Israel, the Palestinians, & Pragmatism

An interview with Israel Shahak

By Mark Dow

Israel Shahak is a retired chemistry professor and a longtime human rights activist who lives in Jerusalem. His recent book, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (Pluto Press, 1994), is an angry and urgent plea for self-criticism of Israel and the Zionist movement. "The most important part of such a critique must be detailed and honest confrontation of the Jewish attitude to non-Jews. This is what many Jews justly demand from non-Jews: to confront their own past ... Although the struggle against anti-Semitism (and of all other forms of racism) should never cease, the struggle against Jewish chauvinism and exclusivism, which must include a critique of classical Judaism, is now of equal or greater importance."

Where in Poland were you raised?

I was born in Warsaw in 1933. 1 was there all the time during the Second World War, during the Holocaust I mean, then finally almost two years in Bergen Belsen. And because I was raised not only in an Orthodox [Jewish] but in a Zionist family, immediately after this I went to Palestine with my mother, who also survived. I arrived here in September 1945, aF a 12-year-old child. I was first educated in religious institutions but then, because I went to Tel Aviv to be with my mother, and also because I began to develop some quarrels with my teachers, I transferred to a secular high school. But I remained religious until the age of 18. Since I accepted everything when I was young, I still remember it, so when I decided to do something about it, I had the sources. Anyway, then the usual career of an Israeli Jewish boy - army, then university, and so on. And then political activism only developed in 1968.

How long were you in Bergen Belsen?

I arrived June 29, 1943, and I was liberated April 13, 1945, by the American army.

Have you ever written anything about the camps?

No. This is a question of personality type, and 1 am simply not made that way. My choosing of a scientific profession also points in another direction. 1 think about it, I draw conclusions, but I am not inclined in any way to writing memoirs or autobiography.

So what kind of conclusions are you drawing?

The most important conclusion is that the people who operated the Holocaust machine, or the great majority of them, at least the casual operators whom I saw, German soldiers, did what they did from a sense of duty, not because of any hatred. And the great majority of every society, if they find themselves given an order by a government which is legal, will do the same thing which they did. I don't exclude anyone from this. And therefore the conclusion is that every society and every people is in danger of being nazified.

I'm not thinking now about lynchings and pogroms, which are a completely different thing, because they are temporary. 1 mean exterminating by state power. The people who are lynching know that they are operating against the law, and after a few hours or a few days, they subside. I mean a bureaucratic operation conducted by state officials and by ordinary soldiers or officials to exterminate people by state decision. I will also include the rounding up of all the Japanese in the United States during the Second World War, or the Armenian extermination, or what is happening in Bosnia. And this can happen everywhere. And it has happened everywhere. I completely deny the opinion that the Holocaust is unique. It is rare. But it has happened. And therefore the first conclusion is that it can happen again, and every person and every group of people has to be on guard against it. Although the Holocaust happened to Jews, it is a lesson for all humanity, including the Jews themselves.

I will add that the lesson is universal because we shouldn't think about most of those who operated the extermination machines as animals, as monsters in human form. We should reserve this appellation only for the actual planners, or for the heads of the Nazis. The ordinary German soldiers who guarded us while we dwindled from more than 3,000 to 250 were, in my manner of judgment, people like you and me, motivated by what is thought of in every society as good motives, obeying orders from a legal government. Nevertheless, they were objectively murderers and exterminators. The conclusion is that human society is composed of a mass of ordinary people who can become exterminators, but who in their ordinary lives are completely usual people, of a minority which protests, and a minority which plans murders or enjoys murder.

When you were talking about the way that any society can become nazified, I wondered if you were thinking of Israel.

Not necessarily so, not necessarily so. I really mean every society. At present, although there is a danger in Israel, it is much less so than in Rwanda, or plenty of other places that I could mention. No, I was mentioning universal principles.

But, since you mention this, I will go farther. This I didn't draw from my personal Holocaust experience, but by reading about German history, which began much later, when I was in my mid-thirties. I began to be interested in German history in general, and in the history of modern Germany in particular, to see from where Nazism arose. And from where in Nazism the extermination of the Jews arose-because from the beginning it was clear to me, even from superficial work, that for 20 years the official Nazi program was only the expulsion of Jews from Germany. Purification or cleansing, as they used to say. Germany without Jews. So it immediately drew my attention to the fact that there are Jews, in fact organized and recognized parties-not only the Kahanes, but the Moledet party and other tendencies-who want to expel all the Arabs from the Land of Israel. And that such tendencies were very strong in the Labor movement, in the Zionist movement, in the beginning. Because of this, I am saying that there are Jewish Nazis. Jews who are officially saying that Arabs should be expelled from Israel, or from the Occupied Territories, are, in my opinion, Jewish Nazis. And there are Nazi-like tendencies in Judaism, meaning toleration for people who in their official program desire that all Arabs be expelled.

