Fascinated With Israel Shahak

I've become fascinated with the late Israeli human rights activist Israel Shahak, after reading his 1999 book JEWISH FUNDAMENTALISM IN ISRAEL. Here are some links, I'd love your feedback:

A critique of Shahak

Jewish History, Jewish Religion by Israel Shahak.

With Shahak's Death, Prophetic Voice Stilled

Radio Islam promotes Shahak

Dr. Israel Shahak interview

I'm disturbed by how Israel's enemies use Shahak against the Jewish state. I'm also disturbed that Shahak appeared with Noam Chomsky at various events.

Lawrence Szenes-Strauss writes: Pikuach nefesh -- the saving of a life -- is considered to be of utmost importance in Jewish law. There are only three sins over which death is preferable: murder, incest/aldultery and avodah zarah. (Usually mistranslated as "idol worship," avodah zarah is understood to refer to the pagan religions which surrounded the ancient Israelites, whose worship DID involve idols, but more to the point it involved human sacrifice. As such, avodah zarah is considered to be an affront both to God and man.)

Other than the three sins mentioned above, any Jewish law MUST be broken if that law stands in the way of saving a human life. No Jew who understands halachah -- Jewish law -- would ever refuse a blood transfusion. I'd be glad to entertain the notion that some Talmudic rabbi proposed the idea and was quickly shot down by his peers, provided that you can give me the citation. (A frequent cause of misunderstanding concerning the Talmud is the fact that it is a record of legal discussions, not a straight legal code. Every so often one of the conversants says something revolting, but far more often than not a rebuttal is recorded, and that rebuttal accepted as the law.)

While Jews are certainly not immune to racism -- no more than are Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or atheists -- Israel Shahak is not the place to start learning about Judaism and Jewish values and laws. His grudge sometimes proves to be valid, but he is selective about information in such a way that it favors his views and soils the name of religious Judaism. He is what is called in many circles a "self-hating Jew."

If you'd like to read a solid introduction to Jewish ethics and morals, try "The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living" by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. To believe that one can learn about Jewish religious values from Shahak -- rather than the perversion of those values, which he sometimes doccuments accurately -- is to believe that one can understand Roman Catholicism by reading about the recent abuse scandals.

A Jew is required to save a non-Jewish life just as much as he is required to save a Jewish life, with or without notice from "goyim."

An extension of this myth, which Shahak embraces, is that Shabbat may only be violated to save a Jewish life. Again, this is a perversion of true Jewish law. Shahak's story about the orthodox Jew who left a non-Jew to die on Shabbat rather than call an ambulance -- in line with the Chief Rabbinate's ruling -- is problematic for two reasons.

1. The chief rabbinate of Israel has ruled very explicitly that Shabbat must be violated for the purpose of saving any human life, be it Jewish or not. They phrased this ruling very carefully, because there is a belief among the more ignorant in the orthodox community that this is not the case.

2. The Summer 1966 edition of the magazine Tradition recounts an interview with Mr. Shahak who, when asked to identify the mysterious orthodox Jew who would have let that man die, acknowledges that the Jew of whom he spoke did not exist.

I've located the article in Tradition. Volume 8, Number 2, pp. 58-65. Shahak's admission that he lied about the Jew who would not save the Gentile is documented therein, as is his lie concerning the Chief Rabbinate's ruling. (pg. 59) Additionally, the responsum on saving lives on Shabbat is summarized with appropriate quotations and citations of Torah, Talmud and various post-Talmudic authorities.

Perhaps once you see proof of Shahak's deceit, you will begin to realize the extent of his sociopathic tendencies and the lengths to which he went to discredit that which he most hated in himself -- Judaism. His act amounts to multiple violations of the Ninth Commandment (he perjured himself with regard to both the Jewish community and the then-Chief Rabbi, Rav Unterman) as well as multiple acts of chilul Hashem (first he slandered the Jewish community, then he was revealed as a liar, casting doubt on Jewish honesty.)

In reading Shahak's writings, one gets the impression that his upbringing was not just "orthodox" in the sense that we now use the word. His claims - - that one should curse a non-Jewish cemetery, or that a non-Jew cannot be saved if it means violating Shabbat -- do line up with certain streaks of eastern-European superstitious drivel which sadly have accumulated in some Jewish communities over the centuries. These streaks come from several sources and types of conditions, but the formula is usually something like this:

1. The Jewish populace of a relatively isolated area spends many years unconnected to the Jewish community at large, falling into a certain degree of ignorance with regard to Jewish legal writings which, like any other written work, can only be understood in their cultural context.

