him, the built and the written record made it
plain that Palestine had never been the exclusive possession of any one
people, let alone any one "faith".
Only the other day, I read some sanguinary
proclamation from the rabbinical commander of the Shas party, Ovadia
Yosef, himself much sought after by both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. It
was a vulgar demand for the holy extermination of non-Jews; the vilest
effusions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad would have been hard-pressed to
match it. The man wants a dictatorial theocracy for Jews and helotry or
expulsion for the Palestinians, and he sees (as Shahak did in reverse)
the connection. This is not a detail; Yosef’s government receives an
enormous US subsidy, and his intended victims live (and die, every day)
under a Pax Americana. Men like Shahak, who force us to face these
reponsibilities, are naturally rare. He was never interviewed by the
New York Times, and its obituary pages have let pass
the death of a great and serious man.
© 2001 The Nation Company, L.P.
LA SCOMPARSA DI UN GRANDE
INTELLETTUALE EBREO ANTISIONISTA
di Norton Mezvinsky (*)
(italienische Übersetzung aus: Against The Current,
La tragedia nella morte di Israel Shahak consiste
nel fatto che questa è giunta troppo presto, nel momento di maggiore
capacità produttiva di questo raro intellettuale ed umanista. Edward
Said lo ha descritto come "un uomo coraggioso che dovrebbe essere
onorato per i servizi che ha reso all'umanità".
Israel Shahak nacque a Varsavia il 28 Aprile
1933, da genitori ebrei polacchi istruiti e benestanti. Durante
l'occupazione nazista, la sua famiglia venne trasferita nel ghetto
di Varsavia. Il fratello maggiore riuscì a fuggire in Inghilterra
dove si arruolò nella Royal Air Force e successivamente morì in
guerra. Alla scomparsa del padre, Israel venne nascosto dalla madre
presso una famiglia cattolica, ma nel 1943 i nazisti catturarono
entrambi e li deportarono nel campo di concentramento di
Bergen-Belsen. Scampati alla shoah, nel 1945 emigrarono in Palestina
all'epoca sotto mandato britannico.
Nel nuovo paese Israel ricevette un'educazione
secolare e religiosa ortodossa. Dopo il diploma prestò servizio di
leva presso una unità di elite dell'esercito israeliano e una volta
adulto rimase tra i riservisti. Successivamente frequentò la Hebrow
University di Gerusalemme ed ottenne il dottorato in chimica nel
1961. Dopo aver lavorato per due anni presso l'università di
Stanford in California tornò alla Hebrow University come istruttore,
successivamente divenne professore.
A più riprese gli studenti lo votarono come
professore più stimato dell'ateneo e come chimico diede un
significativo contributo alla ricerca sul cancro. Nel 1990 a causa
del diabete fu costretto a dedicarsi ad altro.
Per tutta la sua vita Israel Shahak rimase un
fiero ebreo israeliano ed acquisì una profonda comprensione ed
apprezzamento per gli aspetti positivi della storia ebraica. Dal
momento in cui giunse in Palestina nel 1945 sentì a casa e mai pensò
di vivere altrove, Gerusalemme è stata la città che più ha amato.
Quando era un giovane studente reagì fortemente
contro ciò che individuava di negativo (compreso il razzismo)
nell'ebraismo classico. Nella metà degli anni sessanta soffrì per la
natura reazionaria del sionismo e per l'oppressivo carattere
sionista dello stato di Israele. Nel 1965 Israel iniziò la sua
attività politica contro l'ebraismo classico ed il sionismo, dopo la
guerra del 1967 divenne ancora più esplicito ed attivo, ben presto
raggiunse un ampio riconoscimento in Israele, nei paesi e nelle
comunità arabe, e in buona parte del resto del mondo fino alla sua
morte il 2 luglio 2001. Invocava vigorosamente i diritti umani per
tutte le persone e costantemente predicò ed agì contro gli individui
e le istituzioni, il più delle volte all'interno della sua società,
che opprimevano altri. Per più di trenta anni focalizzò la propria
attenzione verso la negazione dei diritti umani in Israele e
sull'oppressione dei palestinesi.
Dopo la guerra del 1967 Shahak divenne un attivo
ed eminente membro della Lega Israeliana per i Diritti Umani e
Civili, nel 1970 ne venne eletto responsabile. La lega, i cui membri
erano cittadini ebrei e palestinesi dello stato di Israele, promosse
campagne e proteste contro la politica e le azioni del governo
israeliano tese a privare i palestinesi dei loro diritti umani,
inoltre si occupava di fornire legali ed altro aiuto ai cittadini
palestinesi oppressi, raccoglieva e diffondeva informazioni
relativamente alla condizione di vita dei palestinesi nei territori
occupati dal 1967. Sotto la leadership di Shahak la Lega espanse le
proprie attività e divenne più efficace.