But of course this is not unique to Jews. I specified it for Jews, but it is not unique to Jews. We see it in Bosnia. We could see it in Iraq. The expulsion of foreigners from Kuwait after the Iraqi conquest was an act of Nazism, in my opinion. And the expulsion of Palestinians by the Kuwaiti regime after the victory was also an act of Nazism. So I am not blind to the existence of Nazi tendencies and actual Nazism in the Arab world, either. As I told you, it's universal.

Let's jump to recent developments. At the end of your book you say: "What is not possible, as long as Israel remains a 'Jewish state,' is the Israeli grant of a fake, but nevertheless symbolically real sovereignty, or even of real autonomy, to non-Jews within the Land of Israel for merely political reasons."

Yes, exactly. I wrote that before the Oslo Agreement, by the way. I had the opportunity to change it, and I decided not to. And you see it exactly. You see that on the question of confiscation of land, and what is worse, of saying that land once confiscated is only for the benefit of Jews, the State of Israel didn't make any compromise. So I am saying that all the Oslo Agreement is a fake. Both sides - of course I am very strongly against Arafat as well - both sides cheat each other.

So you don't think that the Palestinians are even going to get a symbolic sovereignty out of this?

Of course not. There are many facts, symbolic facts, if you want. Israel, for example, insists that Arafat will not call himself, in communication to Israel, "President," but only "Chairman of the PLO." And in the negotiations, one of the Israeli conditions is that what Palestinians may elect - I don't think there will be elections, but anyhow - that whatever will be elected will not be called Parliament or House of Commons, but only "administrative council." And so on and so on. So there are very many Israeli conditions, official conditions, which are intended to prevent this. Immediately after Oslo, Rabin said in the Knesset that he accepts this accord with five no's which were proposed by Likud and others; he didn't want the Knesset to vote on them. One of the no's - it is also embodied in the Labor Party program - is: never a Palestinian state. There is only a very small minority of people within Israel who are for a Palestinian state. The people who are most against it are religious, meaning Orthodox Jews. And of course Rabin is in an alliance with them.

What do you think is going to happen now?

More of the same. The peace process will be seen in the near future as being a fake. Not because of Arafat, but because of the Palestinian popular opposition. Al Khader was not initiated by Arafat but by the villagers of Al Khader, and there will more like this. [Al Khader is a village south of Bethlehem, where, in December and January, Palestinians protested the attempted expansion of a nearby Jewish settlement.] Or if you want something more symbolic: the Israeli police have prevented a Palestinian organization from holding a press conference in the middle of Jerusalem. So it is more of the same. The Oslo agreement and all the ceremonies were an exercise in disinformation. Both sides - I emphasize both sides, because Arafat also didn't want to do anything the Oslo agreement obliged him to - both sides intended to deceive each other.

Israel is a democratic state - for Israelis, but especially for Jews. In a democratic state, you have to announce a plan that you are going to pursue. You cannot, therefore, pursue a Palestinian state in stealth. You have to say to the people, or at least to the significant minority of the people in Israel who are interested in politics - you must know that people in Israel are much more political than in the United States - so you have to tell them what you intend to do. And the Israeli government generally does, for good and for bad. When the Begin government wanted to invade Lebanon, then for half a year it told the Israeli people, we are going to invade Lebanon. The press was full of this; it was not a secret. And the same with every major policy. You can say many things about the Israeli government, but its aims are always announced more or less openly. Only the timing is usually secret. I never accused Rabin of deceiving people. Rabin is trying only to implement the official Labor Party program on which he was elected in 1992. In his official program he said that he wants a separation of two peoples, that Palestinians will rule themselves in densely inhabited areas, and that we, our army, will watch them from the outside. Maybe Rabin and Peres are deceiving foreigners, which is quite another thing, but they are not deceiving Israelis.

Is the solution you support a secular Palestinian state and a secular Israeli state?

