Israel Shahak (1933-2001)

Against the Current, No. 94, September/October 2001

Norton Mezvinsky

ONE TRAGEDY OF Israel Shahak’s death was that it came too soon. He was at the height of his productive capacity, a rare intellectual giant and a superior humanist.  Edward Said described him as “a very brave man who should be honored for his services to humanity.”

Yet the greatness of Israel Shahak was perhaps best illustrated by his personal compassion for, understanding of and sensitivity to his fellow human beings.  Although an iconoclast and in many ways a solitary figure, he was to this writer and to a number of others far more than a good and trusted friend.

His concern for human emotion and his insight into the human psyche made him a special person.  Those of us who knew him well, and others who knew him less well, often approached him with some of our personal problems.  He not only listened attentively and comprehended, he advised and counseled us.

He often displayed great personal courage in his concern for others.  Witness, for example, the time he risked his life in order to save a female student from the flames surrounding her when an explosion occurred in a university chemistry laboratory.  (A scar on his face gave testimony to this act.)

On another level he displayed great concern and courage in 1969 when he and one other Hebrew University faculty member staged a sit-down protest against the Israeli government’s jailing of Palestinian students under the administrative detention provisions of the emergency defense regulations.

In the late 1960s, `70s and `80s Israel Shahak, again as a faculty member, actively supported the personal struggles of Palestinian students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to achieve equal rights.  When his friend Fouzi El-Asmar was jailed in 1969 under the same emergency defense regulations, with no formal charges pressed against him, Israel Shahak kept in touch and supported him. He then visited his friend during the period of Fouzi’s house detention.

Soon thereafter, Israel Shahak convinced Fouzi, who at that time was not fluent in English, to help his people by accepting an invitation to go on a lecture tour to the United States and explain to Americans the plight of Arabs in Israel.  These are but a few of the many such examples that indicate the character of the man.

From Orthodoxy to Activism

Israel Shahak was born in Warsaw, Poland, on April 28, 1933.  His parents were well-educated, cultured and prosperous Polish Jews. During the Nazi occupation, he and his family were forced into the Warsaw ghetto.  His older brother escaped to England, joined the Royal Air Force, was shot down and killed.

His father disappeared.  His mother put Israel into hiding with a Catholic family, but in 1943 he and his mother were both captured by the Nazis and deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After being liberated in 1945, he and his mother emigrated to Palestine, which was then under British mandate.

He received his secular and Orthodox religious education in Palestine-Israel.  After graduation from high school he served in an elite unit of the Israeli army during his required military service.  He served in the reserve forces well into his adult life.

He then attended the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and received his doctorate in chemistry in 1961.  After doing post-doctoral work in chemistry for two years at Stanford University in California, he returned to the Hebrew University as an instructor, thereafter rising to the rank of professor.

Year after year he was voted most admired teacher by students.  As a chemist, he made significant contributions to cancer research.  Concerned about his diabetic condition and wishing to devote himself to other work, he retired from teaching in 1990.

Throughout his adult life Israel Shahak remained a proud Israeli Jew who acquired a deep understanding of and had a keen appreciation for the positive features of Jewish history.  From the time that he arrived in Palestine in 1945, he felt at home and never entertained the thought of leaving to live permanently somewhere else. Jerusalem was the city he most loved.

As a young student he reacted strongly against what he observed were negative features, including inherent racism, in classical Judaism.  In the mid-1960s he agonized about the reactionary nature of Zionism and the oppressive Zionist character of the state of Israel.

In 1965 Israel Shahak began his political activities against both classical Judaism and Zionism.  After the 1967 war he became more outspoken and active.  Israel Shahak achieved wide recognition in Israel, in Arab countries and communities, and throughout much of the rest of the world from 1967 until he died on July 2, 2001.

He vigorously advocated universal human rights for all people and constantly preached and acted against individuals and institutions, most often within his own society, who oppressed others.  For over thirty years, he focused his major attention upon Israel’s denial of human rights to and oppression of Palestinians.

After the 1967 war Israel Shahak became an active and leading member of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, and was elected its chairperson in 1970.  The League, whose members were Jewish and Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel, protested and campaigned against Israeli governmental policies and actions that deprived Palestinian citizens of their human rights.