All'inizio degli anni settanta Israel Shahak
comprese che all'estero non erano sufficientemente note sia la
negazione dei diritti umani sia l'oppressione dei palestinesi nello
stato di Israele, in tal senso si impegnò a diffondere quante più
informazioni possibili, specialmente negli USA. Sperava che ciò
potesse condurre molti americani ad opporsi a ciò che il governo
israeliano stava facendo e che la pressione da essi esercitata
potesse spingere il governo USA a influenzare il governo israeliano
nel temperare, se non far cessare, alcune delle sue forme di
Anche se tutto questo era un desiderio che non
avrebbe prodotto la maggior parte dei risultati sperati Shahak
riteneva che il fornire informazioni poteva comunque avere un
valore. Io concordavo con la sua analisi e decidemmo di operare
insieme. La nostra campagna di informazione negli USA iniziò in
maniera attiva nel 1972 quando organizzai una serie di conferenze di
Shahak. Tour seguenti pianificati da me e da altri si svolsero
durante gli anni settanta, ottanta e primi anni novanta. Durante
questi tour Shahak tenne lezioni in università, college, chiese,
istituzioni, organizzazioni ed altre istituzioni, inoltre parlò
privatamente con molte persone inclusi alcuni membri del congresso e
funzionari del dipartimento di stato.
Israel Shahak denunciò chiaramente la negazione
dei diritti dei palestinesi di Israele e dei territori occupati.
Denunciò inoltre le limitazioni di libertà, pensiero, espressione,
le ordinanze sulla terra, le restrizioni di vita, le retribuzioni
ineguali, le restrizioni lavorative, la confisca della terra, la
distruzione di case, l'incarcerazione gli arresti domiciliari sotto
provvedimenti di emergenza, tortura dei prigionieri, punizioni
collettive, omicidi, discriminazioni nell'educazione, limitazione
dell'attività politica privazione della cittadinanza e molte altre
misure. Lui forniva documentazione precisa per ognuno di questi
punti spesso distribuiva la traduzione inglese dei suoi articoli, in
cui criticava queste misure.
Perentoria critica del sionismo
Shahak sosteneva che l'oppressione del popolo
palestinese derivasse dal carattere sionista dello stato di Israele.
Comprese, in quanto sopravvissuto alla shoah, che coloro che sono
stati oppressi possono divenire a loro volta oppressori.
Il suo saggio "Sionismo come movimento recidivo",
contenuto nel libro "Anti Zionism: analitical reflections" (Amana,
1989), è una brillante esposizione della sua teoria secondo cui il
sionismo ebbe origine come reazione al progressivo cambiamento e
venne a dettare la maggior parte delle scelte relativamente alla
politica estera ed interna di Israele. Il sionismo unito al
militarismo di stato crea le condizioni per aspirazioni territoriali
e per una politica interna discriminatoria verso la minoranza non
ebrea di Israele.
Shahak sosteneva che il sionismo non è motivato
da valori ebraici positivi ma che piuttosto è il desiderio creare un
ghetto ebraico pesantemente armato. Sionismo come reazione ma
simultaneamente immagine riflessa dell'antisemitismo sciovinista.
Per Shahak l'ideologia sionista potenziata dalla
sovranità di Israele costituiva la causa delle negazione dei diritti
umani e nazionali dei palestinesi e delle iniquità nello status di
cittadini palestinesi dello stato ebraico. In ciò Shahak
differisce da alcuni ebrei israeliani di sinistra che criticano
specifiche misure oppressive nei confronti dei palestinesi ma che si
rifiutano di criticare il sionismo definendosi essi stessi sionisti.
Shahak definì questa sinistra sionista ipocrita. Sebbene non sia
mai stato né socialista né comunista (fu critico rispetto a queste
ideologie) lavorò in stretto contatto sulle questioni dei diritti
umani con alcuni marxisti israeliani inclusi membri del Rakah
(Partito Comunista Israeliano) ed alcune di queste persone con cui
fu spesso impegnato in dibattici politici erano ancora suoi stretti
Subito dopo il ciclo di conferenze tenute negli
USA, Shahak ed io ritenemmo che fosse utile promuovere la regolare
distribuzione negli USA di traduzioni in lingua inglese degli
articoli critici prodotti dalla Hebrow Press (nelle loro conclusioni
vicine al pensiero di Shahak).
Riuscimmo a convincere alcune persone a lanciarsi
in questa avventura. Ad esempio il National Council of Churches
supportò la pubblicazione di Swasia, ed anche io fui coeditore e
distributore di alcune di queste pubblicazioni. In aggiunta a tutto
ciò, Shahak scrisse articoli, molti dei quali tradotti da riviste e
giornali inglesi ed americani, in cui presentava alcune sue analisi,
spesso tratte da articoli di Hebrow Press.
Shahak non amava i leader, secolari e religiosi,
di organizzazioni ebree con base negli USA, li criticava severamente
per la loro attitudine a seguire ciecamente la politica ufficiale
del governo israeliano circa i palestinesi e gli arabi in generale.
Spesso credette che la società ebrea di Israele fosse più aperta
rispetto a quella degli ebrei americani rispetto ad un serio
dibattito circa gli arabi ed Israele.
