Born in Warsaw, Poland, Shahak was the youngest child of a cultured religious pro-Zionist Jewish family. During German occupation of Poland, his family was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. His brother escaped and joined the Royal Air Force. His mother paid a poor Catholic family to hide him, but when her money ran out he was returned. In 1943 was sent with his family to the concentration camp Poniatowa, near Lublin. His father died there, but Israel and his mother managed to escape and returned to Warsaw. In the same year they were both sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Shahak was liberated in 1945, and shortly thereafter emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine, where he wanted to join a kibbutz, but was turned down as "too weedy".
From age 12, Shahak cared for and provided economic support for his mother who survived the Nazi camp in a very poor physical condition. After a period of learning in a religious boarding school in Kfar Hassidim, he moved with his mother to Tel Aviv. After graduating from high school, Shahak served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in an elite regiment. After completing service with the IDF, he attended Hebrew University where he received his doctorate in chemistry. He became an assistant to Ernst David Bergmann.
In 1961, Shahak left Israel for the United States to study as a postdoctoral student at Stanford University. He returned two years later to become a teacher and researcher in chemistry at Hebrew University, where he remained until his retirement in 1990. He published many scientific papers, mostly on organic fluorine compounds. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Shahak became critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, a supporter of a Palestinian state, and wrote many articles and several books outlining his views of Israeli society and Judaism.
In his last years of life lived in the quarter Rehavia of Jerusalem. He died in Jerusalem at age 68 due to complications from diabetes and was buried in the Givat Shaul cemetery. In an obituary published in The Nation, Christopher Hitchens wrote that Shahak's home was "a library of information about the human rights of the oppressed", and that
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."
Shahak reports having been radicalized first by the Suez War and his feeling of betrayal by David Ben-Gurion's push to occupy the Sinai Peninsula, and then through his experiences in the United States. In the 1960s he became involved in the Israeli League Against Religious Coercion. Following the Six-Day War of 1967, he disavowed his former affiliation with the Israeli League against Religious Coercion, believing them to be "fake liberals" who used liberal principles to fight religious influence in Israeli society, but failed to use those same principles to fight Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Shahak instead joined the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, was elected president of the League in 1970. That same year he established the Committee Against administrative detentions.
He began publishing translations of the Hebrew press into English, alongside his own commentaries, arguing that Western activists needed better knowledge about conditions in Israel, and that the English-language editions of Hebrew newspapers were being intentionally distorted for Western audiences. This practice, along with writing letters to the editor, remained staples of his work for decades.
He became a well-known activist in international circles, co-authoring papers and giving joint speaking engagements with American political dissident Noam Chomsky, and winning plaudits from Jean Paul Sartre, Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens and Edward Said.
Reviewer Sheldon Richman explains that for Shahak, Zionism was both a reflection of, and capitulation to, European anti-Semitism, "since it, like the anti-Semites, holds that Jews are everywhere aliens who would best be isolated from the rest of the world."
In 1994 he published Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, in 1997 he published Open Secrets: Israel's Nuclear and Foreign Policies, and in 1999 he published Jewish Fundamentalism In Israel, co-authored with Norton Mezvinsky. In the introduction to the last book, Mezvinsky and Shahak explained that, 'We realize that by criticizing Jewish fundamentalism we are criticizing a part of the past that we love. We wish that members of every human grouping would criticize their own past, even before criticizing others'.
In 1965 Shahak sent a letter to Ha'aretz in which he claimed to have witnessed an Orthodox Jewish man refusing to allow his telephone to be used to call an ambulance for a non-Jew as it was the Jewish Sabbath. In the letter, Shahak also claimed that members of the rabbinical court of Jerusalem confirmed that the man was correct in his understanding of Jewish law, and that they backed this assertion by quoting from a passage from a recent compilation of law. The issue was subsequently taken up in Israeli newspapers and The Jewish Chronicle, leading to significant publicity. According to Israeli historian Tom Segev, Shahak:
...sent letters to the newspapers about the incident, and one respondent was Israel–s ambassador to Austria, Michael Simon. –This is the most horrific and shocking thing I have ever read,– he wrote to Prime Minister Eshkol. He wondered how the story would affect the country–s standing in Africa or how Israel could continue to denounce discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union. Maariv asked for the opinion of the minister of religious affairs, Dr. Zerah Warhaftig. The minister did not refute the rabbinical ruling, but quoted from traditional Jewish sources according to which Jewish doctors had saved the lives of non-Jews on the Sabbath, although they were not required to do so. Maariv was not satisfied. –The argument over this serious matter is only just beginning,– read its editorial, asserting that in the battle he had started, Shahak –would not remain alone.–
In 1966, Immanuel Jakobovits, who later became Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth, disputed the veracity of Shahak's story, and alleged that Shahak had subsequently been forced to admit that he had fabricated the incident (according to Jakobovits, "in true Protocols style") in order to support his thesis. Jakobovits also cites a lengthy responsum by Isser Yehuda Unterman, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel at the time, who stated that, "the Sabbath must be violated to save non-Jewish life no less than Jewish lives."
