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In memoriam Israel Shahak

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In memoriam Israel Shahak
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Israel Shahakby Ludwig Watzal

Israel Shahak passed away on July 2, 2001 at the age of 68. Born in Warsaw on April 28, 1933 he survived the Nazi atrocities in the Warsaw ghetto and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In 1945 he emigrated to Palestine at the time of the British Mandate (now Israel). He was a humanist, a live-long human rights activist. For many years he was chairman of the Israeli Human Rights League and consistently criticized Zionism, Israel`s policy towards the Palastinians, the reactionary elements in Jewish religion, and Jewish fundamentalism.

For Felicia Langer, the Israeli-German human rights lawyer, Shahak was a “Yeseyahu Leibowitz only without religion”. Both persons can be regarded as Israel´s last prophets. Ms. Langer, Vice President under Shahak`s chairmanship of the Israeli Human Rights League, said in an interview with me that Shahak was the „most couragous intellectual, a very close friend with deep insights in the situation than many others. Although he specialized in biochemistry, he was an avid reader. He loved liturature. He was devoid of prejudices.“

Shahak was a person with strong convictions. He rejected the Israeli-centered remembrance of the Holocaust; for him the remembrance should be universal. Consequently, he opposed racism, oppression, and any form of discrimination. Until his death, he citicised Israeli treatment not only of its own Palestinian citizens but also of the inhumane treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Israel Shahak´s perception of Israel and its political make-up is well documented in his books „Jewish History, Jewish Religion“, „Open Secrets“, and „Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel“ (all published by Pluto Press), the latter written with Norton Mezvinsky. In these books he unfolds a picture of Israel that is unfamiliar in the West, especially in the United States of America. Shahak was also famous for his so-called „Shahak papers“, which contained translations from the Hebrew press.

I met Israel Shahak for the first time at the end of 1997 in Jerusalem. We kept in touch until his death. When his book „Jewish History, Jewish Religion“ was supposed to be published by a doubious German publisher, I warned him not to go ahead. His answer was: „I don´t care (who is publishing my book), the main point is, that it is published in German.“ The Book was ignored in Germany. Luckily, it was republished last year (2009) by the Melzer Publications in heir series „Edition Semit“.

I conducted the following interview with Israel Shahak in English shortly before the State of Israel turned 50. It was partly published in German in the Austrian journal „International“ under the title: „Arafat ist ein Diktator“ (Arafat is a dictator). At that time, Binyamin Netanyahu was, like now, Israel´s Prime Minister. What Shahak said 13 years ago could have been said yesterday. In remembrance of the nineth anniversary of Shahak´s death, I decided to publish the whole interview in English in order to make it available to a global audience.

Ludwig Watzal: Professor Shahak, you belong to the very few people in Israel who have levelled a radical critique of their own country, of Palestinians and especially of Yassir Arafat. What are the reasons for it?

Israel Shahak: Yes, I will explain, but before doing so, let me say that yesterday I attended a meeting of about 800 left-leaning intellectuals in Tel Aviv. All of them were critical of my country and the majority of them, I would say 600, were critical of Arafat. You see, I am not alone. The reason for my critique is very simple. Regarding my country, I think that Zionism is a form of racism. For many years I have been claiming that it is a mirror image of anti-Semitism. While any anti-Semitism is based on denying the humanity and dignity of Jews, Zionism is grounded on discrimination and of fostering hatred and suspicion towards all non-Jews. This suspicion is not directed at Arabs for being Arabs but rather at non-Jews, Arab and non-Arab, and no one who reads the Hebrew media can, in my opoinion, escape from this conclusion. As regards Arafat, he is a dictator. Arafat is a stooge in the hands of Israel and the United States, whose role is to ensure stability in the Palestinian street, to maintainPalestinians passiv while they are being exploited and oppressed.

In your publications you have always been very critical of the Zionist ideology. Is it only because of its racist aspects or did other elements lead you to oppose it?

I always start with a Jewish critique of Zionism, which I consider more important. I must say, than the harm done unto the Palestinians. Zionism should be criticised even the Jewish state had been established on a desert island without harming anybody. The reason is that a state based on the concept of religious, racial or national purity, should be criticised. The aim of Zionism, as Zionists themselves said, and believe me, I have read all the founding fathers of Zionism, was to establish a purely Jewish state. This aim was defended with particular zeal by labour (left) Zionists. Now, I think that a state should be open. I say that a state which did not harm anybody should receive a certain number, increasing number of strangers, of people who are persecuted and who are oppressed who seek asylum and so on. Israel should not be purely Jewish and should accept non-Jewish immigrants.

