|Native name||ישראל שחק|
April 28, 1933
|Died||June 2, 2001
|Occupation||Professor, political thinker, author, and civil rights activist|
Israel Shahak (Hebrew: ישראל שחק; born Himmelstaub, April 28, 1933 – July 2, 2001) was a Polish-born Holocaust survivor and Israeli professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, known especially as a liberal secular political thinker, author, and civil rights activist. Between 1970–1990, he was president of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights and was an outspoken critic of the Israeli government. Shahak's writings on Judaism have been a source of widespread controversy.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Shahak was the youngest child of a cultured, religious, pro-Zionist, Ashkenazi Jewish family. During German occupation of Poland, his family was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. His brother escaped and joined the Royal Air Force. His mother paid a poor Catholic family to hide him, but when her money ran out he was returned. In 1943 he and his family were sent to the Poniatowa concentration camp, near Lublin, where his father died. Israel and his mother managed to escape and returned to Warsaw, but within the year, they were both sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Shahak was liberated from the camp in 1945, and shortly thereafter emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine, where he wanted to join a kibbutz, but was turned down as "too weedy".
From age 12, Shahak cared for and provided economic support for his mother who survived the Nazi camp in very poor physical condition. After a period of learning in a religious boarding school in Kfar Hassidim, he moved with his mother to Tel Aviv. After graduating from high school, Shahak served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in an elite regiment. After completing service with the IDF, he attended Hebrew University where he received his doctorate in chemistry. He became an assistant to Ernst David Bergmann, the chair of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission.
In 1961, Shahak left Israel for the United States to study as a postdoctoral student at Stanford University. He returned two years later to become a popular teacher and researcher in chemistry at Hebrew University, and also became politically active. He published many scientific papers, mostly on organic fluorine compounds and contributed to cancer research. He remained at Hebrew University until he retired in 1990 because of concerns about his diabetes and desire to do other work.
Politics and works
Shahak first became concerned about Israel’s direction because of David Ben-Gurion's statement during the 1956 Suez War that Israel was fighting for "the kingdom of David and Solomon." In the 1960s he became involved in the Israeli League Against Religious Coercion. In 1965, he began his political activism against “classical Judaism” and Zionism. That year he wrote a controversial letter to Haaretz alleging he had witnessed an Orthodox Jew “refusing to let his phone be used on the Sabbath to help a non-Jew who had collapsed nearby,” beginning a still continuing debate on Orthodox Jewish attitudes towards non-Jews.
Following the 1967 Six-Day War, Shahak disavowed his affiliation with the League Against Religious Coercion, stating they were "fake liberals" who used liberal principles to fight religious influence in Israeli society, but failed to apply them to Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Shahak then became active with the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights and was elected its president in 1970. He remained a “moving spirit” of the organization for many years. The League for Human and Civil Rights, composed of Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, protested and publicized Israeli policies towards Palestinians and provided some legal and other aid to them. In 1969 Shahak and another Hebrew University faculty member staged a sit-down protest against the Israeli government jailing Palestinian students under emergency administrative detention regulations. In the following years, he supported Palestinian students' efforts to achieve equal rights at Hebrew University. In 1970 he established the Committee Against Administrative Detentions.
Shahak began publishing translations into English of Hebrew press accounts of Israeli activities he considered unjust or illegal, in order to publicize them to the wider world, and especially the United States. He sent his reports to journalists, academics and human rights campaigners, drawing attention with titles like “Torture in Israel,” and “Collective Punishment in the West Bank.” During the 1970s and ensuing decades he went on a number of speaking tours to universities, churches and other institutions in the United State and met privately with members of Congress and officials of the State Department. He became a well-known activist in international circles, co-authoring papers and giving joint speaking engagements with American political dissident Noam Chomsky, and winning plaudits from Jean-Paul Sartre, Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens and Edward Said.