Jakobovits gives two possible rationales for this ruling; first, that "Even biblical violations of the Sabbath are warranted for non-Jews 'on account of enmity', i.e., if the refusal to render such aid may imperil Jews," and second, that the Rabbis may have "deliberately introduced...a purely ethical counter-indication to laws which might otherwise be conducive to immoral results." He also notes that, as long ago as the 13th Century, "R. Menachem Meiri had stated that the prohibition to desecrate the Sabbath for the sake of Gentiles applied only to 'the ancient heathens ... because they professed no religion at all, nor did they acknowledge their duty to human society.'"
Shahak repeated his account in the opening chapter of his 1994 book, Jewish History, Jewish Religion, stating that "Neither the Israeli, nor the diaspora, rabbinical authorities ever reversed their ruling that a Jew should not violate the Sabbath in order to save the life of a Gentile. They added much sanctimonious twaddle to the effect that if the consequence of such an act puts Jews in danger, the violation of the Sabbath is permitted, for their sake."
Writing in 2008, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach cited Eli Beer, chief coordinator Israel's volunteer ambulance service, who "oversees 1,100 medical volunteers, approximately 60 percent of whom are Orthodox," as stating:
If someone would say we won't save a non-Jewish life on the Sabbath, he is a liar. If he is Jewish, Christian, or Muslim we save everyone's life on any day of the year, including the Sabbath and Yom Kippur, and I have done so myself. Indeed, as an orthodox Jew it is my greatest honor to save the life of a non-Jew, and I would violate any of the Jewish holy days to do so.
In 1994 Shahak published Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight Of Three Thousand Years. In it he proposes that most nations' histories are initially ethnocentric. However they then evolve through a period of critical self-analysis to incorporate other perspectives. Jewish emancipation by the Enlightenment was a dual liberation, from both Christian anti-Semitism and a 'ghetto priesthood' with its 'imposed scriptural control'. But, he argued, the history of Judaism itself had not yet been the full beneficiary of modern critical perspectives. For Shahak, open public discussion of what he called 'Jewish ideology' is required if people are to take the same attitude towards Jewish chauvinism as is commonly taken towards anti-Semitism and all other forms of xenophobia, chauvinism and racism. He believed the political influence of Jewish chauvinism and religious fanaticism was much greater than that of anti-Semitism, and affirmed his belief that anti-Semitism and Jewish chauvinism could only be fought simultaneously.
According to Shahak Talmudic Judaism is a totalitarian religion where rabbinical law governs every aspect of Jewish behaviour. Shahak's approach to the subject draws on both Karl Popper's concept of a closed society, his analysis of totalitarian thought-patterns in Plato's thought, and also on Moses Hadas's suggestion of a Platonic influence on rabbinical thought. He views Jewish chauvinism and religious fanaticism as grounded in this theological tradition. For Shahak, the religious roots of this 'Jewish ideology' had two important consequences:
Shahak also analyses the period from the beginning of the last millennium (CE) to the advent of the modern state when most Jews lived under rabbinical law in segregated communities. These communities, writes Shahak, were under the patronage of non-Jewish nobles who typically used them to enforce their authority on a non-Jewish peasant class. Rebellions by such peasants in which all feudal agents were attacked, Shahak argues, have wrongly been perceived as anti-Jewish persecutions. Consequently, he calls for significant parts of Jewish history to be re-evaluated from a universal perspective.
Shahak also claims that Zionism is an attempt to re-establish a closed Jewish community and that this has resulted in discrimination against non-Jews. He also argued that on several occasions Zionists held links with anti-Semites, as was the case of Herzl and Count von Plehve, the antisemitic minister of Tsar Nicholas II; Jabotinsky and the Ukrainian leader Petlyura, whose forces, Shahak says, massacred some 100,000 Jews in 1918-21; Ben-Gurion and the French extreme right, which included notorious antisemites, during the Algerian war; and others such as the Zionist rabbi Joachim Prinz, who welcomed Hitler–s rise to power, since they shared his belief in the primacy of –race– and his hostility to the assimilation of Jews among –Aryans–. Shahak notes that Prinz, whose book Wir Juden (We Jews, 1934) celebrating Hitler's German Revolution and its defeat of liberalism, subsequently emigrated to the USA, where he rose to be vice-chairman of the World Jewish Congress and a leading light in the World Zionist Organization.' He concluded by arguing the struggle against Jewish chauvinism and exclusivism, which must include a critique of classical Judaism, was of equal or greater importance as the struggle against antisemitism, and all other forms of racism.