It provided some legal and other aid to oppressed Palestinian citizens, and additionally collected and disseminated information pertaining to the plight of Palestinians in the territories occupied since 1967.  Under Shahak’s leadership the League expanded its work and became more effective.

International Campaigner

By the early 1970s Israel Shahak decided that too little was known outside of Israel about the denial of human rights to and oppression of Palestinians in the Israeli state.  He wanted to disseminate more information, especially in the United States.

When he and I met in Jerusalem for the first time in late 1971, he emphasized this point and argued that this could conceivably help in the Palestinian human rights struggle.  If more Americans knew the facts, he believed, some of them might be moved to object.

If others in the United States who were already concerned with the plight of the Palestinians were better prepared and armed with more factual data, they, he also argued, could be more effective in attempting to influence others.

All of this, he hoped, could lead to more Americans objecting to what the Israeli government was doing.  This might cause the U.S. government to object about some actions to the Israeli government and might, in turn, influence the Israeli government to temper, if not altogether cease, some of its oppression.

Even if all the above was wishful thinking that did not produce the most desired results, he concluded, providing information could still be valuable.  I concurred with his analysis, and we decided to act together.  Our campaign to disseminate information in the United States actively began with my organizing Israel Shahak’s first lecture tour in 1972.

Subsequent tours, planned by me and others, occurred during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.  During these tours he lectured to groups at universities, colleges, churches, organizations and other institutions.  He also spoke privately with many people, including some members of Congress and State Department officials.

When he spoke, Israel Shahak clearly pinpointed how the Israeli government denied to Palestinian citizens of the Jewish state certain rights reserved for Jews, and how Palestinians living in the occupied territories, who were not citizens, were treated far worse.

He discussed limitations on freedom of speech and expression, land ordinances, living restrictions, unequal pay, job restrictions, land confiscation, destruction of houses, jailing and house detention under provisions of the emergency defense regulations, torture of prisoners, collective punishment, assassinations, educational discrimination, limitation of political activity, deprivation of citizenship and a host of other measures.

He carefully provided documentation for each of his points.  He often distributed his English translations of articles, critical of many of the above measures, that had appeared in Israel’s Hebrew-language press.  At times, he interspersed his human rights criticisms with analyses of other Israeli policies.

Trenchant Critic of Zionism

Israel Shahak maintained that Israeli oppression of Palestinians stemmed from the Zionist character of the Jewish state.  He understood well, as a Holocaust survivor, that those who have been oppressed, in this case Jews, can and sometimes do become oppressors.

For Shahak this was a human condition not limited to one group of people.  His learned essay “Zionism as a Recidivist Movement,” in the book Anti-Zionism: Analytical Reflections (Amana, 1989) is a brilliant exposition of his long-held view that Zionism arose as a reaction against progressive change, and came to dictate much of Israel’s foreign and domestic conduct.  Together with the state’s militarism, it shapes Israel’s territorial aspirations and domestically allows only a less-than-equal status for the Israeli minority of non-Jews.

Shahak argued that Zionism is not motivated by positive Jewish values but rather is desirous of a modified, heavily-armed Jewish ghetto.  Zionism—both a reaction against and a mirror image of anti-Semitism—resembles other exclusive chauvinistic movements.

For Shahak, Zionist ideology, powered by Israeli sovereignty, constituted the root cause of the deprivation of human and national rights of displaced Palestinians and of the inequities in the status of Palestinian citizens of the Jewish state.

Here, Shahak differed with some Israeli Jews of the left who criticize specific oppressive measures affecting Palestinians, but who refuse to criticize Zionism adversely and, indeed, call themselves Zionists.  Shahak labeled these left-Zionists supreme hypocrites.

Although neither a Socialist nor a Communist (indeed he was harshly critical of their ideologies and politics), Israel Shahak at times worked closely on human rights issues with some Israeli Marxists, including members of Rakah, the Israeli Communist Party.  A few of these people, with whom he often engaged in serious political debate and discussion, were among his close friends.