Shahak additò i leader ebrei americani per la
loro mancanza di apertura accusandoli di esercitare pressioni per
soffocare il dissenso. Sosteneva che costoro fingono di sapere molto
più di quel che effettivamente sanno della società israeliana e di
utilizzare l'olocausto per raccogliere denaro e sostegno politico.
Scritti circa la religione ebraica
Negli anni settanta ed ottanta Shahak venne
criticato a più riprese dai suoi antagonisti e ricevette anche delle
minacce di morte. Non scoraggiato continuò ad indirizzare al suo
pubblico discorsi e scritti. Negli anni novanta il suo pubblico
divenne più ricettivo. Il suo rifiuto di definire accordi di Oslo
come accordi di pace, la critica all'attuale leadership politica
palestinese, la critica del giudaismo classico e del fondamentalismo
ebraico in Israele gli procurarono dure critiche.
I tre libri di Israel Shahak furono pubblicati
tra il 1994 ed il 1999. Con Jewish History, Jewish Religion: the
Weight of Three Thousand Years (Pluto, 1994) realizzò, grazie una
ricerca e un analisi che ripercorreva almeno quattro decenni, un
pungente attacco al giudaismo classico ed al suo più recente
sviluppo il giudaismo ortodosso.
Commentando questo libro Noam Chomsky scrisse:
"Shahak è uno studioso prominente con una conoscenza profonda e di
vedute notevoli. Il suo lavoro è ben informato e penetrante, un
contributo di grande valore".
Il libro "Jewish fondamentalism in Israel" di cui
sono stato coautore è uno studio ancora più profondo di un
importante aspetto del giudaismo classico e ortodosso. Questo libro
rimarca l'importanza della crescita dell'influenza e del potere del
fondamentalismo ebraico in Israele. Traccia la storia e lo sviluppo
del fondamentalismo ed esamina le sue diverse correnti. Il libro
colloca l'assassinio del primo ministro Rabin all'interno del
contesto di una tradizione di punizioni e omicidi di ebrei
considerati essere eretici od informatori. La natura antidemocratica
del fondamentalismo ebraico è evidente nella nostra analisi entrambi
i libri sopracitati sottolineano le connessioni tra alcuni degli
aspetti negativi del sionismo e i filoni del giudaismo ortodosso
In Open Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign
Policies (Pluto, 1997), Shahak presentò un'analisi della politica
estera israeliana sulla base di una serie di articoli che scrisse
tra il 1992 ed il 1995 (tratte per lo più dalla Hebrew press).
Argomentò che Israele stava conducendo una politica segreta di
espansionismo su molti fronti con l'obiettivo di ottenere il
controllo non solo della Palestina ma dell'intero Medio Oriente. Una
traiettoria che lui considerava essere un profondo pericolo sia per
gli ebrei che per i non ebrei.
In questo contesto è appropriato ciò che Gore
Vidal scrisse nella sua introduzione a Jewish History, Jewish
Religion descrivendo Israel Shahak come "l'ultimo, ma non l'ultimo
dei grandi profeti".
(*) Norton Mezvinsky insegna Storia presso la
Central Connecticut State University ed è, con Israel Shahak, di
Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (fondamentalismo ebraico in
Belsen survivor who attacked Israel's treatment of
Friday July 6, 2001
Israel Shahak, who has died aged 68 from
complications caused by diabetes, was for 25 years a highly popular
professor of organic chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
But during the same period, Shahak, an old-fashioned liberal, was also
chairman of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights. As such he
was accused of being an "Israel hater", was spat at in the streets, and
received constant death threats.
Shahak was the youngest child of a prosperous,
cultured Polish Jewish family; when, during the wartime Nazi occupation
of Poland, the family was forced into the Warsaw ghetto, his father even
sought out a chess tutor for his son. But soon the family was torn
apart. Shahak's older brother escaped and joined the Royal Air Force,
only to be shot down; Shahak's father disappeared and the hiding of
fair-haired Israel with a poor Catholic family ended when his mother
could no longer pay for his keep.
In 1943 both were deported to the Bergen Belsen
concentration camp. Shahak was a starving 12-year-old when he was
liberated. Soon afterwards, he emigrated to what was then British
Mandate Palestine. After setbacks - he was rejected as "too weedy" when
he volunteered for a kibbutz - he became a model citizen. After Israeli
army service in an elite regiment, he became an assistant to Ernest
Bergmann, the head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission.
Shahak underwent two major conversions in his life.
Aged 13, he scientifically examined the evidence for the existence of
God and found it wanting. Then, shortly after the l967 six-day war, he
concluded from observation that Israel was not yet a democracy; it was
treating the newly occupied Palestinians with shocking brutality.
For the next three decades, he spent all his spare
time on attempts to change this. He contributed to various small
leftwing papers, but when this proved to have little impact, he decided
to alert journalists, academics and human rights campaigners abroad.
From his small, bare West Jerusalem flat poured forth reports with
titles such as Torture in Israel, and Collective Punishment in the West
Bank. Based exclusively on mainstream Israeli sources, all were
painstakingly translated into English.
