Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 1994, Pages 69, 79-80

Book Reviews

Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years

By Israel Shahak. Pluto Press, England, 1994, 127 pp. List: $17.95. The book can be obtained by North American readers for $15.50 including postage from Americans for Middle East Understanding, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 570, New York, NY 10115-0241, telephone (212) 870-2053.

Reviewed by Dr. Edna Homa Hunt

In the wake of the massacre of Palestinian men and boys inside and around the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron earlier this year, who has not asked how such killings could have been perpetrated? And how can one explain the joy of Kiryat Arba settlers as—within hours— they publicly celebrated the death of almost 60 people? Or understand the lament by several settler rabbis, in the aftermath of this killing spree, that "so few were killed"?

Unless there is real knowledge of Jewish culture and Jewish law, the Talmud in particular, the answers can only be speculative. The truth is that the halacha (the legal system of "classical," or Rabbinical, Judaism) enjoins killing non-Jews in times of war. And, if you are a member of Gush Emunim and a settler in any part of "the redeemed land of Israel" (otherwise known as "the occupied territories"), you are perpetually in a state of war. Therefore, killing Palestinians as if they were Biblical Amalekites or participants in 18th century Polish or Russian pogroms is a positive commandment.

More than that, according to Holocaust survivor and author Israel Shahak, in Israel:

Since 1973 this doctrine is being publicly propagated for the guidance of religious Israeli soldiers...in a booklet published by the Central Region Command...whose area includes the West Bank.

No one need be surprised, therefore, that during the occupation Israeli soldiers and officers shot Palestinian children; or women hanging laundry on a veranda; or brutally beat up blindfolded and tied-up prisoners. In the rare cases in which these perpetrators are brought to trial, "their wrist is slapped" or they are imprisoned for a few months.

For all who have been troubled by the policies and practices of the "Jewish State"—indeed, by the very concept—but did not know how or whom to ask, Professor Shahak's recently published book, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, is essential reading.

Over a period of at least 30 years, among his many other activities, this professor of chemistry at Hebrew University pursued a quest which culminated in the publication of the present book. Its first phase was a 36-page Hebrew-language monograph Shahak published in Israel in 1966. Its title, Towards a Jewry of Truth and Justice and Against Jewish Attitudes Towards Strangers, conveys the theme that pervades his present book, and informs every nook and cranny of its 103 pages, plus 14 pages of text-enriching "notes."

In 1981 the very same monograph appeared, in two installments, in the English-language periodical Khamsin, published for a while in England. Provocative as they seem when presented in the current English-language book, the difficult truths it contains are well known within Israel, and have been for a good long time.

Roots in History

With this book, Shahak takes readers through an erudite tour of Jewish history. The exposition is detailed enough to cite chapter and verse of halachic laws, specifying discriminatory action, or inaction, against non-Jews in every conceivable situation and in all spheres of living. His erudition in Talmudic literature and history enables him to leap through the centuries and select the crucial events highlighting the development of Jewry from Babylon to Spain, England to Egypt, Poland and Russia to Palestine, on to present-day Israel.

What astonishes me is that nothing in my 10 years of schooling and 25 years of living in a mostly exclusivist Jewish environment prepared me for the information and insights contained in Shahak's book. Although my school was in British Mandatory Palestine, it was a secular Jewish school, run by the Jewish community, which mandated its curriculum via a centralized educational authority. A great many "Jewish subjects" were covered, but nothing about those parts of the Talmud which taught hatred toward non-Jews, explicitly viewing them as lesser beings. I am certain that a great many Jews still are as unaware as I have been, yet I am equally certain they have been influenced by these attitudes more than they realize.

I was profoundly shocked and disappointed to learn from Shahak's book that the revered Maimonides (author of the Mishneh Torah in the 12th century, an early code of Talmudic law) was the promulgator of laws directing Jewish physicians' relations with non-Jewish patients. In essence, Jewish physicians were to withhold treatment from non-Jews except where such behavior would engender "the hostility" of the non-Jews.

Indeed, this prohibition reached into the 20th century. As recounted by Shahak, at the behest of the (now late) Lubavitcher Rabbi Menahem Schneursohn, appeals were made to Israeli doctors and nurses during the Lebanon war of 1982 not to extend treatment to injured Palestinian or Lebanese soldiers! One known Jewish doctor who obeyed that appeal—and thereby Talmudic law—was the infamous Dr. Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of this year's Hebron massacre! Israeli military authorities never disciplined him for this behavior. By failing to do so, the military implicitly sanctioned Goldstein's abandonment of his duties as a physician in the army. The Lebanon war was not the only such instance.