Soon after his first United States speaking tour, Israel Shahak and I decided that regular distribution in the United States of English translations of critical articles from the Hebrew press, chosen for their substance by Shahak, would be useful.

We were able to convince a few people to back such a venture.  For a while the National Council of Churches supported the publication of Swasia, which I co-edited and which distributed to subscribers on a regular basis some of these translations.

Americans for Middle East Understanding underwrote a pamphlet, published by the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, titled Report: Human Rights Violations during the Palestinian Uprising 1988-89. This pamphlet, which I edited, consisted of English translations of articles from the Hebrew press, selected and with an introduction by Shahak, and was widely distributed.

A few publications, including the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, published some of the translations.  From 1988 until 1997 Frank Collins, supported by Washington Report editor Richard H. Curtiss, distributed to a growing list of subscribers his publication Translations from the Hebrew Press, which contained Shahak’s selected and translated articles.

In addition to all the above work, Israel Shahak wrote articles, published in a variety of English and American periodicals and journals, in which he presented his analyses, sometimes based in part on articles from the Hebrew press.

Shahak disliked most of the secular and religious U.S. Jewish organizational leaders, whom he severely criticized for blindly following official governmental position regarding Palestinians and other Arabs.  He often stated that Israeli Jewish society was far more open than was American Jewish society to serious debate about Arab-Israeli matters.

Shahak blamed American Jewish leaders for this lack of openness, accusing them of exerting pressure to stifle disagreement.  He argued that these leaders, with but a few exceptions, pretend to know far more than they actually do about Israeli society; and he chastised them for utilizing the holocaust to garner political support and funding.

Writing on Jewish Religion

In the 1970s and 1980s Israel Shahak was severely criticized by some of his antagonists.  He even received a few death threats.  Undeterred, he continued to address his own public in speeches and writings.  By the 1990s, his audience was more receptive.  His negation of the Oslo accords as a peace process, his denunciation of the current Palestinian political leadership, his critique of Classical Judaism and Jewish fundamentalism in Israel seemed to provoke serious consideration.

Israel Shahak’s three books were published between 1994 and 1999.  In Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (Pluto, 1994), he drew upon research and contemplation dating back at least four decades and added some new thoughts.  This scathing attack upon Classical Judaism and its more modern outgrowth, Orthodox Judaism, is vintage Shahak.

As a lover of prophetic Judaism and as a disciple of Spinoza, Shahak in a learned and rational manner condemned the parochialism, racism and hatred of non-Jews which too often appeared in the Judaism that developed during and after the Talmudic period, and which to a goodly extent, he maintained, persists (including in the supposedly modernist philosophy of Zionism).

In commenting about this book, Noam Chomsky wrote, “Shahak is an outstanding scholar, with remarkable insight and depth of knowledge.  His work is informed and penetrating, a contribution of great value.”

Shahak’s last book, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (Pluto, 1999), which I co-authored, is a more in-depth study of one important aspect of Classical and Orthodox Judaism.  This book assesses the importance of and the growing influence and power of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel.  It traces fundamentalism’s history and development and examines its various strains.

The book places the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin within the context of a tradition of punishing and killing Jews considered to be heretics and/or informers.  The anti-democratic nature of Jewish fundamentalism is readily apparent in our analysis.  Both of the above books highlight the connections between some of the negative aspects of Zionism and strains of Classical-Orthodox Judaism.

In his other book, Open Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies (Pluto, 1997), Shahak presented an analysis of Israeli foreign policy compiled in reports he wrote between 1992 and 1995.  Drawing mostly upon revelations in the Hebrew press, he argued that Israel was conducting a covert policy of expansionism on many fronts in order to gain control not only of Palestine but of the entire Middle East—a trajectory that he contended represented a profound danger for non-Jews and Jews alike.

In this context it was fitting that Gore Vidal, in his introduction to Jewish History, Jewish Religion, described Israel Shahak as “the latest, if not the last, of the great prophets.”

Norton Mezvinsky is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, and co-author with Israel Shahakk of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel.  An earlier version of this tribute appeared in the August-September issue of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

from ATC 94 (September/October 2001)