World coverage gradually improved, but Shahak never
let off, he never became blasé. Watching him read out a small news item
about an Israeli farmer who had set his dogs on a group of Palestinian
children was to see a man in almost physical distress.
Shahak came to believe that these human rights
incidents stemmed from Israel's religious interpretation of Jewish
history, which led it to ignore centuries of Arab life in the country,
and to disregard non-Jewish rights. Confiscation, every schoolchild was
told, was "the redemption of the land" from those who did not belong
there. To Shahak, this was straightforward racism, damaging both sides.
It was a minority view, but after the 1982 war, when the Israeli liberal
sector grew, Shahak was able to put it forward in the reputable daily
Ha'aretz. After retiring in 1991, he could also turn his ideas into
Jewish History, Jewish Religion (Pluto Press, 1994),
studied the attitudes to non-Jews held by Israel's religious
establishment. Shahak also emphasised the fate decreed for Jewish
heretics: death. Shortly after the book appeared, Premier Yitzhak Rabin
was assassinated by an Orthodox student.
Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, (Pluto Press, 1999)
written with Norton Mezvisky, looked at the growing power of rightwing
orthodox groups. "A fundamentalist Jewish regime, if it came to power in
Israel," Shahak warned, "would treat Israeli Jews who did not accept its
tenets worse than it would treat Palestinians."
To reverse this process, Shahak gave up most things,
including marriage and a family. A great music lover, he allowed himself
one concert or opera visit per year. He was fond of philosophy and had
started writing a book on Spinoza earlier this year, but passed most
evenings scanning local newspapers. Despite his criticisms, he remained
fiercely proud of the country's free press.
Having been urged to write his autobiography, Shahak
only found time to write a superb piece on his childhood under Nazism
for the New York Review of Books. In it he recalled listening to some
Polish workmen talking during his days on the gentile side of Warsaw.
Discussing the situation, one young man had defended the Germans by
pointing out that they were ridding Poland of the Jews, only to be
rebuked by an older labourer: "So, are they not also human beings?" It
is a phrase Israel Shahak never forgot.
Israel Shahak, academic, human rights campaigner,
born April 28 1933; died July 2 2001
EducationGuardian.co.uk © Guardian Newspapers Limited
Remembering Israel Shahak
"A determined critic of Israel’s apartheid"
By Lance Selfa
July 20, 2001 | Page 13
THE MOVEMENT for justice for the Palestinians lost
one of its most dedicated supporters earlier this month when Israel
Shahak died in Jerusalem.
He was little known in the U.S., even among those who
support the fight for Palestinian rights. But his contribution should be
known. Here, LANCE SELFA remembers Israel Shahak.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
ISRAEL SHAHAK was a Hebrew University professor of
organic chemistry who won international acclaim for research that
contributed to cancer treatment. He was popular with his students,
winning many "teacher of the year" awards.
But Shahak’s greatest contributions came as an
uncompromising critic of Israel’s apartheid system.
Anyone who wanted to understand what was really going
on in Israel and the Middle East had to read Shahak’s monthly
"Translations from the Hebrew Press." Like the American radical
journalist I.F. Stone, Shahak used official documents and reports from
Israeli newspapers and magazines to expose the realities that "friends
of Israel" and their lapdogs in the U.S. media systematically concealed.
Shahak committed his life to the cause of human
rights for Palestinians after the 1967 war, when Israel won a smashing
victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
But if the war gave Shahak a political framework for
his activism, it was a more everyday incident two years earlier that had
pushed him to take a stand.
In 1965, he recalled, "I had personally witnessed an
ultra-religious Jew refuse to allow his phone to be used on the Sabbath
in order to call an ambulance for a non-Jew who happened to collapse in
his Jerusalem neighborhood."
Shahak called a meeting with members of the
Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem to ask the state-appointed rabbis if the
man’s refusal to help violated Jewish religious law. The rabbis ruled
that the man had acted properly.
When Shahak heard this, he publicized the story and
the Rabbinical Court’s decision in Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading
The story "caused a media scandal," Shahak recalled.
"The results of the scandal were, for me, rather negative. Neither the
Israeli, nor the diaspora, rabbinical authorities ever reversed their
ruling that a Jew should not violate the Sabbath in order to save the
life of a Gentile."
As if to show up the pompous rabbis, Shahak--an
atheist--became an expert scholar of Judaism. His wide knowledge of the
Talmud, rabbinical rulings and Jewish history helped him to challenge
the Zionist concept of a "Jewish state."
Shahak concluded that any state based on the
domination of one religious group would lead to the oppression of other
As Israel consolidated its hold over the Palestinian
population in the Occupied Territories that it seized in 1967, Shahak
became a leading voice of protest inside Israel.
In 1968, he cofounded the Council Against House
Destruction, and two years later, Shahak became chair of the Israeli
League of Human and Civil Rights--where he pushed for his belief that
everyone should enjoy equal rights, regardless of sex, race or religion.
