ISRAEL: Leading human rights advocate dies

Issue 

BY SARAH STEPHEN

Professor Israel Shahak, one of the most prominent and brave human rights activists in Israel, died on July 2 at the age of 68.

Shahak, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Hebrew University, headed the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, was a ferocious and tireless critic of his country's policies towards the Palestinians, and wrote volumes of articles and other works about Israeli repression and the Jewish religion.

As head of the ILHCR, in 1977 he was instrumental in persuading the editors of the London Sunday Times to publish the first international exposure of Israel's torture of Palestinian prisoners.

Shahak was born in Warsaw in 1933 and lived there until 1942, when his family was sent to the Poniatowo concentration camp. He and his mother escaped but were later captured and sent to Bergen-Belsen. His father was killed by the Nazis and his brother died while serving in the British RAF.

Shahak and his mother arrived in Palestine in 1945. He was an Orthodox Jew and an admirer of Israel's first prime minister, Daniel Ben-Gurion, but his faith in orthodox Judaism and Zionism slowly broke down. In the 1960s it shattered.

In his Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (published by Pluto Press in 1994), Shahak wrote that in 1965 he witnessed a Jewish man in Jerusalem refuse to use his telephone on the Sabbath to call for an ambulance for a non-Jew who had collapsed near his house.

Shahak took the case to the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem — and was told that the refuser had acted correctly, even piously.

As for Zionism, it was the aftermath of the 1967 war that changed him. He saw Palestinians driven out of their homes and could never forget it.

Shahak gained a wide international audience through his regular "Translations from the Hebrew press", which gave the non-Hebrew speaking world a unique glimpse into the extreme racism against Arab-Palestinians and Jewish supremacism which characterises much of "mainstream" discourse in Israel.

The translations also clarified Israeli strategic thinking and policy goals in a manner that directly contradicted official "hasbara" (propaganda) which presented Israel as a besieged state struggling only for peace and survival.

His recent books, including Open Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies (Pluto Press, 1997) and Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (Pluto Press, 1999), provide an invaluable insight into Israeli discourse and policy.

Shahak explained "After 1967, when I ceased being just a scientist and became a political being, my first reason was that after 1967 the Israeli aim was to dominate the Middle East, which every rational human being knows is impossible. My second reason was that there must be a Palestinian state."

Shahak began political activity in 1968, standing with 10 others to protest the administrative detention of a Palestinian Israeli citizen. By the end of the day he was covered in spit.

In 1970 he was elected chairperson of the Israeli Human and Civil Rights League. Throughout the 1970s hundreds of death threats were mailed or telephoned to him. For years his mail was opened by government authorities.

Yet he continued on with his work. Though his politics made him a virtual pariah in Israel he was proud that year after year students at Hebrew University voted him one of the best teachers at the university.

He was an outanding intellectual with an encyclopedic erudition in world religions, the migrations of ancient peoples, archaeology, ancient and modern history, and more. He was also an ardent supporter of women's rights; he abhorred the denunciations of feminism usual among male intellectuals including his countrymen.

In the 1990s, Shahak emerged as one of the strongest critics of the Oslo "peace process", which he denounced as a fraud and a vehicle for making the Israeli occupation more efficient.

A true friend of Palestine, he denounced not only his country's policies against it, but also PLO corruption and injustices within the Palestinian community (for example, the "honour murders" of Palestinian women by male family members).

In countries like Israel and South Africa, people of Shahak's integrity, fearlessness and breadth of mind stand out against the background of their states' injustices as humanity's most shining gems. In any just world he would have received a Nobel Peace Prize.

Sari Kassis, a representative of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, an Australian-based organisation, commented in an obituary, "Israel Shahak was an extraordinary voice of moral courage and fearless honesty, who never shirked from confronting his fellow Israelis with the truth about their oppression of the Palestinians. He was a tireless champion of human rights and equality for all Palestinians and Israelis."

He will be missed by all who value such a cause.