2. Antagonistic relations with neighboring non-Jewish communities lead to a perverted reading of complicated works such as the Talmud, resulting in distorted Jewish "laws" which the Talmud's authors would have rejected, and which most Jews do as well.

Another distortion is Shahak's claim that the ritual washing of hands after a meal -- which is almost non-existant in most of the Jewish world anyway - - constitutes worship of some kind of "satan." This does not hold water, if you'll pardon the expression. Firstly, Jewish law strictly and very harshly forbids the worship of anyone or anything but the one God. Secondly, mainstream Jewish theology does not really make a place for an anti-God figure akin to the Christian idea of Satan. What Shahak speaks of -- what he often speaks of in his distortions -- is an uninformed interpretation of the doctrines of Kabalah.

I'm sure that Mr. Shahak was an excellent chemist, but he was not a scholar of Judaism. In any case, the onus of proof should lie with the claimant; Shahak does not convincingly back up any of the bizarre claims he makes about Judaism. Telushkin, by contrast, cites the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud and whatever else he needs, chapter and verse. A true scholar gives his sources, so that they may be checked. Shahak was not a true scholar of religion.

Fred writes: Regarding Maimonades, as Gibbon says, the evils of a man are the evils of his age, but his virtues are all his own.

History lionizes all sorts of folks--merely by way of example, Helen Keller, the Philosopher Kings (Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Nerva and Antoninus Pius), Woodrow Wilson, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, etc.

The truth is that Keller was a communist, all of the Philosopher Kings were ruthless antidemocratic, conquerers, Woodrow Wilson was a racist, and Isaac Newton was a mean, rotten no-good son-of-a-bitch who enjoyed tormenting his enemies. I recently read a compilation of the writings of Thomas Jefferson, and was rather surprised to find an antisemitic crack in one of his letters.

So Shahak is able to delve into Maimonades' writing and show us some evidence of racism. Big deal. There are no saints in this world, and the mere fact that you can find flaw in people of an age is not the best standard by which to judge them. By that standard, everyone is a schmuck. Gibbon advises us to judge a person against the age in which he lives.

BTW, if you want to find bad character among great Jewish personalities, I recommend that you consider reading the Book of Joshua (6th book of the bible).

Regarding Shahak, I have no doubt that there were instances of bad or antidemocratic behavior toward the Palestinians. I also have no doubt that there were instances of bad behavior by Washington's army in the Revolutionary War, the Union army during the Civil War, and the Allies during the Second World War. (Note, for example, that the U.S. army was segregated until the Truman administration, and racism continued on for a good long time thereafter. Also note that the Japanese were interned in the U.S.) I have no doubt that there are instances of atrocities and/or bad behavior by all sides in all wars. The mere existence of instances of bad behavior is not a damning measure of the merit of a nation or an army.

If there were someone in the U.S. from 1941-45, who spent all of his time haranguing about the treatment of Japanese internees, segregation in the military and elsewhere, etc., I suppose we might say, O.K., this fellow was an uncompromising moral character. Or alternatively, we might say that given the nature of the peril the nation was facing, he was a counterproductive nut. Or he may have been both. (Having great moral character is not inconsistent with being a nut.) Nonetheless, history fairly judges us as having the morally superior cause (vis-a-vis the Nazis and the Japanese militarists).

If you compare the big bad Israeli acts of undemocratic behavior with, for example, the behavior of the Iraqis to the Kurds, or Assad's behavior toward the city of Hama (where he murdered lots and lots of folks because of a suspicion of disloyalty), I think you'll have a slightly better frame of comparison.

BTW, I note that there have not been mass executions of Israeli Arabs, the Dome of the Rock has not been demolished, there have always been Arab members of the Knesset, etc. The big bad Israelis are not so big and bad.

The line between a hectoring moralist and an unfair, unreasonable crank is often a thin one. Sometimes, it is a non-existent line.

BTW, Luke, I hear you have been sinning in thought, word and deed. What is it with you. Have you been thinking impure thoughts again? And saying bad things about people? Luke, what have you been up to? Imbibing intoxicants? When was the last time you cleaned up your apartment? Luke....?