Topics on which Shahak wrote included suppression of freedom of speech and political activity, land ordinances and confiscation, living restrictions, home destruction, unequal pay and work restrictions, emergency defense regulations, torture of prisoners, collective punishment, assassinations, discrimination in education and deprivation of citizenship. These activities earned Shahak great hostility in Israel and he even received death threats. After the 1982 Lebanon War he also wrote of Israeli abuses in Lebanon. Shahak promoted the theory that Israel's religious interpretation of Jewish history led it to disregard Arab human rights. He also began to argue that Zionism was a "regime based on structural discrimination and racism." Reviewer Sheldon Richman explains that for Shahak, Zionism was both a reflection of, and capitulation to, European antisemitism, "since it, like the anti-Semites, holds that Jews are everywhere aliens who would best be isolated from the rest of the world." In 1994 he published Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, in 1997 he published Open Secrets: Israel's Nuclear and Foreign Policies, and in 1994 he published Jewish Fundamentalism In Israel, co-authored with Norton Mezvinsky. In the introduction to the 2004 version of the book, Mezvinsky wrote that "We realize that by criticizing Jewish fundamentalism we are criticizing a part of the past that we love. We wish that members of every human grouping would criticize their own past, even before criticizing others."
In his last years, Shahak criticized hypocrisy in the Palestinian national movement, and the radical left for its uncritical support of the movement, publishing letters in Ha'aretz and Kol Ha'ir. In an obituary published in The Nation, Christopher Hitchens wrote that Shahak's home was "a library of information about the human rights of the oppressed", and that
The families of prisoners, the staff of closed and censored publications, the victims of eviction and confiscation--none were ever turned away. I have met influential "civil society" Palestinians alive today who were protected as students when Israel was a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University; from him they learned never to generalize about Jews. And they respected him not just for his consistent stand against discrimination but also because--he never condescended to them. He detested nationalism and religion and made no secret of his contempt for the grasping Arafat entourage. But, as he once put it to me, "I will now only meet with Palestinian spokesmen when we are out of the country. I have some severe criticisms to present to them. But I cannot do this while they are living under occupation and I can 'visit' them as a privileged citizen."
Alleged telephone incident
In 1965, Shahak wrote a letter to Ha'aretz which, according to Dan Rickman, writing in The Guardian in 2009, was the genesis for "[t]he currently major debate within and outside Israel about Orthodox Jewish attitudes to non-Jews". In this letter Shahak wrote he had witnessed an Orthodox Jewish man refusing to allow his telephone to be used to call an ambulance for a non-Jew because it was the Jewish Sabbath. He also wrote that members of the rabbinical court of Jerusalem confirmed that the man was correct in his understanding of Jewish law, and that they backed this assertion by quoting from a passage from a recent compilation of law. The issue was subsequently taken up in Israeli newspapers and The Jewish Chronicle, leading to significant publicity. According to Israeli historian Tom Segev, Maariv asked for the opinion of the minister of religious affairs, Dr. Zerah Warhaftig, who did not refute the rabbinical ruling, but quoted from traditional Jewish sources according to which Jewish doctors had saved the lives of non-Jews on the Sabbath, although they were not required to do so."
In 1966, Immanuel Jakobovits, who later became Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth, disputed the veracity of Shahak's story. Jakobovits alleged that Shahak eventually had been forced to admit that the Orthodox Jew he wrote he had witnessed, in Jakobovits words, "simply did not exist." Jakobovits wrote that "The whole incident had been fabricated in true Protocols style". He cited a lengthy responsum by Isser Yehuda Unterman, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel at the time, who stated that, "the Sabbath must be violated to save non-Jewish life no less than Jewish lives," citing a ruling by Menachem Meiri that Jews should desecrate the Sabbath to save a gentile’s life. Yechezkel Landau in his Noda B’Yehuda wrote:
I emphatically declare that in all laws contained in the Jewish writings concerning theft, fraud, etc. no distinction is made between Jew and Gentile; that the (Talmudic) legal categories goy, akum (idolater) etc., in no way apply to the people among whom we live.’