An Array of Themes

There was much more that I learned from Shahak's densely written book, and so will many readers, because, as Shahak exposes the pernicious attitudes and practices against non-Jews enshrined in Talmudic and Rabbinical law, he also condemns a host of unsavory internal and external historical practices by Jewish communities. His review focuses on the role Jews played on behalf of tyrannical rulers, exploitative nobility and high-level clergy: collecting punishing taxes from everyone, including poverty-stricken peasants, and keeping "law and order" in the general population.

Within the Jewish communities themselves, omnipotent rabbinical courts kept "Jewish" law and order, by punitive measures meted out to Jews who transgressed the laws of the halacha. Shahak cites several shocking examples, including the public flogging to death of Karaites (a dissident Jewish sect).

This was possible because, from the period of the Roman Patriarchs through the period of "classical Judaism" ending in the 18th century, Jewish communities throughout the countries of the "dispersion" had virtual autonomy within the larger polity. Jews were ruled and controlled by an "establishment" comprising a rabbinical class and its courts, wielding great legal power—including the power to inflict capital punishment—and by a class of rich Jews who oppressed the Jewish poor. This "establishment" also collaborated in oppressing the non-Jewish population on behalf of the crown and nobility who ruled by brute force through mercenaries.

Equally thought-provoking are Shahak's admonitions on the morally corrupting system of "dispensations." An example is the employment of a non-Jew (the "Shabbat goy") to perform work on the Sabbath that is forbidden to Jews but serves their convenience.

"It was this hypocritical system of "dispensations (heterim)," Shahak writes, "which, in my view, was the most important cause of the debasement of Judaism in its classical epoch."

His book provides examples and forces readers to ponder the spiritual hollowness of the practice. It could well be called "a dozen ways to cheat God."

Jewish Exclusivism

Shahak examines extensively another pillar of Jewish ideology—exclusivism, which has set Jews apart wherever they have settled. Buttressed by an intricate legal structure and web of customs, it pervades all of Jewish life from conception to burial. Today's exclusivism is perhaps less obvious, but to some degree it survives in many Jewish communities and the lives of their members.

Unfortunately, exclusivism is supported by rules in the halacha for actively contemptuous behavior toward non-Jews in every sphere of social life and endeavor. Anti-black attitudes within some Jewish communities in the U.S. are a dimension of this exclusivism.

It surely was an element in the social explosion in Crown Heights in 1991. By accident, an automobile accompanying Lubavitcher Rabbi Schneursohn struck a young black boy. A Hasidic Jewish-owned ambulance was summoned to attend to the driver's injuries. Jewish law entered the situation when the ambulance driver departed without extending assistance to the dying African-American child. As interpreted by the Hasidic driver, Jewish law forbids it!

Jewish law also encouraged all manner of prevarication and misleading apologies to stem the "hostility" of the black community, the authorities and the wider American community. In all of the accounts of the tragedy, which triggered three days of rioting and the murder of a young Jewish man by a mob, note well the total absence of the truth about the role of halachic laws in published reports and public discussion. Through her ignorance, there is not a hint of this truth in the artistically crafted and widely acclaimed one-woman show by Anna Deavere Smith, all revolving around the variety of perceptions and feelings concerning the "incident" in Crown Heights.

Israel Shahak's chapter entitled "The Weight of History," which provides such a sweeping, albeit trenchant, review of Jewish history, ends with conclusions that have significant contemporary implications:

The State of Israel now fulfills towards the oppressed peasants of many countries—not only in the Middle East but also far beyond it—a role not unlike that of the Jews in pre-1795 Poland: that of a bailiff to the imperial oppressor...It is characteristic and instructive that Israel's major role in arming the forces of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua and those of Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile and the rest, has not given rise to any wide public debate in Israel or among organized Jewish communities in the diaspora. Even the narrower question of expedience—whether the selling of weapons to a dictatorial butcher of freedom fighters is in the long-term interest of Jews is seldom asked. Even more significant is the large part taken in this business by religious Jews, and the total silence of their rabbis (who are very vocal in inciting hatred against Arabs).

It seems that Israel and Zionism are a throw-back to classical Judaism— writ large, on a global scale, and under more dangerous circumstances.

Deliberate Deception and Denial

For centuries Jewish communities, through their leaders, employed deceptive strategies to conceal the attacks on Christianity, as well as non-Jews in general, that are contained in the Talmud. The main motive was to avoid or deflect attacks on the Talmud and "the Jewish way of life" it produced and, often, to prevent attacks on Jews themselves.

The important purpose was to mislead the "goyim" (I have always cringed at the use of that term for non-Jews, inevitably accompanied by a grimace or a sneer to convey contempt, or worse) as to Talmudic laws governing each and every personal and social interaction among Jews and between Jews and non-Jews.