After I wrote my little rant, I thought for a while about Gen. Sherman. During the civil war, Sherman engaged in a strategy which today would have been called "scorched earth". Basically, he marched through Georgia, burning down farms and plantations, ripping up railroad tracks, burning down Atlanta, etc.

Query: was he moral as a fighter against slavery, or was he immoral? Was it justified or was it unjustified? Bear in mind that the destruction of Atlanta was probably the difference between the reelection of Lincoln and a victory in the Civil War, and the defeat of Lincoln by McClelland and a loss in the civil war and a continuation of slavery. Would a hectoring moralist have been right in condemning Sherman?

On another note, on what subject are you meeting with your rabbi? On yet another note, congratulations on leading a pure and moral life. The next time I'm in LA, I'll try to fix that.

Shahak was clearly a hypocrit. If he thought Israel was so illegitimate, what the hell was he doing there? Why didn't he go back to Poland instead of being a colonizer? At least Chomsky is in Massachusetts--he has eschewed being a colonizer (except insofar as he feels free to colonize land belonging to the Indians). What possible justification could there be for Shahak's actions?

I went browsing through the Radio Islam web page. The guy who runs it is clearly off the deep end. Tons of racist cartoons. He also posts Mein Khampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on his web site. I assume that his mindset is typical of arabs. There appears to be an instinctive visceral tribal response such that no claim, hatred or racist belief is too ludicrous for this guy to pass up. It's fairly easy to ascertain why dealing with the arabs is well-nigh impossible.

Col. T.E. Lawrence (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia) observed that Arabs are easily given to obsession. This photograph [A protestor at an anti-Israeli demo in Berlin dresses his daughter up as a suicide bomber - her tiny body strapped with sticks of pretend TNT] illustrates the point--obsession with a tribal hatred which, in point of fact, has no direct impact on virtually any Arabs. It doesn't effect their unemployment, inflation, the price of tea, the crime rate, pollution or anything else that affects their daily lives. It only affects them through this incredibly focused tribal obsession and hatred, which dominates their existance. They do not do themselves any favor by succumbing to this obsession.

Chaim writes: Far more troubling is that tens of MILLIONS of these people were admitted into europe over the last forty years to do the work that the europeans felt was beneath them. For the comfort of a single generation did Europe sell the welfare of her children.

OK, let us judge the jews of THIS age by the moral standards of this age. Hassidim take the shulchan orach very seriously, and do not believe that Rambam (Maimonodies) was wrong on any count. Ditto the present day application of the words contained in the Talmud, which, as "oral law" they regard as the word of God. The loathsome sentiments noted by Shahak remain in these texts, and so far as I know the Hassidim still teach these books to their young without moral qualification (how could it be otherwise, when they say these words are really God's?). So by the standards of THIS age, how are we to judge hassidic jews?

Luke, why are you jewish? You were not born to it, clearly you reject it intellectually, and the orthodox want nothing to do with you. So why do you continue to be "jewish"?

Gil Student writes:

The recent passing of Dr. Israel Shahak[*] marks the end of a very controversial career. Dr. Shahak, a chemistry professor and human rights activist who spent a lifetime criticizing Israel's treatment of Palestinians, will probably be best remembered for his theories about the basis of the treatment he so denounced. He proposed that Israel's relations with Palestinians are based on a history of religious racism. Jews, Shahak claims, have been so conditioned by their religion to hate Gentiles that even the anti-religious Zionists have retained this aspect of their Jewish heritage. Through scholarship with which an average Yeshiva student can find fault, Shahak culled source after source from Talmud and halakhah that he claimed demonstrated that Judaism is a fundamentally racist and hateful religion[1]. While his scholarship may have been less than rigorous, some of his points hit close to mark. It behooves us, as sensitive Jews devoted to halakhah, to examine his work and attempt to wade through the mistakes and evaluate whether, indeed, he may have raised issues of concern. This is certainly not an attempt to redeem the legacy of a man who has caused so much anti-Jewish hatred and violence. It is an effort to learn from one of our critics.

This author is not arrogant enough to try to judge Judaism based on whatever artificial values are currently popular. However, the attempt to understand Judaism based on the ideals of our contemporary society serves a number of purposes. The first is to note contradictions between these ideals and those of the Torah as we understand it. As Jews committed to Torah, we need to know when our values are not the same as those of the society around us, if not for our own understanding then to know what to reject from the outside world. Second, if one particular aspect of Torah seems to contradict a value that emanates from another part of Torah then we need to resolve this conflict. And third, this effort can help us arrive at a deeper understanding of Torah. We hope that this essay will fulfill all three goals on its chosen topic.