The following year Zeev Falk wrote that though he disapproved of Shahak's allegedly "invented  case", it had a positive outcome. "While I dissociate myself from the methods of action of Dr. Israel Shahak, who invented the case of a Gentile who was not given treatment on the Sabbath, it was this fiction that led Chief Rabbi Unterman to issue a ruling permitting the violation of the Sabbath in order to save the life of a Gentile".
Shahak repeated his account in the opening chapter of his 1994 book, Jewish History, Jewish Religion, stating that "Neither the Israeli, nor the diaspora, rabbinical authorities ever reversed their ruling that a Jew should not violate the Sabbath in order to save the life of a Gentile. They added much sanctimonious twaddle to the effect that if the consequence of such an act puts Jews in danger, the violation of the Sabbath is permitted, for their sake."
Writing in 2008, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach stated "From the beginning the story was curious. What prohibition could there possibly be in allowing someone else to use one's phone on the Sabbath?" He cited Eli Beer, chief coordinator of Israel's volunteer ambulance service, who "oversees 1,100 medical volunteers, approximately 60 percent of whom are Orthodox," as stating:
If someone would say we won't save a non-Jewish life on the Sabbath, he is a liar. If he is Jewish, Christian, or Muslim we save everyone's life on any day of the year, including the Sabbath and Yom Kippur, and I have done so myself. Indeed, as an orthodox Jew it is my greatest honor to save the life of a non-Jew, and I would violate any of the Jewish holy days to do so.
Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight Of Three Thousand Years
In 1994, Shahak published Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight Of Three Thousand Years. In it he proposes that most nations' histories are initially ethnocentric. However they then evolve through a period of critical self-analysis to incorporate other perspectives. Jewish emancipation by the Enlightenment was a dual liberation, from both Christian antisemitism and a 'ghetto priesthood' with its 'imposed scriptural control'.
The work was praised by Gore Vidal and Edward Said, both of whom wrote introductions to the book at various times. Robert Fisk wrote that his 'examination of Jewish religious fundamentalism' was "invaluable":
[Shahak] concludes that "there can no longer be any doubt that the most horrifying acts of oppression in the West Bank are motivated by Jewish religious fanaticism." He quotes from an official exhortation to religious Jewish soldiers about Gentiles, published by the Israeli army's Central Region Command in which the chief chaplain writes: "When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah (the legal system of classical Judaism) they may and even should be killed ... In no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilised ... In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good."
Werner Cohn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of British Columbia criticizes specific statements in Jewish History, Jewish Religion as being without "any foundation." He accused Shahak of making "grotesque charges". Werner Cohn writes:
Dr. Shahak is full of startling revelations, if that is the word, about Jewish history and the Jewish religion. None of those I was able to check had any foundation...Some are just funny. He says (pp. 23-4) that "Jewish children are actually taught" to utter a ritual curse when passing a non-Jewish cemetery. He also tells us (p. 34) that "both before and after a meal, a pious Jew ritually washes his hands... On one of these two occasions he is worshiping God... but on the other he is worshiping Satan..."
In his memoirs, To Be an Arab in Israel, Palestinian poet Fouzi El-Asmar described Shahak as a "remarkable and outstanding individual", and Gore Vidal, who wrote the introduction to Shahak's Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, described him there as 'the latest, if not the last, of the great prophets.'" According to Haim Genizi, "Shahak's extreme anti-Israeli statements were welcomed by the PLO and widely circulated in pro-Arab circles".
