Remembering Israel Shahak
July 20, 2001 | Page 13
THE MOVEMENT for justice for the Palestinians lost one of its most dedicated supporters earlier this month when Israel Shahak died in Jerusalem.
He was little known in the U.S., even among those who support the fight for Palestinian rights. But his contribution should be known. Here, LANCE SELFA remembers Israel Shahak.
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ISRAEL SHAHAK was a Hebrew University professor of organic chemistry who won international acclaim for research that contributed to cancer treatment. He was popular with his students, winning many "teacher of the year" awards.
But Shahak's greatest contributions came as an uncompromising critic of Israel's apartheid system.
Anyone who wanted to understand what was really going on in Israel and the Middle East had to read Shahak's monthly "Translations from the Hebrew Press." Like the American radical journalist I.F. Stone, Shahak used official documents and reports from Israeli newspapers and magazines to expose the realities that "friends of Israel" and their lapdogs in the U.S. media systematically concealed.
Shahak committed his life to the cause of human rights for Palestinians after the 1967 war, when Israel won a smashing victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
But if the war gave Shahak a political framework for his activism, it was a more everyday incident two years earlier that had pushed him to take a stand.
In 1965, he recalled, "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 collapse in his Jerusalem neighborhood."
Shahak called a meeting with members of the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem to ask the state-appointed rabbis if the man's refusal to help violated Jewish religious law. The rabbis ruled that the man had acted properly.
When Shahak heard this, he publicized the story and the Rabbinical Court's decision in Ha'aretz, Israel's leading Hebrew-language newspaper.
The story "caused a media scandal," Shahak recalled. "The results of the scandal were, for me, rather negative. 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."
As if to show up the pompous rabbis, Shahak--an atheist--became an expert scholar of Judaism. His wide knowledge of the Talmud, rabbinical rulings and Jewish history helped him to challenge the Zionist concept of a "Jewish state."
Shahak concluded that any state based on the domination of one religious group would lead to the oppression of other groups.
As Israel consolidated its hold over the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories that it seized in 1967, Shahak became a leading voice of protest inside Israel.
In 1968, he cofounded the Council Against House Destruction, and two years later, Shahak became chair of the Israeli League of Human and Civil Rights--where he pushed for his belief that everyone should enjoy equal rights, regardless of sex, race or religion.
Working for even these simple goals made Shahak a target for Israel's ideological hit men--both inside and outside the country. Zionists tried many times to drive Shahak out of his job, and "friends of Israel" openly called for his assassination in the mainstream press.
The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith put Shahak on its Nixon-like "enemies list" in 1983. And, of course, Shahak was abused as a "self-hating Jew" and apologist for anti-Semites.
These were particularly offensive charges given that Shahak was a Holocaust survivor. Born in Warsaw's Jewish Ghetto in 1933, Shahak spent most of his childhood trying to stay alive in Nazi-occupied ghettos and death camps.
Allied forces liberated Shahak and his mother from the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1945, but his father had been killed. Shahak and his mother emigrated to Palestine in 1947.
At the time, Shahak believed in Zionism--and fought in the Israeli army in the 1948 war that drove almost 1 million Palestinians from their homes. But when Shahak became an opponent of Zionism, he often compared the experience of Palestinians under Israeli rule to his own experience living under the Nazis.
Shahak was an early critic of the "peace process" initiated in 1993. While the world's media talked about the prospects for peace in the Middle East, Shahak systematically documented the Israeli security apparatus' plans for repackaging the occupation--with a section of Palestinians taking over the job of repressing the mass of the population. And he criticized the Palestinian Authority's corruption and repression as severely as he did Israel's.
Shahak's death is a loss to the movement in solidarity with the Palestinians.
But his powerful words live on in his books Open Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies; Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years and Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, coauthored with Norton Mezvinsky.
For anyone who wants to get beyond the constant stream of propaganda that passes for analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Shahak's writings are a must.