Working for even these simple goals made Shahak a
target for Israel’s ideological hit men--both inside and outside the
country. Zionists tried many times to drive Shahak out of his job, and
"friends of Israel" openly called for his assassination in the
The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith put Shahak
on its Nixon-like "enemies list" in 1983. And, of course, Shahak was
abused as a "self-hating Jew" and apologist for anti-Semites.
These were particularly offensive charges given that
Shahak was a Holocaust survivor. Born in Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto in 1933,
Shahak spent most of his childhood trying to stay alive in Nazi-occupied
ghettos and death camps.
Allied forces liberated Shahak and his mother from
the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1945, but his father had been killed. Shahak
and his mother emigrated to Palestine in 1947.
At the time, Shahak believed in Zionism--and fought
in the Israeli army in the 1948 war that drove almost 1 million
Palestinians from their homes. But when Shahak became an opponent of
Zionism, he often compared the experience of Palestinians under Israeli
rule to his own experience living under the Nazis.
Shahak was an early critic of the "peace process"
initiated in 1993. While the world’s media talked about the prospects
for peace in the Middle East, Shahak systematically documented the
Israeli security apparatus’ plans for repackaging the occupation--with a
section of Palestinians taking over the job of repressing the mass of
the population. And he criticized the Palestinian Authority’s corruption
and repression as severely as he did Israel’s.
Shahak’s death is a loss to the movement in
solidarity with the Palestinians.
But his powerful words live on in his books Open
Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies; Jewish History, Jewish
Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years and Jewish
Fundamentalism in Israel, coauthored with Norton Mezvinsky.
For anyone who wants to get beyond the constant
stream of propaganda that passes for analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, Shahak’s writings are a must.
Israel Shahak (1933-2001)
In Memory of Israel’s Leading Voice of Dissent
By Sunil Sharma
Dissident Voice; July 4, 2001
It is with deep sadness that I report that leading
Israeli civil libertarian Israel Shahak succumbed to diabetes Monday
July, 2 in Jerusalem, at the age of 68. He was laid to rest the next day
in the Giv'at Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem.
Israel Shahak, a respected scientist and secular Jew,
was a courageous activist and uncompromising champion of Palestinian
civil and human rights.
Shahak was born on April 28, 1933 in Warsaw, Poland
to a family of Orthodox Jews who were committed Zionists. Much of his
childhood years were spent in hiding in the Warsaw Ghetto during the
Nazi occupation. Shahak and his parents were captured by the Nazis in
1943 and imprisoned in the Poniatowo concentration camp. He and his
mother managed to escape shortly after; his father perished in the
camps. Shahak and his mother were rearrested later that year and would
spend the next two years at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. His
experience there left him handicapped for life.
Shahak and his mother were liberated by allied forces
in April 1945. They emigrated to Palestine later that year. In 1948, the
state of Israel was founded in the wake of the Zionists' large-scale
expulsion and dislocation of the indigenous Arab population.
Shahak, like all young Israelis, served a brief stint
in the army during the mid-1950s. He wrote that during his youth he was
an uncritical admirer of David Ben-Gurion, founding father of the
Israeli state. That soon changed.
"In 1956 I eagerly swallowed all of Ben-Gurion's
political and military reasons for Israel initiating the Suez War
[against Egypt], until he (in spite of being an atheist, proud of his
disregard of the commandments of Jewish religion) pronounced in the
Knesset on the third day of that war, that the real reason for it is
'the restoration of the Kingdom of David and Solomon' to its Biblical
borders. At this point in his speech, almost every Knesset member
spontaneously rose and sang the Israeli national anthem. To my
knowledge, no zionist politician has ever repudiated Ben-Gurion's idea
that Israeli policies must be based (within the limits of pragmatic
considerations) on the restoration of the Biblical borders as the
borders of the Jewish state." At that point, Shahak became Ben-Gurion's
Shahak received his doctorate from the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem in 1961. In 1963, he began his tenure there as
lecturer and later professor of organic chemistry. Shahak was admired by
his academic colleagues and students, the latter voting him best teacher
year after year. Shahak garnered international recognition for his
research into a treatment for cancer. Ill health forced him to retire
from the university in 1990.
Yet what Shahak will doubtless be remembered for is
his brave activism and morally principled stand against Israeli
apartheid and its military policies at home and abroad.
It was during the 1960s that Shahak became a
prominent activist in Israel. As Palestinian scholar Edward Said writes:
during those years, Shahak "began to see for himself what Zionism and
the practices of the state of Israel entailed in the suffering and
deprivation not only for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, but
for the substantial non-Jewish (i.e. Palestinian minority) people who
did not leave in the expulsion of 1948, remained, and then became
Israeli citizens. This then led him to a systematic inquiry into the
nature of the Israeli state, its history, ideological and political
discourses which, he quickly discovered, were unknown to most
non-Israelis, especially Diaspora Jews for whom Israel was a marvelous,
democratic, and miraculous state deserving unconditional support and
A scandalous incident Shahak witnessed in 1965
spurred his entry into political activities: "I had personally witnessed
an ultra-religious Jew refuse to allow his phone to be used on the
sabbath in order to call an ambulance for a non-Jew who happened to
collapse in his Jerusalem neighborhood." Shahak then called a meeting
with members of the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem, made up of rabbis
nominated by the state. Shahak inquired whether the actions of the
ultra-religious Jew were consistent with their interpretation of the
Jewish religion. The rabbis answered that the Jew acted piously, "and
backed their statement by referring me to a passage in an authoritative
compendium of Talmudic laws, written in this century." Shahak then
reported the incident to Ha'aretz, Israel's leading Hebrew daily, "whose
publication of the story caused a media scandal. The results of the
scandal were, for me, rather negative. Neither the Israeli, nor the
diaspora, rabbinical authorities ever reversed their ruling that a Jew
should not violate the Sabbath in order to save the life of a Gentile."