Shahak details for us some of the myriad manifestations of this "prevarication." They include removing the most offensive passages when the Talmud is translated into languages other than Hebrew, substituting false translations in the "foreign" language, or using irrelevant words for the real, distasteful ones.

However, the real words and ideas, in the original Hebrew, are preserved in the text that has been read and studied by Jews over more than a millennium.

Currently, the derivative impulse to conceal the truth about the policies and actions of the Jewish state has been carried forward into the events of what is called the "Arab-Israeli conflict." For some time, moreover, there have been further involvements far afield and global in scope.

What is so extraordinary about the lies, the concealment, the disinformation and calculated distortions disseminated around the world is that they are not always mandated "from above," by some governmental edict. Rather, what we have now, and have had for some time, especially on the American continent, is self-censorship and conspiracies of silence.

The leaders of organized Jewish communities, supported by most rabbis, have succeeded in forging a curtain of silence around many of the happenings and developments in which Israel is a player. The immense, complex and sophisticated media universe has been persuaded to exercise self-censorship and to accept without protest an all-pervasive censorship so as to avoid criticism or condemnation.

Practiced by Jews and non-Jews alike, the scope of that censorship is difficult to define. Upon investigation, its dimensions and properties recede like fog in the sunlight. Some say that non-Jews joining in these practices are afraid of the "anti-Semite" label. Others claim a desire to protect and compensate Jews for historical persecution. There are probably many other motivations and combinations thereof.

For now, Talmudic laws remain in force, unchanged and insufficiently challenged, in the Orthodox communities in Israel. Components of these practices also are embodied in the "law of the land." So in the rest of Israeli society they mold a "state of mind" which permits a toleration, at least, of brutality and chicanery vis-a-vis Palestinians.

Paradoxically, censorship is less in Israel. The media tell it like it is. The majority in that country, including the military and politicians of all stripes, concur with the policies and practices of repression. The victims, after all, are non-Jews, and, worse, usurpers of "our" land.

It is no aberration that Gen. Rafael Eitan, when Israeli chief of staff, called the Palestinians "cockroaches." Lots of people laughed and the rabbis and other leaders did not admonish him. Nor was it surprising that few protests were heard from Jewish quarters when former army chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren publicly called for the assassination of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, with whom the government of Israel had just signed a solemn agreement in Cairo this year.

Shahak's Mission of Warnings

Superb as is the scholarship embodied in this book, Shahak's aim is more than merely to put into English the results of his years of research. His purposes are to sound a warning and a clarion-call. The warning is that to ignore Jewish fundamentalism—in the form of present-day orthodoxy—incorporated as it is in Israel's domestic and foreign policy is as reckless as ignoring a regional nuclear power with expansionist ambitions.

That warning is directed to the Jews of Israel and the diaspora as well as to other countries in the region and beyond. In his very first chapter Shahak deals most eloquently with this expansionism, which is as present today as it has been since the earliest days of Israel's existence. When this expansionism was the subject of public statements by Palestinians and by other peoples in the neighborhood, they were always met by Israeli denials—even as more Palestinian lands were taken over.

First Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's "promised" restoration of the "Kingdom of David and Solomon" has continued to reverberate through the decades, giving rise to ambitions to reach "Biblical" or "historical" borders. To do so, as claimed by influential Orthodox Jewish authorities, would be regarded "as a divinely commanded act."

"Historical Judaism and its two successors, Jewish orthodoxy and Zionism, are both sworn enemies of the concept of the open society as applied to Israel," Shahak writes. "There are two choices which face Israeli-Jewish society. It can become a fully closed and warlike ghetto, a Jewish Sparta, supported by the labor of Arab helots, kept in existence by its influence on the U.S. political establishment and by threats to use its nuclear power. Or it can become an open society. The second choice is dependent on an honest examination of its Jewish past, on the admission that Jewish chauvinism and exclusivism exist, and on an honest examination of the attitudes of Judaism towards non-Jews."

Shahak's clarion call, then, is for Jews everywhere to face history and themselves. "Anti-Semitism and Jewish chauvinism can only be fought simultaneously."

I believe there is enough talent, wisdom and courage in Jewish communities around the world to accept Shahak's challenge and to engage in a process of self-criticism and soul-searching in the spirit of the great prophets.

Dr. Edna Homa Hunt, a naturalized American living in the United States, was born in Jerusalem of Jewish parents. When she was approached by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, to review Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, she agreed to do so on condition that readers be informed that she is a friend of the author, Dr. Israel Shahak, and a great admirer of all of his work.