Israel Shahak, 1933-2001

by Mark Dow

This article appears in the October 2001 issue of Between the Lines (Jerusalem).

It is not easy to unravel the political brainwashing that complicates one's emotional response to a photo of Palestinian policemen, many of them in riot gear, storming protesters at the Islamic University in the Gaza Strip in early October. The students were protesting the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, which of course followed in the wake of attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. If you look at the policemen's grimacing faces, you may think of young Palestinian stone-throwers; if you see their uniforms and helmets and rifles, you might think instead of young Israeli soldiers.

Below the photograph, in what the New York Times so arrogantly and preposterously calls "News Analysis" -- presumably to distinguish it from the Straightforward Objective Reporting elsewhere in the paper -- correspondent James Bennet writes a sentence which could only be penned by someone "analyzing" the world through the filter of official government logic. Referring to what he calls Arafat's willingness to use "deadly force against Palestinians to suppress a demonstration in support of Osama bin Laden," Mr. Bennet writes: "It was the most dramatic evidence to date that the terrorist attacks on the United States have dented the entrenched thinking of the enemies in the conflict here and created a new chance for peace at the same time as causing a spike in violence." Who would have suspected such dialectical thinking from the Times, praising the killing of a few Palestinians as a paradoxical step toward peace? The catch, of course, is that the "peace process" has never been about co-existence but rather about institutionalized domination.

There are a handful of thinkers and writers who help us to see what is happening in the world, and, ultimately, to see with our own eyes, even while teaching us not to depend blindly on what they are telling us. Israel Shahak was one of those. Consider the following, which he wrote nearly a decade ago, and which still serves to clear the fog of New York Times "analysis." Shahak begins by quoting (in translation) from Yediot Ahronot: " ' . . . Rabin said, "I prefer the Palestinians to cope with the problem of enforcing order in the Gaza [Strip]. The Palestinians will be better at it than we were, because they will allow no appeals to the Supreme Court and will prevent the [Israeli] Association for Civil Rights from criticizing the conditions there by denying it access to the area." ' " (The related Times news article about the protests succinctly noted, "Foreign journalists were not permitted into Gaza today," without saying whether it was Palestinian or Israeli authorities that blocked them.)

Shahak continues with the Rabin quotation: " ' " [The Palestinians] will rule by their own methods, freeing -- and this is most important -- the Israeli soldiers from having to do what they will do. All Gaza Strip settlements will remain where they are. The Israeli Army will remain in the Gaza Strip to defend them . . . ' " It is quite clear [this is Shahak himself now] that the most important point for Rabin is that Arafat's faction in the PLO will become, or already is, a part of Shabak in order to perform its work better than Israel can by itself. The main point is that the PLO is expected to be more immune to criticism than Israel. The parallel with the methods employed by the US in countries dependent on it, such as El Salvador or Guatemala, in which the worst kinds of oppression are entrusted to local forces, is inescapable."

It is significant that my quotation of Shahak becomes his quotation of an Israeli paper quoting Rabin. For one thing, Shahak often expressed his view that it was easy to see the realities of Israeli policies if one looked at what Israeli leaders did, and what they said locally, as opposed to what they said for foreign consumption. (He would add, certainly, that this is not true only of Israel.) In additon, many journalists and others, myself included, benefitted enormously over the years from Shahak's English translations "From the Hebrew Press," and his reports based on them, so generously distributed to us here -- before everybody was on-line -- by Shahak's friend Frank Collins. Shahak also published three books in English: Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (1994); Open Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies (1997); and Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (co-authored with Norton Mezvinsky, 1999), all available from Pluto Press. As the quotation about Oslo demonstrates, these works will not seem dated any time soon.