Shahak then came to public attention as a vociferous
critic of Israel's territorial expansionism and confrontational stance
vis-à-vis the Arab world, the dispossession of the Palestinian people,
its dependence on the United States, and the racist ideology that lies
behind the concept of a "Jewish state." As a strong secularist, Shahak
correctly reasoned that the notion of a "Jewish state," like any other
religious state, by definition means that non-Jews would be denied the
same social and political rights that Jews enjoy. In such a
circumstance, conflict between peoples is inevitable.
Shahak was also a scholar of the Jewish religion,
thoroughly versed in the teachings of the Talmud, rabbinical rulings,
cabbala, and so on. Like a latter day Enlightenment figure a la Tom
Paine or Voltaire, Shahak utilized his extensive knowledge to attack the
totalitarian and exclusivist strains that lay at the foundations of the
Jewish religion, and which under gird the Zionist ideology as manifested
in the actions of its adherents, be they religious or secularists.
Shahak's devastatingly documented work on this topic, most notably his
controversial book Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three
Thousand Years (Pluto Press, 1997), insured his status as a pariah
within Israel and to American Jewish supporters of Israel (who are often
far more fanatic in their loyalty than their extremist counterparts in
In 1968, Shahak co-founded and headed up the Council
Against House Destruction, one of the first political organizations to
openly oppose the Israeli occupation of the territories conquered and
annexed in the June 1967 war. In 1970, Shahak became Chairman of the
Israeli League of Human and Civil Rights, a group that espoused the (in
Israel) revolutionary idea that all people should enjoy equal rights
regardless of race and religion. Shahak was also an early supporter of
As many activists and Middle East scholars will
attest, one of Shahak's greatest contributions was his monthly
"Translations from the Hebrew Press." Shahak recognized that the Hebrew
language press in Israel was far more honest and informative in its
coverage of what transpires there and in the territories than the
overwhelmingly pro-Israel American media. Shahak meticulously
translated, annotated, reproduced and dispatched thousands of important
articles, augmenting each dispatch with valuable comments and insights
drawn from his encyclopedic knowledge of Israeli society, politics and
Shahak talked a brutally straight talk; wry and
irreverent, well reasoned, never afraid to offend friends and foes
alike, and never resorting to the type of mystifying academic verbal
diarrhea that serves only to confuse and to detract from dealing with
the stark realities of the conflict. Shahak's translations, spanning
nearly three decades, were done largely at his own expense and consumed
a great deal of time and energy. Edward Said stresses that "It is
impossible to over-estimate this service. For me, as someone who spoke
and wrote about Palestine, I could not have done what I did without
Shahak's papers and of course his example as a seeker after truth,
knowledge, and justice. It is as simple as that, and I therefore owe him
a gigantic debt of gratitude."
Noam Chomsky has in his writings and lectures
frequently cited Shahak as an invaluable source of information on Middle
East affairs. Chomsky wrote that Shahak "has compiled a personal record
of courage and commitment that few people anywhere can equal, and has
been untiring in exposing the facts about the occupation."
Controversy and hysterical (and often violent)
denunciations by "supporters of Israel" both there and in the US
followed Shahak's life to the very end. Shahak's unpopular stands often
made him a lonely figure in Israel/Palestine.
There has never been a sewer too squalid for Shahak's
opponents to inhabit in their attacks against him. In Israel, calls for
Hebrew University to eject Shahak from his post were constant. In 1974,
Lea Ben Dor, writing in the Jerusalem Post, asked: "What shall we do
about the poor professor? The hospital? Or a bit of the terrorism he
approves? A booby-trap over the laboratory door?" Shahak's skewering of
Israeli sacred cows extended especially to the hypocrites of the Israeli
"Left." Official peace movement groups like Peace Now and the
purportedly dovish Meretz party hated Shahak because he exposed their
spineless compromises and shameful pressuring of the Palestinians to
accept unjust arrangements packaged as serious peace offers, like the
Oslo accords. Professor Amnon Rubinstein of Meretz once tried to
convince the interior minister to confiscate Shahak's passport so that
he would be unable to lecture abroad and "slander" Israel.