Well, I will support any program so long as it is democratic. Democratic means an agreement of the majority of the two peoples. At present, all programs are unrealistic, meaning, the conquest regime will continue. But if you will ask me what is most realistic, in a very minimal sense, it is still the two-state solution, an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. Of course, I hope that a Palestinian state will be secular and democratic. But because of Arafat and his Fatah organization, if by any miracle a Palestinian state will be established - which I don't believe, but if - it will be a dictatorial state. I think Arafat is intending to establish a worse dictatorship than Assad's in Syria. So, I think that the Israeli advantage, pragmatic advantage, is that there is no strong movement for democracy in Arab countries. Not only are all Arab countries and the PLO, in addition, anti-democratic, but also there is no strong Palestinian movement for democracy.

But for many years weren't many people saying that the PLO was a democracy, even if it didn't have a state?

Well, I never said it, but I will give you very good proof that it was never a democracy. For many years, 15 or 20 years, Arafat keeps all the money of the PLO under his personal control, in fact in his name. Democracy has developed from the power of the purse, meaning that no executive ruler is allowed to keep all the money under his possession. Therefore it was never a democracy.

What does that do to the peace camp's claim for many years, and the Palestinians' own claim, as I understood it, that the PLO was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people?

I never said it. I believe that this claim was one of the illusions, of the many illusions, of the leftists. 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 PLO has never been a democracy, and has never been the sole representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO in the Arab world got its recognition as sole representative of the Palestinian people from the Arab League in 1974. Why should I recognize the Sultan of Morocco or the Sultan of Oman as having the capacity to say who represents the Palestinian people? Or if you want more, when they were in power in Lebanon, I didn't see that they tried to hold elections. They always imposed their activists. During the time of civil war, when they ruled all the territory inhabited by Palestinians [in Lebanon] - and the civil war was punctuated, of course, by many cease fires - they could have called for elections. They didn't. Now when there is a so-called autonomy, nobody prevents Arafat from holding municipal elections for the town of Gaza and several others, but no, he appointed municipalities.

And of course, now it is obvious that the PLO doesn't represent the Palestinian people. There is Hamas. I can be the strongest enemy of Hamas, but I cannot deny that it exists. The PLO never solely represented the Palestinian people, but only a part of it, and what part is a matter of dispute. And anyhow, the Israeli commentators, and even Rabin and Peres, say quite openly that the most important part of the Oslo agreement was to impose Arafat as the ruler of the Palestinian people. After all, before Arafat entered Gaza, Palestinians or Gazans were not asked about it. Imagine that de Klerk, without holding any elections, would have given power to Nelson Mandela. Obviously, democracy is based on elections, and on free elections. You cannot escape from it.

What are the limitations of how Israeli policies toward Palestinians can change as long as Israel is a Jewish state? And what would it mean for Israel to exist as a state that is not a Jewish state?

The sense of democracy, which means renunciation of the Jewish character of the Jewish state, means for the Jews to base their claims exclusively on the democratic rights of Jews living here, and not on anything proceeding from Jewish heritage. We have certain rights, which can be a matter of dispute, but only because we live here. But this also applies to Arabs, of course. I don't recognize any democratic rights of Arabs [simply] because this country was for many hundreds of years an Arab or Moslem country. Actually, Turkey was for thousands of years, until 900 years ago, a Christian country. So what? Christians should take it? Actually Palestine was also for several hundreds of years a Christian country. So what? Not being a Jewish state doesn't only mean removal of discrimination between Jews and non-Jews, it also means that all rights should be based on the present.

I learned much of this from the history of the United States, because the right of Americans to their independence from Britain was based on the present. In the past they had no rights, because they were a British colony. All the past was on the side of King George III. What is the Declaration of Independence of the United States based on? On the present. Or on abstract principles. We now don't want taxation without representation. We now want independence because we live here and we have decided. Think about it - until 250 years ago it was a principle in the entire world that every country belongs to a king by dynastic right, because he was born a son to a king or to a chief. Everyone accepted it, not only the British, also the Indian chiefs. The Indian chiefs accepted that the son of a chief is a chief. So therefore democracy is based on repudiation of rights of the past to control the present. I am saying it first of all in the Jewish sense, of course, but again I want to emphasize that I am saying exactly the same thing to Arabs. I will accept your arguments about the denial of your present rights. I will also go as far as the problem of refugees who were unjustly [displaced]. But I will not accept any rights based on arguments that this was a Moslem country for a thousand and so years.

How does the issue of land confiscation fit in here?

