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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 courage.

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 national anthem."

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 government.

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 told.

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, as extreme.

"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

Press Release

 

 

 

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 Israelis."

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 Stilled

By Allan C. Brownfeld*

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2001

 

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 as well.

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 Middle East.

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 interpretation."

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 land.’"

Jewish Fundamentalism

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 value."

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.

 

 

 


Remembering Israel Shahak

by Alexander Cockburn 7/13/01

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 Joseph.'"

 

 

 

 

Dr. Israel Shahak

By Richard H. Curtiss

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1989, Page 19

 

"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."

- Dr. Israel Shahak, 1989

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 disturbing.

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 Jewish community.

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 his candor.

"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 first-hand knowledge.

"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 the rabbis.

-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 retain.

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 institutionalized domination.

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 pacifists.

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 professed."

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.

Mark Dow
October 12, 2001

Copyright Between the Lines © 2000

 

 

 

Israel Shahak

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 indeed.

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.

 

 

 

 


ISRAEL SHAHAK
LA SCOMPARSA DI UN GRANDE INTELLETTUALE EBREO ANTISIONISTA

di Norton Mezvinsky (*)

(italienische Übersetzung aus: Against The Current, September 2001)

 

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".

Dall'Ortodossia all'Attivismo

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.

 

Campagne internazionali

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 oppressione.

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 amici.

Traduzioni

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 classico.

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 Israele).

 

 

 

 

Israel Shahak

Belsen survivor who attacked Israel's treatment of Palestinians

Elfi Pallis


Friday July 6, 2001
The Guardian

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 books.

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 2002

Remembering Israel Shahak

 

 

 


"A determined critic of Israel’s apartheid"

By Lance Selfa

Socialist Worker

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 Hebrew-language newspaper.

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 groups.

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 mainstream press.

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 "dedicated opponent."

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 defense."

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 Israel).

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 feminist liberation.

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 history.

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

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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

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Jerusalem Quarterly File

Issue 13, 2001

 

The Last Israeli Liberal - Remembering Israel Shahak (1933 - 2001)

Michael Warschawski

 

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 humanist socialism.

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 Soviet dictatorship.

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 culture.

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 milder."

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 minds.

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 dignity.

 

Michael Warschawski is the former director of the Alternative Information Centre in Jerusalem.

 

 

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