In the US, the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai
Brith placed Shahak on their "enemies list" in 1983. In the early-1970s,
renowned Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, a thuggish pro-Israel
extremist and anti-Arab racist, tried to cover up a Labor Party scheme
to oust Shahak from the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights
through a takeover. Dershowitz's writings contained numerous slanders
against Shahak, while promulgating falsehoods that were proven as such
by Israeli court documents.
Interestingly, Shahak did not consider himself a
leftist. Indeed in some of his jousts with his detractors and in his
writings, Shahak stressed that he had been a life-long "opponent of
Marxism and socialism of all shades."
After the 1967 war, Shahak and the late Israeli
professor Yehoshua Leibowitch coined the phrase "Judeo-Nazi" in
describing the methods employed by Israel to repress the Palestinians.
He was also among the first to describe Israeli society in an apartheid
context. For this, Shahak has been slammed as an "Israel-hater," a
"self-hating Jew," an "Arabophile" and the standard assortment of
invectives aimed at silencing those who criticize Israel and dare
acknowledge the humanity of the Palestinians.
Shahak refused to allow the Jewish Holocaust to be
politically manipulated to excuse away Israeli expansionism, militarism,
and racism towards Arabs. As Shahak correctly observed, nazism/fascism
is an ideology that is not exclusive to the Germans. Anybody, including
a Jew, can become a nazi. The path to nazism is easy to tread once an
ideology that holds as a fundamental premise that "other" people don't
exist (as Golda Meir said of the Palestinians), or are at best inferior
creatures, is embraced and internalized.
Shahak ceded not one inch in the barrage of
falsehoods and attacks fired on him. He refused to tailor his brilliant
writings and oratory to please anyone including friends (real or not).
With his towering intellect and scholarly rigor, Shahak was consistent
in the application of his moral stands, such as his opposition to
nationalism. Shahak was a strong critic of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. As
a result, he was a figure avoided by both Arabs and Jews.
For any person who cares about the struggle for peace
and justice in Israel/Palestine, Israel Shahak's work is critical: Open
Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies (Pluto Press, 1997).
Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years
(Pluto Press, 1997). Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (Pluto Press,
1999), coauthored by Norton Mezvinsky. Many of his essays and
"Translations from the Hebrew Press" can be found on the internet by
doing a simple search using his name as keywords.
Israel Shahak's writings and his example as a
fiercely independent thinker and indefatigable activist for peace and
justice has had a profound influence on my understanding of the
Israel-Palestinian conflict and has been a source of inspiration. His
work is a reminder that we in the US must act to stop our government's
diplomatic and massive military support for Israel. At this dark hour
when the Israeli war against the Palestinians escalates to new levels of
sheer barbarity, and the prospect of a catastrophic war between Israel
and its neighbors increases, the passing of this reasoned voice for
truth and decency is a tremendous loss to us all. DV
Dissident Voice is a semi-regular newsletter
dedicated to challenging the lies of the corporate press and the
privileged classes it serves.
Copyright 2001 Dissident Voice
Editor: Sunil Sharma
DV welcomes your comments/criticisms/fine ales
free use of your country vacation home/surplus
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Issue 13, 2001
The Last Israeli Liberal -
Remembering Israel Shahak (1933 - 2001)
During half a century of
existence, the State of Israel did not produce many great men
and women, either in the fields of science and art or in the
domain of ethics. The heroes of Israel are petty generals,
narrow minded-politicians, and morally-crippled writers. True
intellectuals and moral figures can be counted on the fingers of
one hand. Israel Shahak was definitely one of these very few,
together with his long-time opponent, Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
Though Shahak affirmed
that he was following the path of Baruch Spinoza, and adopted
Spinoza's philosophy as a life guide, I think Shahak was above
all one of the last philosophers of the 18th century school of
enlightenment, rationalism, and liberalism, in the American
meaning of the concept. While rejecting Marxism, Shahak was
deeply committed to social justice and to what he called a
As a true liberal, he was
deeply opposed to any kind of religious coercion against
individual life and equally opposed to religious involvement in
politics. In the sixties, Shahak's first political steps were in
the Israeli League Against Religious Coercion. However, after
the 1967 war, he disavowed this organization, because he
believed that his colleagues were fake liberals - while using
liberal principles to fight against religion, they were silent
on the crimes of the Israeli occupation.
Shahak, on the other hand,
was not only ready to speak out loudly against occupation,
administrative detentions, house demolitions, and torture, but
also ready to act on these issues. He did so with people and
organizations that were very far from his own milieu, both
socially and ideologically: the Israeli Communist Party and the
young radicals from the anti-Zionist Matzpen group. In 1969, he
thus placed himself in a very isolated position: Matzpen was
public enemy number one; and Communists were identified with the
However, Shahak was not a
man to be influenced by what people said or the public image of
potential partners. Furthermore, he did not accept such behavior
from others. When he established the Committee Against
Administrative Detentions in 1970 and later became the
vice-chairman of the Israeli League for Human Rights, Shahak
placed one condition: Communists Party members would work
together with Matzpen activists, despite their differences and
the reluctance of the Party to be identified with a group, which
openly supported the Palestinian national resistance.