When I interviewed Shahak at his Jerusalem home in 1995, he used the word "liberated" twice. The first was when I asked him about his time in Bergen-Belsen. He answered very, very briefly, wanting to say little beyond the dates of his internment, in 1943, and his liberation by the American army in 1945, after a week of transport. This is the place to note that I am as guilty as other commentators in feeling the need to frame Shahak's dissent from Israeli policies within the skewed contemporary discourse -- and to point out that he was a Holocaust survivor. When I asked him about this phenomena, he said: "I dislike this, but I also donít like to quarrel with my friends who are sometimes my only distributors. . . . But you also have seen that when I distribute my work, I don't add any biographical detail."

He continued: "If I add something for my protection, I am adding only the fact that I am an Israeli citizen . . . who lived in the country from '45. . . I may even add sometimes that I served in the Israeli army all the time that I had to serve." He further explained that by pointing out his military service and his willingness to fight if Israel were to be invaded, he wanted to distinguish himself from the pacifists.

Shahak could not tolerate any ideology, left or right, because he believed in pragmatism and reason. If this made his views, or, in any case, his method, seem frustratingly strident itself sometimes, for those of us wanting some understanding of the human motivations of the oppressors around the world, his insistence on pragmatism served to teach us the limits of our understanding, and the ways in which those very limits are part of our understanding. In the introduction to Open Secrets, he writes that "the very act of 'looking for specific reasons' for political behaviour . . . is a suspicious form of acitivity. . . .What is the 'reason' for the Law of Gravitation or for the Second Law of Thermodynamics? There is no reason except that they happen to predict what is actually observed. . . . Thus, while I regard it as a proven fact that the aim of Israeli policies is to establish a hegemony over the Middle East, if someone asked me why Israel behaves in this way a part of my answer would be that this behaviour is 'natural' to all or most states, as experience has shown. The question of why such behaviour is 'natural' to most states we must leave until the time when our knowledge of human nature is greater."

Shahak is careful to note, even in passing, that he is not writing about Israel as an exception; indeed, he is trying to counter commentary about Israel which depends on Israel's supposed uniqueness, whether seen as positive or negative. Likewise -- and this point will have particular resonance for many readers of this magazine -- Shahak never confused his defense of the Palestinian people with either a defense of Arafat or a romanticizing of the victims. When he told me in 1995 that any state run by Arafat (though he did not believe any such state would come into existence) would be "a worse dictatorship than Assad's in Syria," I asked him about the longstanding claim that the PLO was a democratic body.

"Well, I never said it," he replied, and then gave me evidence of the PLO's authoritarian functioning.

What does this do to the Left's claim or some Palestinians' claim that the PLO was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people?

"I never said it," he replied again. "Very many leftists all over the world have a tendency to beautify the victims. I, on the contrary, say that while supporting the rights of the victims, and certainly trying to prevent suffering as much as one can, one has to say the truth." The point is worth repeating now as the Left struggles to respond to the World Trade Center attacks and the US military action that has followed.

Perhaps Shahak is best known for his ongoing criticism of Zionist ideology, and of the notions of religious exclusivity which underlie not only the Right's positions but, more insidously, more silently, and more hypocritically, the Left's. I said that he used the word "liberated" twice when we spoke. The second time was in this context. He explained that he "was a complete Zionist . . . [a] Ben Gurionist, I should say," when he came to Palestine in 1945. He believed in co-existence with the Arabs, but on the premise "that the Land of Israel belongs to Jews. That Arabs should be given only pesonal rights and limited by security considerations, but should not have national rights, nor any rights which hinder Jewish settlement." He mentions the confiscation of Arab land for the benefit of Jews, a subject to which he often returned, seeing it as being at the heart of the discriminatory policies inherent in Israel's being a "Jewish state" rather than a state of all its citizens.

Then he said of these early views: "It took much, much time until I liberated myself from those principles, which I fully professed."

Israel Shahak died on July 2, but he left us with crucial lessons about liberation -- of victims from their oppressors, and of ourselves from blind belief. He will be missed.

[Posted November 7, 2001, on Knut Rognes' homepage by permission form the author]