Born on April 29, 1933 in Warsaw, Poland, Israël Shahak was instrumental in helping to lay the groundwork for anti-Israel activism and sentiment in the academy. Despite his international reputation as a “human rights campaigner,” Shahak was openly anti-Semitic and an opponent of Israel. He particularly despised Judaism and argued that its racist ideology underpinned not simply Israeli violence against the Palestinian people, but much of the violence throughout history. His books became foundational texts in Middle Eastern Studies departments – and his writings continue to be disseminated on the websites of neo-Nazi groups, Holocaust deniers, and Islamist groups.
Born in April 1933, Shahak was raised in Poland by a pro-Zionist Jewish family. During World War II, the Nazis placed him, his father and his mother into the Warsaw Ghetto and then sent them to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where Shahak’s father died. In 1945, he and his mother emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine, three years before it became Israel. During his adolescence, he cared for his ailing mother and attended high school. After that, he served in the Israel Defense Forces and subsequently attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned a doctorate in chemistry. In 1961 he traveled to America for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. Two years later, he returned to Israel where he spent the rest of his life, working first as a professor of organic chemistry at Hebrew University from 1963 to 1991, and then as president of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights from 1970 to 1990.
While Shahak distrusted the influence of Judaism on Israeli politics during the 1950s, his activism against the Jewish faith began in earnest in the mid-1960s. In Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (1994), Shahak recounts that his “political activities as an Israeli Jew” were launched into the spotlight in 1965 when he “personally witnessed an ultra-religious Jew refuse to allow his phone to be used on the Sabbath in order to call an ambulance for a non-Jew who happened to have collapsed in his Jerusalem neighborhood.” Shahak requested a meeting with the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem, asking if these actions were in accordance with Judaic law. Angered by the Court’s “sanctimonious twaddle,” he reported the incident to the left-wing daily Haaretz, whose publication of a story about the incident led to a scandal in which secularists fiercely attacked the religious foundations of Israel. Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, called Shahak’s allegation “a modern blood libel” and observed that the media frenzy served to overshadow both Shahak’s eventual admission that the “Orthodox Jew he had ‘witnessed’ […] simply did not exist” and the fact that the ruling of the Rabbinical Court was the exact opposite of how Shahak had characterized it. Indeed, the rabbinate had ruled that the Sabbath must be violated to save the life of a non-Jew.
In the 1960s, Shahak joined the Israeli League against Religious Coercion. After the Six Day War of 1967, he searched for a more radical cause and became a member of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, where he served as president from 1970 to 1990. From the 1970s onward, Shahak also began to publish articles denouncing Israel and to speak at international forums and events, gaining a certain amount of acclaim. He collaborated with Uri Davis in accusing Israel of being an apartheid state. He also befriended and worked with Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said and Gore Vidal, the latter two adding introductions to his first book. After diabetes forced him to retire from Hebrew University in 1991, Shahak published Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (1994); Open Secrets: Israel’s Nuclear and Foreign Policies (1997); and Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (1999) with co-author with Norton Mezvinsky.
During this period, Shahak laid out his anti-Semitic vision of history, which is essentially an extended version of the libel that he had made in 1965: “The policies of Ben-Gurion and Sharon, motivated by ‘Jewish ideology,’ are much worse than merely imperial policies, however criminal. […] This ideology is, in turn, based on the attitudes of historic Judaism to non-Jews” — attitudes that “necessarily influence many Jews consciously or unconsciously.” In this light, Shahak’s chief claim is that while many nations and peoples can engage in imperialistic aggression, “historic Judaism” is one of the sources of this imperialistic drive. For Shahak, the crimes of Nazism could be easily conflated with Jewish identity. “Jews who perpetuate a denial of common humanity are Jewish Nazis,” he declared alongside Noam Chomsky in 1994.
Shahak exhorted Jews to acknowledge the awful crimes allegedly committed by their forebears – crimes that, according to Shahak, had triggered the “popular anti-Jewish manifestations of the past.” He cited, as an example of such purportedly understandable uprisings, the Chmielnicki massacres of 17th-century Ukraine. “Do decent English historians,” he asked rhetorically, “even when noting the massacres of Englishmen by rebellious Irish peasant rising against their enslavement, condemn the latter as ‘anti-English racists’? What is the attitude of progressive French historians towards the great slave revolution in Santo Domingo, where many French women and children were butchered? To ask the question is to answer it.”
Shahak claimed, among other things, that “Jewish children are actually taught” to utter a ritual curse when walking past a non-Jewish cemetery. He stated that “both before and after a meal, a pious Jew ritually washes his hands…. On one of these two occasions he is worshiping God … but on the other he is worshiping Satan.” Shahak further charged that orthodox Jews endorse, and commonly practice, the killing of those with whom they have ideological or theological differences. “For example,” he wrote, “in the late 1830s a ‘Holy Rabbi’ (Tzadik) in a small Jewish town in the Ukraine ordered the murder of a heretic by throwing him into the boiling water of the town baths.”
Such a perspective on historical Jewish racism enthused not simply radical leftists and Islamists, but also the far right. David Duke in particular dedicated Jewish Supremacism to Israel Shahak after the latter’s death in 2001. Duke praised Shahak as one of the few Jews who had exposed the history of how “Jewish radicals have waged an unrelenting ethnic war against Gentiles since the days of their sojourn in Egypt,” and how Jewish “chauvinism has helped bring about centuries of repeated anti-Semitic reactions, ranging from the pogroms of Pharaoh to the horrors of what is now called the Holocaust.”
Shahak died on July 2, 2001 in Jerusalem, Israel.