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August 2001

Israel's Great Activist

By Edward W. Miller

On Wednesday, July 4, Avi Katzman, Israel's Haaretz correspondent, wrote that Israel Shahak, Israel's most prominent and courageous activist had been laid to rest in Givat Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem. Born in Warsaw to a family of well-educated Orthodox Zionists, Shahak spent his childhood in the Warsaw ghetto where he went into hiding during W.W.II. He and his mother were caught and transferred to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to be liberated in April 1945 by the Americans. Later that year, at age 12, he emigrated to Israel. Shahak received his doctorate in 1961 from Hebrew University, was appointed lecturer and then full professor of organic chemistry. Year after year, Shahak was voted "most admired" by his students.

The Haaretz article noted that Shahak received international recognition for his research in the treatment of cancer (lymphomas), but in Israel he was famed most of all for his "controversial political viewpoints; for many years he was labeled as an 'Israel hater'." While he "became actively involved in politics and human rights... renown for his independent and original views. His denunciation of al forms and expressions of nationalism roused the anger of both Israelis and Palestinians.

"Shahak's appearances in numerous international forums, in which he denounced the Israeli occupation, raised public anger at home and in the early 1970's more than one voice was heard demanding that he be dismissed from the Hebrew University and be tried for treason.

"Intellectuals throughout the world stood by his side, including his friends Jean-Paul Satre and Noam Chomsky, but few Israelis supported his views. His lectures and publications enraged the Israeli left even more than the right. Shahak often attacked the hypocrisy of the left in Israel. Prof. Amnon Rubenstein (Mertz Party) at one pointed appealed to the Interior Minister to confiscate Shahak's passport to prevent him from going abroad to 'slander' Israel... However, until his last day, he continued to follow and criticize the Israeli media, firing off letters to the editor." (Haaretz)

American journalist Christopher Hitchens (The Nation, July 23), writing "in memorium of my dear friend and comrade" said Shahak's 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 - were never turned away." Hitchens noted that in 1956 Shahak "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." Hitchens noted: "He (Shahak) was never interviewed by the New York Times, and its obituary pages have let pass the death of a great and serious man."

In a biographical sketch of Shahak in Raritan Magazine (1987), Hitchens had noted that though Shahak was an Orthodox Jew and admirer of Ben Gurion, his faith in classical Judaism and Zionist slowly broke down.

In his book Jewish History, Jewish Religion, Shahak writes that, "in 1965 he witnessed a Jewish man in Jerusalem refuse to use his telephone on the Sabbath to call for an ambulance for a non-Jew who had collapsed near his house. Shahak took this outrageous behavior to the Rabbinal Court of Jerusalem where he was told that the man had acted correctly, even piously! As for Zionism, it was the aftermath of the '67 War that changed him. He saw Palestinians driven out of their homes and could never forget it."

Writer Stanley Heller, in his column "The lion is gone" (July 4), said Shahak had written that "the oppression of the Palestinians could not be understood accurately without knowing the contempt Orthodox Judaism held towards all non-Jews." Heller notes that when Shahak began political activity on 1968, standing with ten others to protest the administrative detention of a Palestinian Israeli citizen, he had told Christopher Hitchens that by the end of the day, "he was covered with spit." Hundreds of death threats were mailed or telephoned to him and for years his mail was opened by government authorities.

Author and columnist Alexander Cockburn (antiwar.com, July 13) in his Remembering Israel Shahak, noted that, "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."

Cockburn first met Shahak in 1980 in New York and noted: "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 religo-political culture. This mysticism, he told me, is extremely dangerous... it has parallels to Christian fundamentalism.. in normal Judaism, the messiah will redeem Israel, the Jewish people will conquer the land of Israel, build the temple, and that is all. In Jewish mysticism, the coming of the Messiah if 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... The right-wing fanatics compose the most dangerous group, socially and politically, that has existed in the entire history of Israel."

Cockburn continues: "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 racism in their pettiest details."

In a 1974 series of taped interviews by British columnist and documentary maker Collin Edwards, Shahak said that Israelis were teaching in their schools that the "killing of non-Jewish babies was acceptable." Shahak recalled that, "I was beaten in school at the age of 15 or 16 because I expressed the opinion that the killing of non-Jewish babies was wrong." Shahak continued: "In April 1967, the official journal of the Army Rabbinate advocated the extermination and expulsion of all Arabs to Arabia, not only the Palestinians but the Jordanian, the Syrians, and the Lebanese."

Shahak added that the rabbinate in the 1967 War stated the seizing of the Territories was "actually removing them from Satan's possession and giving them to God and therefore they cannot be returned since they would increase Satan's power." The practical implications of such Jewish mysticism (termed the Cabbala) are dealt with in depth in Shahak's book, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (Pluto Press 1999).

Shahak pointed out that Israel's fundamentalist religious groups, the Haredim (black clothes with hair in curls) and the Gush Emunim (settlers) were the main threats to Mideast peace. Though Israel's Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, had fought for secular education for his people, he lost to these religious fanatics who, in the Israeli schools, were teaching that as their ancestors had expelled and killed the Caananites, since the Palestinians were descendants of the Caananites, similar killing and expulsion was acceptable. Reinforcing these religious fanatics, the Brooklyn-based Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (known as Lubovitcher Rebbi and recently deceased) had taught that Jewish DNA was superior to non-Jewish DNA, and that all "all non-Jews had Satanic souls." The Rebbi had a significant following in Israel.

Shahak fought this Jewish extremism, which he likened to the Nazi campaign of racial superiority and lebensraum promised by the Teutonic Gods. He told Collin Edwards: "I am saying this because I don't want to repeat my Bergen-Belsen experience from the other side of the wire fence," i.e. as a Holocaust survivor, he didn't want to watch a Palestinian Holocaust.

On April 18, 1995, I had interviewed Doctor Israel Shahak in San Francisco. Shahak was on a lecture tour of the US and at the same time was offering his recent book: Jewish History, Jewish Religion - The Weight of Three Thousand Years. A pleasant, extremely intelligent and likable man who seemed younger than his 63 years, Shahak answered questions without hesitation. When I asked why the JDL (Jewish Defense League) hadn't murdered him for his strong anti-Zionist stand, Shahak replied that, "Jews seldom murder Jews, I feel safe in Israel."

In both his lecture and his interview with me, this liberal, anti-Zionist outlined those Zionist policies which provoked the violent Arab responses the Israelis called "terrorism." Neither the Labor nor the Likud Parties, Shahak said, intend statehood for the Palestinians. This, in accord with long-standing US policy. Washington fears an Arab democracy located amongst those Mideast sheikdoms and dictatorships which the US has for years supported. Israel is purposely constructing an apartheid state.

For year I had received Shahak's translations From the Hebrew Press. However, his insulin-dependent diabetes took its toll and the translations stopped. Meanwhile, Shahak's second book, Open Secrets, Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies, was published in 1997.

When my mail to him seemed not to get through, I would call him in Jerusalem. Complications from his diabetes had slowed his correspondence. I last heard from him on May 13, 2001. His warm personal letter ended thus: "I too have no solution, capable of being realized in our generation, for the problems of the Middle East (of which the worst, in my view, is the population increase), but cease fires are possible. I am, however, of the opinion that there is only one way out: self criticism. All sides, without exception, have to admit that part of the blame... lies with them." Sincerely yours, Israel Shahak.

 

 

 

 

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