Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2001, page 71

Israel and Judaism

With Israel Shahak’s Death, A Prophetic Voice Is Stilled

By Allan C. Brownfeld

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.

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