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Israel Shahak (1933-2001): A Prophetic Voice Is Stilled

Allan C. Brownfeld
Summer 2001

The death of Israel Shahak in July has taken from us a genuinely Prophetic Jewish voice, one who believed deeply in 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 were in contact ever since, getting together when he visited the United States. He wrote a number of very thoughtful articles for Issues.  

In many ways, Shahak was a victim of history who tried to learn from his own experience, and apply what he learned to others.  

The youngest child of a prosperous and cultured Polish Jewish family, he and his mother, father and brother were forced into the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Shahak's brother escaped and joined the Royal Air Force, only to be shot down. His father disappeared and Israel was hidden with a poor Catholic family until his mother could no longer pay for his keep. In 1943 both he and his mother were deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  

Liberated from Bergen-Belsen  

A starving 12-year-old when he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, Shahak soon emigrated to British Mandate Palestine with his mother. He went on to have a distinguished career as professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was repeatedly voted the most admired teacher by students. On one occasion, he risked his life to save a student from the flames surrounding her when an explosion occurred in a university laboratory.  

After 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 the inhumane treatment inflicted upon Israel's Arab citizens and upon Palestinians in the occupied territories.  

While American newspapers, both Jewish and general, completely ignored the death of Israel Shahak, an obituary in The Guardian of London (July 6, 2001) 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. World coverage gradually improved, but Shahak never let off, 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 school child was told, was `the redemption of the land' from those who did not belong there. To Shahak, this was straightforward racism, damaging both sides."  

Shahak's Vision  

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, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and formerly a member of the staff of the American Council for Judaism.  

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.  

Continuation of Political Activities  

This book, Shahak writes, "is, in a way, a continuation of my political activities as an Israeli Jew. Those activities began in 1965-6 with a protest which caused a considerable scandal at the 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 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 behaved correctly, indeed piously, and backed their statement by referring me to a passage in an authoritative compendium of Talmudic laws, written in this country. I reported the incident in the main Hebrew daily, Haaretz, whose publication of the story caused a media scandal."  

In the end, Shahak reports, "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."  

Satanic Creatures  

The Hatanya, fundamental book of the Habbad movement, one of the most important branches of Hasidism, declares that all non-Jews are totally Satanic creatures "in whom there is absolutely nothing 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 only see 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 kidnaping) 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 kidnaping of Gentiles by Jews is allowed by Talmudic law) — hence the interpretation."  

Chauvinistic Meaning  

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 ..."  

Talmudic Rules  

Many contemporary Israeli policies relate 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 resident or itinerant trader shall not be allowed to pass through our land.'"  

The modern Zionist movement, Shahak argues, represents a movement away from the Jewish universalism of the prophets and back to the concept of a tribal faith tied to a particular geographic site. It is, he states, "a reversion to the segregationist stance of classical Judaism."  

The concept of Jews and Judaism held by Zionism and that held by anti-Semites, as many have noted, is similar in a number of key respects. "In fact," Shahak writes, "close relations have always existed between Zionists and anti-Semites; exactly like some of the European conservatives, the Zionists thought they could ignore the `demonic' character of anti-Semitism and use the anti-Semites for their own purposes ... Herzl allied himself with the notorious Count von Plehve, the anti-Semitic minister of Tsar Nicholas II; Jabotinsky made a pact with Petlyura, the reactionary Ukrainian leader whose forces massacred some 100,000 Jews in 1918-21 ... Perhaps the most shocking example of this type is the delight with which Zionist leaders in Germany welcomed Hitler's rise to power, because they shared his belief in the primacy of `race' and his hostility to the assimilation of Jews among `Aryans.' They congratulated Hitler on his triumph over the common enemy — the forces of liberalism."  

Celebrating Hitler  

Dr. Joachim Prinz, a German Zionist rabbi who subsequently emigrated to the U.S., where he became vice-chairman of the World Jewish Congress and a leader in the World Zionist Organization, published in 1934 a special book Wir Juden (We Jews) to celebrate Hitler's so-called German Revolution and the defeat of liberalism. He wrote: "The meaning of the German Revolution for the German nation will eventually be clear to those who have created it and formed its image. Its meaning for us must be set forth here: the fortunes of liberalism are lost. The only form of political life which has helped Jewish assimilation is sunk."  