After his death, Shahak received tributes from a number of sources. His friend and co-author the historian Norton Mezvinsky stated he was "a rare intellectual giant and a superior humanist", and Edward Said described him as "a very brave man who should be honored for his services to humanity." Christopher Hitchens, who considered Shahak a "dear friend and comrade", said he was a "a brilliant and devoted student of the archaeology of Jerusalem and Palestine", and that "during his chairmanship of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, [he] set a personal example that would be very difficult to emulate." On Antiwar.com Alexander Cockburn described him as a "tireless translator and erudite footnoter" and "a singular man, an original", while Allan C. Brownfeld, of the American Council for Judaism, writing in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, said he opposed "racism and oppression in any form and in any country", and had a "genuinely prophetic Jewish voice, one which ardently advocated democracy and human rights." In his obituary in The Guardian Elfi Pallis described him as "an old-fashioned liberal", while Michel Warschawski described him as "the last Israeli liberal", and stated that he was "above all one of the last philosophers of the 18th century school of enlightenment, rationalism, and liberalism, in the American meaning of the concept."
Shahak has been accused of fabricating incidents, "blaming the victim", distorting the normative meaning of Jewish texts, and misrepresenting Jewish belief and law. According to Paul Bogdanor, Shahak "regaled his audience with a stream of outrageous libels, ludicrous fabrications, and transparent hoaxes. As each successive allegation was exposed and discredited, he would simply proceed to a new invention." Ari Alexander, co-founder of the Children of Abraham Organization for Jewish-Islamic dialogue, while noting the widespread use of Shahak's works by neo-Nazis and in Arab countries, concludes that:
the texts that Shahak cites are real (though Shahak's sporadic use of footnotes makes it difficult to check all of them). Oftentimes, the interpretation of these texts is debatable and their prominence in Judaism negligible, but nonetheless, they are part of Jewish tradition and, therefore, cannot be ignored.
In reaction to his writings about Judaism and the Talmud, Shahak has been accused of antisemitism. The Anti-Defamation League listed Shahak as one of four authors of polemics in its paper The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics, while Bogdanor accused Shahak of "recycling Soviet antisemitic propaganda".
In 1995 Werner Cohn wrote of Shahak:
Without question, he is the world's most conspicuous Jewish antisemite... Like the Nazis before him, Shahak specialized in defaming the Talmud. In fact, he has made it his life's work to popularize the anti-Talmud ruminations of the 18th century German antisemite, Johann Eisenmenger.
Emanuele Ottolenghi argues that Jews like Shahak act as enablers for antisemites, stating that their rhetoric plays a "crucial role... in excusing, condoning, and — in effect — abetting anti-Semitism." In his view:
Anti-Semites rely on Jews to confirm their prejudice: If Jews recur to such language and advocate such policies, how can anyone be accused of anti-Semitism for making the same arguments? [...] The mechanism through which an anti-Semitic accusation becomes respectable once a Jew endorses it is not limited to Israel’s new historians... Israel Shahak made the comparison between Israel and Nazism respectable — all the while describing Judaism according to the medieval canons of the blood libel.
While agreeing that Shahak's works contribute to antisemitism, Dan Rickman, writing in The Guardian, is not completely dismissive:
Shahak ignores [the dialectical nature and humanist] aspects of the sources. Further, through overstating his case, his analysis fits into antisemitic traditions of such accusations against the Talmud. Copies of the Talmud have been burned and the text of the Talmud that is studied today is still heavily censored. Shahak's view that chauvinism in these sources in any way "justifies" antisemitism is also very troubling.
However, I do believe that his trenchant critique of Judaism is, tragically, not without some force.The contemporary situation is that we do see some modern Orthodox rabbis utilise xenophobic sources in modern rulings. Orthodox rabbis in organisations such as Rabbis for Human Rights are sadly the exception rather than the rule.