More than anything, the episode that propelled Dr. Shahak into the international spotlight was his claim to have witnessed in 1965 an injured Gentile left to die because an Orthodox Jew would not allow his telephone to be used on Shabbat to call for help[2]. While it is certainly difficult to understand exactly what prohibition is involved in allowing someone else to use one's telephone on Shabbat[3], Shahak claims that he contacted a rabbinic court that confirmed that this Orthodox Jew's actions were appropriate and even pious. Subsequent to this, Shahak alerted the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz which reported his story and thrust this episode into the public view. Attempts to verify Shahak's story have failed and no deceased Gentile or rabbinic court could be identified as having taken part in this tale[4]. However, this did not deter the story from spreading and creating controversy.

The details of the story, or whether it even happened, are not relevant right now. What is important is the idea that Shahak so maliciously tried to demonstrate. Let us, therefore, examine this issue. May we violate Shabbat in order to save someone's life and, if so, why and for whose life?...

Israel Shahak resources on the Web

Jorn Barger April 2000

1933: born 28 April in Warsaw (parents Polish middle-class, orthodox Jews who became Zionists and forbade their sons to speak Yiddish)

1940-43: Warsaw ghetto

1943: Poniatowo concentration camp (escapes w/mother) (father dies in the camps)

1943? bribe way onto register for Jewish citizens of foreign countries

194?: brother joins Royal Air Force, killed in Pacific

1943?-45: re-arrested, sent to a compound for foreign nationals at Bergen-Belsen extermination camp

1945: arrived in Palestine at the age of 12

1945-61: studies culminating in doctorate in chemistry

Israeli military service

1956: shocked by Ben Gurion's claim "to establish part of the Kingdom of David and Solomon"

1963-1981? professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem

early 1960s: critical of Zionism "for both Jewish and general human reasons"

"After 1967, when I ceased being just a scientist and became a political being, my first reason was that after 1967 the Israeli aim was to dominate is the Middle East, which every rational human being knows is impossible. My second reason was that there must be a Palestinian state. It can come into being with a minimum of bloodshed, or a maximum of bloodshed. Even if the intifada were defeated, it would only cause a delay."

1970: elected chairman of the Human and Civil Rights League

?: chairman of the Israeli League of Human Civil Rights

?: monthly "Translations from the Hebrew Press"

1991: "Israel Will Withdraw Only Under Pressure" [article]

1992: "Yitzhak Shamir, Then and Now," Middle East Policy (Washington, DC), Vol. 1, No. 1, (Whole No. 39), 1992 [cite]

1993: "Oslo Agreement Makes PLO Israel's Enforcer" [article]

1993: "Can Religious Settlers Scuttle an Israeli-Palestinian Peace?" [article]

1994: Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years [Amazon] forward by Vidal, full etext [alternate toc] [mirror] ditto [German language] [Swedish] excerpt [review] mirror review [critique]

1994: short quote on Hamas; very short interview

1994: appears with Chomsky at MIT [account]

1994: "Involvement of the pro-Israel lobby in the Inman affair," Report No. 133, February 11, 1994 [quotes]

1995: "Israel's Discriminatory Practices Are Rooted in Jewish Religious Law" article Ukranian mirror

1995: "Analysis of Israeli policies: the priority of the ideological factor" [article]

1996: "The Real Israeli Interest in Lebanon" [etext]

1996? founds publishing house (Pluto?), publishes The Bible as it is; without a coat of holiness by Ya'akov Wolf [review]

1997: Open Secrets: Israel's Nuclear and Foreign Policies [Amazon] [review] ditto

1998: article "The Israeli Terrorist State and its Mossad Assassins" [etext]

1998? "Strategic Aims of the 'Grapes of Wrath' Operation" [article]

1998: interview part one part two

1998: speaks in support of Vanunu [announcement]

1999: Jewish Fundamentalism In Israel (with Norton Mezvinsky) [Amazon] [long excerpt]

No date: translation about POWs

Bios: long, short ditto, Swedish timeline


Radio Islam, mirror?, Norway


article in Dutch

Edward Said

political sim

general critique