The most important thing for me is not the confiscation of the land. It's not the fact that people claim that they own property and it was confiscated. It is the fact that after the land is confiscated and becomes the property of the state of Israel, it is rented or sold to Jews only. Every state confiscates land, and I cannot on principle deny the right of the state of Israel to confiscate a piece of land, at least until I investigate the circumstances. What 1 can deny is that once the state of Israel confiscates land, it only gives it to Jews.

Empty land, confiscated of course from Arabs in the first place, is used only for Jewish development. Let us say there is an Arab village and near it a kibbutz, in the middle a piece of empty land belonging to the state. The Israeli principle is that the Arab village will remain with what it has, but the kibbutz or another Jewish settlement may receive the empty land. In the United States, there would be a debate based on rational or pseudorational principles about what will happen with the land - but in principle, the empty land belonging to the state is serving all citizens. In Israel the empty land is serving only Jews. This is the point.

If Israel were not a Jewish state, then the empty land belonging to the state will be used for the equal development of all its citizens. Which will mean in many places it will be given to Arabs, because Arabs have been denied the possibility to develop for many years. And they are surrounded by plots of empty land.

I want to ask, you about the connection between your critique of Judaism and anti-Semitism. You say very clearly in your book that you feel it's necessary to fight Jewish chauvinism and anti-Semitism together.

Yes. First of all, anti-Semitism is a form of chauvinism, and if I am against Jewish chauvinism, I must also be against anti-Jewish chauvinism. Secondly, Jewish chauvinism wants to do to non-Jews what anti-Semites want to do to Jews, so obviously the fights must go together. The third reason is that one has to beware of extremism, which means adopting anti-Semitic opinions through a critique of Judaism. The best way of avoiding it, even unconsciously, is to fight anti-Semitism, so you, make a clear distinction between these.

Are you concerned with the use that anti-Semites could make of your book?

I decided not to be concerned. I decided that my duty, and the duty of every person, is to say what they think without taking any account of what use may be made of their statements. And this for two reasons. I will begin with the pragmatic reason. The pragmatic reason is that in my opinion, the chief reason so much of the left in the 20th century has failed is that it adopted the principle of not criticizing its friends or supposed friends. Many leftists have either avoided criticizing the Soviet Union under Stalin completely, or criticized it only moderately. And in the same way, by the way, the extreme right avoided criticizing South Africa.

The ideological reason comes second, which is that I decided that it is not possible to criticize Judaism, or, as a matter of fact, any other system which needs criticizing, without giving ammunition to its unprincipled elements. For example, a black Nazi in the United States - and there are, of course, black Nazis in the United States - can take the books of my friend Noarn Chomsky and use them not for the purpose for which Chomsky wrote them, but to say that all whites are evil. Is this a reason for Chomsky not to write as he does? No. Or take the book of Bertrand Russell about his visit to Lenin's Russia in 1920. This book, which is the first important and principled critique of the communist regime before Stalin, was used by many rabid conservatives. There is the example of the great prophets of Judaism. It is true that many enemies of Judaism-Christian enemies first of all, Christian anti-Semites-used to take the condemnation of Old Testament prophets and shout: see, all the Jews were wicked.

By the way, my work as a human rights activist was used by many enemies of Israel. One of my early memoranda about oppression in the territories was taken by the Iraqi ambassador and circulated for many years as an Iraqi official document. South Africa, when it was an apartheid regime, used to take Amnesty International reports about black African countries and circulate them: see what black independence leads to. So you see, again it is pragmatic. It is not possible to make a real criticism of any movement or any state or any group which will not give ammunition to its enemies.

Is there any kind of real community here of people making the kind of critique that you are making?

No, I have no real community with what is called the extreme left in Israel. I work with them many times in demonstrations and so on, but I have no real community. I don't think that there is any real community here. The reason is that the Israeli left is not built on democracy. The Israeli center - people with whom of course I differ on Zionism - is more devoted to democracy in a general sense than the left. The left worships the Palestinians or worships the PLO or worships Yasser Arafat, or if not Yasser Arafat then George Habash. But you can see the same thing, I think, in the United States, too.

Shahak's translations are distributed by the Middle East Data Center (Box 337, Woodbridge VA 22194, phone 703-643-2773, fax 703-494-2403); his reports on Israeli politics are available under Archive of News and Reports at alquds. org.

[Scanned from a copy of the original Z-Magazine article provided by Israel Shahak, and posted by Knut Rognes 28. November 2000. Shahak translations have been discontinued for some time.]