The victory of Nazism ruled out assimilation and inter-religious marriages as an option for Jews. "We are not unhappy about this," said Dr. Prinz. In the fact that Jews were being forced to identify themselves as Jews, he saw the "fulfillment of our desires." Further, he states, "We want assimilation to be replaced by a new law: the declaration of belonging to the Jewish nation and the Jewish race. A state built upon the principle of the purity of nation and race can only be honored and respected by a Jew who declares his belonging to his own kind. Having so declared himself, he will never be capable of faulty loyalty towards a state. The state cannot want other Jews but such as declare themselves as belonging to their nation ..."  

Israel Shahak compares Prinz's early sympathy for Nazism with that of many who have embraced the Zionist vision, not fully understanding the possible implications: "Of course, Dr. Prinz, like many other early sympathizers and allies of Nazism did not realize where that movement was leading. Equally, many people at the present time do not realize where Zionism is tending: to a combination of all the old hates of classical Judaism towards Gentiles and to the indiscriminate and ahistorical use of all the persecutions of Jews throughout history to justify the Zionist persecution of the Palestinians."  

Growth of 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.  

Of particular concern is the total contempt which Jewish fundamentalists show toward non-Jews. Rabbi Kook the Elder, the revered father of the messianic tendency of Jewish fundamentalism, said: "The difference between a Jewish soul and the souls of non-Jews — all of them in all different levels — is greater and deeper than the difference between a human soul and the souls of cattle."  

Rabbi Kook's entire teaching, which is followed devoutly by, among others, those who have led the settler movement on the occupied West Bank, is based upon the Lurianic Cabbala, the school of Jewish mysticism that dominated Judaism from the late 16th to the early 19th century. "One of the basic tenets of the Lurianic Cabbala," the authors write, "is the absolute superiority of the Jewish soul and body over the non-Jewish soul and body. According to the Lurianic Cabbala, the world was created for the sake of the Jews; the existence of non-Jews was subsidiary. If an influential Christian bishop or Islamic scholar argued that the difference between the superior souls of non-Jews and the inferior souls of Jews was greater than the difference between the human soul and the souls of cattle, he would incur the wrath of all and be viewed as an anti-Semite by most Jewish scholars regardless of whatever less meaningful, positive statements he included."  

Praise of Goldstein  

Shahak and Mezvinsky cite the words of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, who wrote a chapter of a book in praise of Baruch Goldstein and his murder of 29 Muslims at prayer. 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. If every simple cell in a Jewish body entails divinity, is a part of God, then every strand of DNA is part of God. Therefore, something is special about Jewish DNA ... If a Jew needs a liver, can you take the liver of an innocent non-Jew passing to save him? The Torah would probably 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 implications of being widely known early. Disregarding even on a limited scale the potential affects of messianic, Lubavitch and other ideologies could prove to be calamitous ... The similarities between the Jewish 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 resembles in this respect prior Jewish religious doctrines as well as similar trends in Christianity and Islam. This ideology assumes the imminent coming of the Messiah and asserts that the Jews, aided by God, will thereafter triumph over the non-Jews and rule over them forever."  

Land of Israel  

The Jewish fundamentalists believe that God gave all of the Land of Israel (including present-day Lebanon and other areas) to the Jews and that Arabs living in Israel are thieves. Rabbi Israel Ariel, a fundamentalist leader, published an atlas that designated all lands that were Jewish and needed to be liberated. This included all areas west and south of the Euphrates River extending through most of Syria, much of Iraq and present-day Kuwait.  

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, another spokesman, said, "We must live in this land even at the price of war. Moreover, even if there is peace, we must instigate wars of liberation in order to conquer it (the land)."  

When it comes to Baruch Goldstein's murder of 29 Palestinians, fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge that such an act constitutes "murder" because, according to the Halacha, "the killing by a Jew of a non-Jew under any circumstances is not regarded as murder. It may be prohibited for other reasons, especially when it causes danger for Jews." When asked if he was sorry about the murdered Arabs, militant Rabbi Moshe Levenger declared: "I am sorry not only about dead Arabs but about dead flies."  