In the late sixties and
the early seventies, I worked very closely with Shahak and used
to come to his flat almost every day, to assist him documenting
the crimes of the Israeli occupation and to plan protest
activities. His flat was messy, dirty, and smelly, with
half-empty cans of food and piles and piles of newspapers - in
which he could find, in few seconds, any article he wanted. But
all that was quickly forgotten when Shahak would begin to
analyze the news, commenting on articles from the six to eight
newspapers he read daily.
Israel did not speak only
about politics. He could speak just as well of philosophy,
history, religion, or music, with the same erudition and
insightful knowledge. He was a great intellectual in the
classical meaning of the term - not confined to one or two
fields of expertise: a man of culture, and not only western
I remember one day, when
he asked me if I wanted to borrow some of his records. He had a
very rich collection of classical music, often with extremely
rare performances, especially in opera. I answered that I would
be delighted to listen to some of his records, secretly worried
by the dust and what seemed to be remains of marmalade that
covered them. And then he asked me if I like Haydn. I answered,
"Not so much, his music is too light for my taste." He laughed
with his typical loud laugh, and replied: "You don't know
Haydn... the first symphonies ... not the well-known later ones.
Take them, and afterwards we will talk again." We rarely spoke
about Haydn, who became one of my favorite composers.
Shahak's knowledge ranged
over many fields; and most of the time, he had clear-cut
opinions, which were extremely difficult to challenge. For he
was not a man of dialogue; and when he changed his views, it was
- most of the time - through his own thoughts, and not under the
influence of anyone. When he changed his mind, he rarely
admitted it and continued to argue his new position as if it
were the direct continuation of what he always had argued
before. Shahak did not leave too much room for question marks or
friendly divergences. On political issues, in particular, slight
disagreements could easily degenerate into antagonism and,
sooner or later, anger and painful separation. Throughout the
years, most of his close political friends became enemies; and,
stubborn as he was, Shahak was never ready to reconcile
Consistent with his
liberal values and democratic philosophy, Shahak quickly evolved
from radical opposition to the occupation to an overall
challenge to Zionism as a regime based on structural
discrimination and racism. Nothing could stop his rational way
of thinking, and no sentimental obstacles, or consensual taboos,
could make him refrain from drawing the conclusions to which his
rational thinking led.
In that sense too, Shahak
was a man of the enlightenment for whom reason was the only
valuable criterion of truth and the guide for personal conduct.
When asked to moderate his positions, or at least the vocabulary
he was using, in order not to harm his academic career or to
give more credibility to his arguments, he reacted with anger:
"This is the truth, and nothing will oblige me to make it
In order to draw true
conclusions, there was a need for evidence. Shahak dedicated
most of his time to collecting and translating articles from the
Israeli mainstream media, which he used as documentary proof for
his radical criticism of Zionism. For many years, the Shahak
Papers were the only valuable resource to anyone abroad who
was interested in challenging the Zionist discourse.
However, the Shahak
Papers had one weakness: he felt the need to add long
footnotes to the articles he translated. These footnotes were
another expression of his tremendous erudition but often had a
counterproductive effect on the reader. Instead of letting the
text speak for itself, Shahak felt the need to add evidence
aimed at proving how hypocritical an author was, or what a
criminal a particular Israeli leader mentioned in the text might
be. He was particularly virulent against writers or politicians
claiming to be democrats, liberals, or leftists.
Shahak's footnotes were
most of the time very logical, but not necessarily convincing,
pointing to one of his main political weaknesses: as an extreme
rationalist - he addressed human beings from the point of view
of rationality and logic only. He failed to take into
consideration all the irrationality that exists in human beings,
especially in dealing with ideological issues, and the need to
develop educational ways, to gradually change the misconceptions
of others by speaking to their hearts and not only to their
Intellectual integrity was
for Israel Shahak the ultimate criterion, no matter what the
political and practical implications: in 1999, he voted for
Netanyahu, because he deduced from a very rational analysis that
Ehud Barak would be more harmful than Netanyahu to the cause of
right and justice. Some of his friends tried to convince him
that it was perhaps logical, but politically wrong, to vote for
the head of the Israeli right and that it could have been more
pedagogical to call for abstention. But, we knew that he would
not be convinced.
In his last years, Shahak
increasingly focused his public attacks - especially in letters
to Ha'aretz and Kol Hair - against the Palestinian
national movement and the radical left in Israel. In his eyes,
the Israeli left was not critical enough of the Palestinian
nationalists.. For many of us, it was a severe political mistake
and could only serve the enemies of peace and justice. However,
for Shahak, the duty of an honest person was, first of all, to
tell the truth and to unmask the hypocrites - no matter what the
political implications and no matter what kind of impact it
might have on changing the world and its people.
In that sense, Israel
Shahak was not a political activist - but rather a kind of
modern prophet, standing at the gates of the city to denounce
evil, intellectual cowardice, and moral hypocrisy. As such, he
will be sorely missed by all the friends of justice and human
Michael Warschawski is the
former director of the Alternative Information Centre in