Do you think that Zionism achieved its goal to establish a normal nation state for the Jewish people?

Yes and no. I think that it has reached its goal to establish a state for Israeli Jews but in the process Israeli Jews differed from other Jews. I think that Israeli Jews are by now a nation of its own. When Israeli Jews immigrate to the United States - as half a million of them already did - they keep themselves apart of the American Jewish community. In fact, they like feel more affinity towards non-Jewish Americans than towards the American Jews. Similarily, they demand from Jews who immigrate to Israel to became Israelis, i. e. to adopt Israeli customs. Those who fail to do so are resented in a slightly xenophobic attitude that you find in Germany. Say, towards Germans coming from abroad. I think the Zionist project has succeeded but by irony of history it has created something else, not a Jewish state but an Israeli Jewish state.

Are you satisfied with your present government? What do you like and what do you dislike?

I am never satisfied with any government. First, I believe that the attitude to all governments would be that they are the lesser evil, meaning no government is good, but we can have a government which is not so bad as others. Secondly, I cannot be satisfied with any Zionistic government because I consider them all as discriminatory. Having said this, the present government is in my view not as bad as the government of Rabin and Peres.The reason is that it is a right-wing government. This means that it is treated with distrust by the entire world and by half of the Israeli people who watch it carefully. In fact it steals less Palestinian land than the government of Rabin and Peres. The Labour government was able to confiscate any amount of Palestinian land and claim it is for the sake of peace. Sadly this claim was largely believed. The great point in Netanyahu´s favor is that no one will believe anything he is going to say. He therefore can rob and inflict much less harm than the previous government. This is the main point in hin favour. Another point in his favour is that Likud made peace with Egypt and gave all of Sinai back. Although Likud invaded Lebanon, peace with Egypt is in my opinion more important. Many more people were killed in our wars with Egypt than in our invasion of Lebanon. And the democratization of Israeli society for both Arabs and Jews took greater strides under Likud than under Labour. I will give you only one example. You must have heard about the “Land´s day”, celebrated by Israeli Arabs. Rabin confiscated a lot of land. One of Begin`s first legislative acts was to put an end to the confiscation of land owned by Israeli Arabs and only permit such conviscation in the occupied territories. Under the principle of lesser evil this is good.

Is the present government not dominated by religious people?

I am disappointed about the general increase in the power of religious parties. I am very much afraid of one particular party among them, namely the National Religious Party (NRP=Mafdal L.W.) which I consider different and worse than the Shas or the small Ashkenasi orthodox party. I am very much afraid about the particular parties. Under Labour it would be the same. This religious trend that I very much oppose and very much fear which exist anyhow.

Why are you so afraid of the Mafdal-Party?

Because it is a messianic party, i. e. it promotes the idea that we are in the time of redemption. The world is changing and Messiah and God will immediately appear. Therefore, we do have to do acts which are justified in their view by the hope that God will intervene in our favour. As the German saying goes: “Gott mit uns”. The crusaders, too, said “God (is) with us”. This is a most dangerous slogan because it can justify everything. Mafdal is the only party in which members propose establishing of a religious state in which Talmudic laws will replace secular law. In addition, a strong and growing constituency in this party is pushing for building the Third Temple. This would require the destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It would lead to a conflict with the entire Islamic world, a conflict of global dimensions. My “fight” with the two other religious parties is similar to that with the secular parties. I must add that I don´t share the leftist Israeli incitement against the rleigious party Shas. Although I oppose Shas on many aspects, Shas is neverthless an ordinary Israeli party playing within a system of give and take. You will not find Shas people (pestering and intimidating Palestinians) in Hebron. The most fanatic Jews who live inside Hebron are members of the National Religious Party.

You have been criticising the Jewish religion, especially after the massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron. You argued that this deed could not be understood without taking religion into consideration. Could you explain?

I am criticising the Jewish religion before I criticise Zionism. But after the murder of Rabin by Yigal Amir it is clear. If you examine the extreme policies of the state of Israel you will find that they can only be carried by religious Jews of messianic variety. Neither secular people nor members of Shas will agree with those policies, or least to the extent to carrying them out. If you don´t treat the settlements as one unity, and this against my principles, even in a thing which is evil you have still to divide it to two categories and to see what is better what is worse. Among the settlements there are several in the middle of Hebron settlement Nezarim in the Gaza Strip where 120 Jewish settlers live along hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Obviously, these settlements can not be treated in the same way as many other settlements. You will find that the extremist settlement (those established as provocations) are only religious. No secular Jew will live in these settlements. This shows the extreme fanaticism of those people. They will literally disregard even realism for their evil settling purposes.