- Israel Shahak, (ed.), The Non-Jew in the Jewish State; a collection of Documents, Jerusalem, 1975
- Israel Shahak (ed), Begin & Co as they really are, Glasgow 1977
- Israel Shahak and Noam Chomsky, Israel's Global Role: Weapons for Repression (Studies in Geophysical Optics and Remote Sensing), Association of Arab-American University Graduates, Inc., April 1982, paperback, ISBN 0-937694-51-7
- Israel Shahak, Israel's Global Role : Weapons for Repression (Special Reports, No. 4), Association of Arab-American University Graduates, 1982, paperback
- Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years: Pluto Press, London, 1994, ISBN 978-0-7453-0819-7; Pluto Press, London, 2008, ISBN 978-0-7453-2840-9
- Israel Shahak, Open Secrets: Israeli Foreign and Nuclear Policies, Pluto Press, London, 1997
- Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (Pluto Middle Eastern Series), Pluto Press (UK), October, 1999, hardcover, 176 pages, ISBN 0-7453-1281-0; trade paperback, Pluto Press, (UK), October, 1999, ISBN 0-7453-1276-4; 2nd edition with new introduction by Norton Mezvinsky, trade paperback July, 2004, 224 pages
- Warschawski (2001).
- "'The Life of Death': An Exchange" By Israel Shahak, (with a) Reply by Timothy Garton Ash, The New York Review of Books, Volume 34, Number 1, January 29, 1987. Quote from Shahak: "I was born in Warsaw (the subject of a large part of the essay) and was in the Warsaw Ghetto almost till the end;"
- Adams (2001). "Born in 1933 into a cultured Jewish family in Warsaw,".
- Pallis (2001). "After setbacks - he was rejected as 'too weedy' when he volunteered for a kibbutz - he became a model citizen."
- Pallis (2001).
- Adams (2001).
- Mezvinsky (2001), p. 11.
- Science Citation Index
- Hitchens (2001).
- Rickman (2009).
- Richman (1989).
- Shahak, Mezvinsky (2004), p. xxi.
- Tom Segev, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East, Macmillan Publishers, 2007, pp. 99-100, ISBN 1429911670, 9781429911672 .
- Bogdanor (2006), p. 121.
- Boteach (2008).
- "In memory of Lord Jakobovits - A Sage in the Tradition of the Prophets", The Times, November 1, 1999.
- Jakobovits, Immanuel. A Modern Blood Libel--L'Affaire Shahak, Tradition, Volume 8, Number 2, Summer 1966.
- Schwartz (2002), p. 19.
- Jakobovits (1966), p. 59.
- Richard H. Schwartz http://books.google.com.au/books?id=7raS2sHgjO8C&pg=PA19 Judaism and Global Survival, Lantern Books rev.ed. 2001 pp.19-20.
- Falk (1967), pp. 47–53.
- Shahak (1994), pp. 4-5.
- Hitchens (1997), p.xi.
- Fisk (1997).
- Cohn (1994), pp. 28-9.
- "So now one can read quite freely - and Jewish children are actually taught - passages such as that which commands every Jew, whenever passing near a cemetery, to utter a blessing if the cemetery is Jewish, but to curse the mothers of the dead if it is non-Jewish." Shahak (1994), pp. 23-4.
- "Other prayers or religious acts, as interpreted by the cabbalists, are designed to deceive various angels (imagined as minor deities with a measure of independence) or to propitiate Satan... both before and after a meal, a pious Jew ritually washes his hands, uttering a special blessing. On one of these two occasions he is worshiping God, by promoting the divine union of Son and Daughter; but on the other he is worshiping Satan, who likes Jewish prayers and ritual acts so much that when he is offered a few of them it keeps him busy for a while and he forgets to pester the divine Daughter." Shahak (1994), p. 34.
- El-Asmar (1975), p. 138.
- Genizi (2002), p. 94.
- Cockburn (2001).
- Brownfeld (2001), p. 71.
- Jakobovits (1966).
- Bogdanor (2006), p. 119.
- Alexander, Ari. "Israel and Anti-Gentile Traditions", MyJewishLearning.com. Accessed June 13, 2010.
- Bogdanor (2006), p. 122.
- Cohn (1995), p. 18.
- Ottolenghi (2006).
