Israel Shahak, 1933-2001
In early June I sat on a panel, in front of a large and mainly Arab audience, with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Our hosts, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, had asked for a discussion of contrasting images of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The general tempo of the meeting was encouragingly nontribal; there were many criticisms of Arab regimes and societies, and one of our co-panelists, Raghida Dergham, had recently been indicted in her absence by a Lebanese military prosecutor for the offense of sharing a panel discussion with an Israeli. However, it's safe to say that most of those attending were aching for a chance to question Friedman in person. He was accused directly at one point of writing in a lofty and condescending manner about the Palestinian people. To this he replied hotly and eloquently, saying that he had always believed that "the Jewish people will never be at home in Palestine until the Palestinian people are at home there."
That was well said, and I hadn't at the time read his then-most-recent column, so I didn't think to reply. But in that article he wrote that Chairman Arafat, by his endless double-dealing, had emptied the well of international sympathy for his cause. This is a very Times-ish rhetoric, of course. You have to think about it for a second. It suggests that rights, for Palestinians, are not something innate or inalienable. They are, instead, a reward for good behavior, or for getting a good press. It's hard to get more patronizing than that. During the first intifada, in the late 1980s, the Palestinians denied themselves the recourse to arms, mounted a civil resistance, produced voices like Hanan Ashrawi and greatly stirred world opinion. For this they were offered some noncontiguous enclaves within an Israeli-controlled and Israeli-settled condominium. Better than nothing, you might say. But it's the very deal the Israeli settlers reject in their own case, and they do not even live in Israel "proper." (They just have the support of the armed forces of Israel "proper.") So now things are not so nice and many Palestinians have turned violent and even--whatever next?--religious and fanatical. Naughty, naughty. No self-determination for you. And this from those who achieved statehood not by making nice but as a consequence of some very ruthless behavior indeed.
I am writing these lines in memoriam for my dear friend and comrade Dr. Israel Shahak, who died on July 2. His home on Bartenura Street in Jerusalem was a library of information about the human rights of the oppressed. The families of prisoners, the staff of closed and censored publications, the victims of eviction and confiscation--none were ever turned away. I have met influential "civil society" Palestinians alive today who were protected as students when Israel was a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University; from him they learned never to generalize about Jews. And they respected him not just for his consistent stand against discrimination but also because--he never condescended to them. He detested nationalism and religion and made no secret of his contempt for the grasping Arafat entourage. But, as he once put it to me, "I will now only meet with Palestinian spokesmen when we are out of the country. I have some severe criticisms to present to them. But I cannot do this while they are living under occupation and I can 'visit' them as a privileged citizen." This apparently small point of ethical etiquette contains almost the whole dimension of what is missing from our present discourse: the element of elementary dignity and genuine mutual recognition.
Shahak's childhood was spent in Nazified Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; at the end of the war he was the only male left in his family. He reached Palestine before statehood, in 1945. In 1956 he heard David Ben-Gurion make a demagogic speech about the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt, referring to this dirty war as a campaign for "the kingdom of David and Solomon." That instilled in him the germinal feelings of opposition. By the end of his life, he had produced a scholarly body of work that showed the indissoluble connection between messianic delusions and racial and political ones. He had also, during his chairmanship of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, set a personal example that would be very difficult to emulate.
He had no heroes and no dogmas and no party allegiances. If he admitted to any intellectual model, it would have been Spinoza. For Shahak, the liberation of the Jewish people was an aspect of the Enlightenment, and involved their own self-emancipation from ghetto life and from clerical control, no less than from ancient "Gentile" prejudice. It therefore naturally ensued that Jews should never traffic in superstitions or racial myths; they stood to lose the most from the toleration of such rubbish. And it went almost without saying that there could be no defensible Jewish excuse for denying the human rights of others. He was a brilliant and devoted student of the archeology of Jerusalem and Palestine: I would give anything for a videotape of the conducted tours of the city that he gave me, and of the confrontation in which he vanquished one of the propagandist guides on the heights of Masada. For him, the built and the written record made it plain that Palestine had never been the exclusive possession of any one people, let alone any one "faith."
Only the other day, I read some sanguinary proclamation from the rabbinical commander of the Shas party, Ovadia Yosef, himself much sought after by both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. It was a vulgar demand for the holy extermination of non-Jews; the vilest effusions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad would have been hard-pressed to match it. The man wants a dictatorial theocracy for Jews and helotry or expulsion for the Palestinians, and he sees (as Shahak did in reverse) the connection. This is not a detail; Yosef's government receives an enormous US subsidy, and his intended victims live (and die, every day) under a Pax Americana. Men like Shahak, who force us to face these reponsibilities, are naturally rare. He was never interviewed by the New York Times, and its obituary pages have let pass the death of a great and serious man.