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 Yeshayahu Leibowitz 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.
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.
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.
*Some of Israel Shahak’s work can be found at the following websites: