Subscribe Today

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


Dr. Israel Shahak

By Richard H. Curtiss

"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 is 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 "self-hating 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 former critics 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.