Is there a link between the Jewish religion and a kind of latent racism against Gojim (non-Jews) in Israel?

Not latent. The racism here in Israel where we Jews are a majority is part of everyday life. The hatred is directed against foreign workers. The reasons for the hatred of non-Arabs and Gentiles (Gojim) are expressed openly because the foreigners are smal communities and Israel is not afraid of war with Romania or the Philippines. Bovernment ministers, media workers and religious leaders (rabbis) are on record saying that we don´t want Romanians here because our daughters may fall in love with a Romanian and marry him. You are surely familiar with this kind of racist argument in your country. It is pure hatred for its own sake. It is quite clear here that most of the Jews hate Gentiles and the more they are influenced by religion, the greater the hatred.

There is also a connection between the degree of hatred and religion.

Obviously, there is not only a connection: it emanates from the Jewish religion. In my book “Jewish History, Jewish Religion” I show that if these laws were obeyed and internalised for hundreds of years they must be a source of hatred. Jews are justified in saying that Catholic laws and holy writings are a source of hatred against Jews. I agree that they are a source of hatred, but Jewish laws and legendsmuch worse in my opinion must be a source of hatred.

Were you surprised that a religious Jew killed Rabin?

I predicted it. I was of the two people who predicted that a religious Jew will not assassinate but will try to assassinate Rabin. The other was Yehosohavat Harkabi, the former chief of military intelligence. I will make to you also another prediction, namely that there will be an attempt by a religious Jew to try to assassinate Netanyahu (Here Prof. Shahak erred L.W.).

I always thought that Rabin was a very good Prime Minister for the settlers. He was the personification of security per se. He did not want to dismantle settlements after the Goldstein massacre in Hebron. What´s your opinion on that?

He was more interested in symbols than reality. Everything you said is true but he also used to continiously insult the settlers. He used to say to them: you are not crucial for security. He used to say that if it`s necessary to make peace, he will accept that a Jew will require a visa to go to Gush Etzion, which is an important group of settlements near Jerusalem. The first thing I emphasised to you about messianic Jews is that they are not as much interested in reality as in redemption. Yigal Amir and people like him do not appreciate the fact that the Oslo agreement is actually the greatest Zionist victory after 1948/49. They are outraged by the mere sight of a Palestinian flag, a symbol, being flown on the Holy Land. They think in religious terms. Let me give you a Christian-Muslim example: It would have been very convenient centuries ago, when trade relations flourished between Italian cities and Islamic countries, say Venice for example, that a mosque be built in Venice or Rome for Muslim traders. Yet no mosque was built until 20th century. Similarily, Saudis still stick to the principle that no Christian church be built on Saudi territory. You see, symbols are not only important to Jews.

Do you fear the rise of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel? Do you think that this kind of fundamentalism could endanger Israel`s security in the long run?

The answer is yes. There are two possible scenarios: The first is a civil war. A civil war is possible at any point, especially if there are no outside threats. But even without outside threats I think that civil war with Messianics is quite possible. The second scenario is even worse and it´s being debated in the Hebrew press for over a year. It is the scenario of a religious putch. I must mention here that the number of Messianics within the armed forces, including officers and soldiers, is increasing rapidly because the Messianics, not other religious Jews, are the strongest militarist people in Israel. They educate their children for dedicated army service beyond the three obligatory years. They operate military-religious colleges in which people are formed from the beginning to serve as officers or soldiers in elite units. The percentage of Messianic trainees approaching 30 per cent in a given officer course. They are excellent soldiers, very dedicated from a military point of view. The army favours them. They may be tempted to undertake a military putch which, from their ideological point of view, is becoming more and more accepted as a possibility.

Have they already reached the higher ranks of the officer corps?

In their ranks you don´t have yet a general. Admittedly. But the history proves military putches can also be undertaken by majors and colonels. You don´t need a general.

Does the present Israeli government undertake anything to stop the influx of national religious Jews into the army?

No. But we have an movement headed by retired officers from medium ranks to establish parallel. secular colleges for pre-military training in which secular youth will be given military training to counterbalance the influx of religious conscripts.

Do you think the secular part of Israeli society is strong enough to resist the influence of the national religious people?

At the moment, yes. But I cannot vouch what will happen in eight or ten years.



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