- Sweden, Antisemitism and Xenophobia Today, Institute for Jewish Policy Research, December 1996.
- PDF (199 KB), Anti-Defamation League, February 2003.
- "Edward Said's Documented Deceptions", Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, August 1999.
- 'The Life of Death': An Exchange By Israel Shahak, Reply by Timothy Garton Ash, The New York Review of Books, Volume 34, Number 1, January 29, 1987.
- Adams, Michael. "Israel Shahak"[dead link], The Independent, July 26, 2001.
- Alexander, Ari. "Israel and Anti-Gentile Traditions", MyJewishLearning.com. Accessed June 13, 2010.
- Bogdanor, Paul (2006). "Chomsky's Ayatollahs", in Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor (eds.), The Jewish Divide Over Israel: Accusers and Defenders, Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7658-0327-6
- Boteach, Shmuley. "Christopher Hitchens and the racist Jewish court", The Jerusalem Post, February 4, 2008.
- Brownfeld, Allen C. "With Israel Shahak’s Death, A Prophetic Voice Is Stilled", Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2001.
- Cockburn, Alexander. "Remembering Israel Shahak", Left Coast, Antiwar.com, July 13, 2001.
- Cohn, Werner. "The Jews are Bad! (review of 'Jewish History, Jewish Religion,' by Israel Shahak)", Israel Horizons, vo. 42, no. 3 of 4, Autumn 1994.
- Cohn, Werner (1995). Partners in Hate: Noam Chomsky and the Holocaust Deniers, Avukah Press. ISBN 0-9645897-0-2
- Falk, Zeev (1967). "Gentile and Stranger in Jewish Law", in "Steps", translated by Arieh Rubinstein, published by the Movement for Torah Judaism, Jerusalem Post Press.
- Fisk, Robert. Religion in the Middle East: the fundamental problem, The Independent, December 3, 1997.
- Genizi, Haim (2002). The Holocaust, Israel, and Canadian Protestant Churches, McGill-Queen's Press. ISBN 0-7735-2401-0
- Hitchens, Christopher. Forward to Israel Shahak, Open Secrets:Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies, Pluto Press, London, Sterling, Virginia, 1997.
- Hitchens, Christopher. Israel Shahak, 1933-2001, The Nation, "Minority Report", July 23, 2001.
- El-Asmar, Fouzi (1975). To Be an Arab in Israel, Frances Pinter. ISBN 0-903804-08-5.
- Jakobovits, Immanuel. A Modern Blood Libel--L'Affaire Shahak, Tradition, Volume 8, Number 2, Summer 1966.
- Maoz, Jason. "Media Monitor", The Jewish Press, September 19, 2001.
- Mezvinsky, Morton. "In Memoriam: Israel Shahak (1933-2001)", Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 2001.
- Ottolenghi, Emanuele. "The War of the Jews", National Review, September 20, 2006.
- Pallis, Elfi. "Israel Shahak", The Guardian, July 6, 2001.
- Posner, Laurence. "Anti-Semitic Groups Maintain Talmud Websites", The Jewish Journal, September 17–30, 1999.
- Richman, Sheldon, review of Anti-Zionism: Analytical Reflections, editors. Roselle Tekiner, Samir Abed-Rabbo, and Norton Mezvinsky, Amana Books, Brattleboro, VT, 1988, published in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1989.
- Rickman, Dan. "Israel Shahak: a voice of controversy", The Guardian, May 17, 2009.
- Shahak, Israel (1994). Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-0819-7
- Shahak, Israel; Mezvinsky, Norton (2004), Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, Pluto Press
- "Solomon Socrates". "Israel’s Academic Extremists", Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2001.
- Schwartz, Richard H (2002). Judaism and Global Survival, Lantern Books. ISBN 978-1-930051-87-4
- Warschawski, Michel, The Last Israeli Liberal: Remembering Israel Shahak (1933-2001),], Jerusalem Quarterly, Issue 13, Summer 2001.
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