For the fundamentalists, Goldstein became a hero. Military guards transported his coffin to Kiryat Arba through Palestinian villages. Rabbi Dov Lior in a eulogy stated that, "Goldstein was full of love for fellow human beings. He dedicated himself to helping others." Shahak and Mezvinsky write that, "The terms `human beings' and `others' in the Halacha refer solely to Jews."  

Growing Influence  

Although messianic fundamentalists constitute a relatively small portion of the Israeli population, their political influence has been growing. If they have contempt for non-Jews, their hatred for Jews who oppose their views is even greater.  

The murder of Yitzhak Rabin, Shahak and Mezvinsky show, is one in a long line of murders of Jews who followed a path different from that ordained by rabbinic authorities. They cite case after case, from the Middle Ages until the 19th century.  

One typical example was the assassination by poison of Rabbi Avraham Cohen in Lemberg, Austria on September 6, 1848.  

Assuming his rabbinical position in 1844, Cohen initiated changes in Jewish life. His most important initiative was his attempt to abolish taxes on kosher meat and sabbath candles which Lemberg's Jews paid to Austrian authorities. These taxes were burdensome for poor Jews but were a source of income for many Orthodox Jewish notables.  

"Law of the Pursuer"  

The Austrian authorities accepted Cohen's request and abolished the taxes in March 1848. The five Jewish notables of the town began a total struggle against Rabbi Cohen. Critics argued that the "law of the pursuer" applied to the rabbi. One placard said: "He is one of those Jewish sinners for which the Talmud says their blood is permitted" (that is, every Jew can and should kill them). On Sept. 6, a Jewish assassin successfully entered the rabbi's home unseen, went to the kitchen and put arsenic poison in a pot of soup that was cooking. Both Rabbi Cohen and his small daughter died. The Hassids and their leaders did not attend the funeral, but celebrated.  

It was precisely the same Talmudic laws that caused Rabbi Cohen's death which were used to murder Yitzhak Rabin. Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, cited the "law of the pursuer" (din rodef) and the "law of the informer" (din moser). The first law commands every Jew to kill or wound severely any Jew who is perceived as intending to kill another Jew. According to halachic commentaries, it is not necessary to see such a person pursuing a Jewish victim. It is enough if rabbinic authorities or even competent scholars, announce that the law of the pursuer applies. The second law commands every Jew to kill or wound severely any Jew who, without a decision of a competent rabbinic authority, has informed non-Jews about Jewish affairs or has given them information about Jewish property or who has delivered Jewish persons or property to their rule or authority.  

Exclusive Property  

Shahak and Mezvinsky write: "The land of Israel has been and still is considered by all religious Jews as being the exclusive property of the Jews. Granting Palestinians authority over any part of this land could be interpreted as informing. Some religious Jews interpreted the relations that developed between Rabin and the Palestinian Authority as causing harm to the Jewish settlers. In this sense, Rabin had informed."  

It troubled Israel Shahak that the lesson many Jews learned from the Nazi period was to embrace ethnocentric nationalism — just what had created such tragedy in Europe and to reject the older prophetic Jewish tradition of belief in a universal God, the creator of heaven and earth, and of men and women of every race and nation — a God whose moral law applied equally to all, who did not make distinctions between Jews and non-Jews but held the lives of all human beings to be sacred. This, Shahak believed, was Judaism's unique contribution to the world and it saddened him that so many were prepared to turn away from it.  

He was particularly dismayed with the manner in which so many American Jews had transformed their corporate life from one in which the message of this universal God was turned into what, in effect, became the role of defense attorney for the State of Israel. In the prophetic tradition, he pointed out, Jews were, if anything, held to higher standards then others — not lower ones. He wondered how American Jewish groups could promote ideas of religious freedom and ethnic diversity in their own country, but embrace those in Israel who rejected those same values.  

Bigotry Is Objectionable  

It was Shahak's view that bigotry was morally objectionable regardless of who is the perpetrator and who the victim. He declared: "Any form of racism, discrimination and xenophobia become more potent and politically influential if it is taken for granted by the society which indulges 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 Shahak never forgot. To him, all men and women were human beings — deserving of equal treatment and equal rights.  

Prophetic Voice  

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?  

We understand, as the Bible tells us, that, "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and in his own house." Israel Shahak may be largely 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.  

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