The work was praised by Gore Vidal and Edward Said, both of whom wrote introductions to the book at various times. Robert Fisk wrote that his 'examination of Jewish religious fundamentalism' was "invaluable":
[Shahak] concludes that "there can no longer be any doubt that the most horrifying acts of oppression in the West Bank are motivated by Jewish religious fanaticism." He quotes from an official exhortation to religious Jewish soldiers about Gentiles, published by the Israeli army's Central Region Command in which the chief chaplain writes: "When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah (the legal system of classical Judaism) they may and even should be killed ... In no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilised ... In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good."
Some authors, including Werner Cohn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, have described specific claims in Jewish History, Jewish Religion as fabrications, and have accused Shahak of making "grotesque charges". Werner Cohn writes:
Dr. Shahak is full of startling revelations, if that is the word, about Jewish history and the Jewish religion. None of those I was able to check had any foundation...Some are just funny. He says (pp. 23-4) that "Jewish children are actually taught" to utter a ritual curse when passing a non-Jewish cemetery. He also tells us (p. 34) 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..."
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In his memoirs, To Be an Arab in Israel, Palestinian poet Fouzi El-Asmar described Shahak as a "remarkable and outstanding individual", and Gore Vidal, who wrote the introduction to Shahak's Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, described him there as 'the latest, if not the last, of the great prophets.'" According to Haim Genizi, "Shahak's extreme anti-Israeli statements were welcomed by the PLO and widely circulated in pro-Arab circles".
After his death, Shahak received tributes from a number of sources. His friend and co-author the historian Norton Mezvinsky stated he was "a rare intellectual giant and a superior humanist", and Edward Said described him as "a very brave man who should be honored for his services to humanity." Christopher Hitchens, who considered Shahak a "dear friend and comrade", said he was a "a brilliant and devoted student of the archaeology of Jerusalem and Palestine", and that "during his chairmanship of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, [he] set a personal example that would be very difficult to emulate."  On Antiwar.com Alexander Cockburn described him as a "tireless translator and erudite footnoter" and "a singular man, an original", while Allan C. Brownfeld, of the American Council for Judaism, writing in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, said he had a "genuinely prophetic Jewish voice, one which ardently advocated democracy and human rights." In his obituary in The Guardian Elfi Pallis described him as "an old-fashioned liberal", and Michel Warschawski stated that he was "above all one of the last philosophers of the 18th century school of enlightenment, rationalism, and liberalism, in the American meaning of the concept."
Shahak's works have also found a receptive audience among neo-Nazis, antisemites and Holocaust deniers, and articles of his have been republished on websites such as Radio Islam, Bible Believers, Jew Watch, CODOH, and "Historical Review Press". David Duke mourned Shahak, stating he had exposed "numerous examples of hateful Judaic laws... that permit Jews to cheat, to steal, to rob, to kill, to rape, to lie, even to enslave Christians," and dedicated his book Jewish Supremacism to him. Duke's antisemitic theories defaming the Talmud and Judaism drew on material from the works of Shahak and Elizabeth Dilling. In a new introduction to his re-edition of their Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, Norton Mezvinsky wrote that antisemites and antisemitic groups "utilize unduly Shahak's criticisms in trying to justify their hatred of Jews. They have continued to do this either by citing and/or using out-of-context some of Shahak's points."
Shahak has been accused of fabricating incidents, "blaming the victim", distorting the normative meaning of Jewish texts, and misrepresenting Jewish belief and law. According to Paul Bogdanor, Shahak "regaled his audience with a stream of outrageous libels, ludicrous fabrications, and transparent hoaxes. As each successive allegation was exposed and discredited, he would simply proceed to a new invention." Ari Alexander, co-founder of the Children of Abraham Organization for Jewish-Islamic dialogue, while noting the widespread use of Shahak's works by neo-Nazis and in Arab countries, concludes that:
'the texts that Shahak cites are real (though Shahak's sporadic use of footnotes makes it difficult to check all of them). Oftentimes, the interpretation of these texts is debatable and their prominence in Judaism negligible, but nonetheless, they are part of Jewish tradition and, therefore, cannot be ignored.'
In reaction to his writings about Judaism and the Talmud, Shahak has been accused of antisemitism. The Anti-Defamation League listed Shahak as one of four authors of polemics in its paper The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics, while Paul Bogdanor accused Shahak of "recycling Soviet antisemitic propaganda".
In 1995 Werner Cohn wrote of Shahak:
Without question, he is the world's most conspicuous Jewish antisemite... Like the Nazis before him, Shahak specialized in defaming the Talmud. In fact, he has made it his life's work to popularize the anti-Talmud ruminations of the 18th century German antisemite, Johann Eisenmenger.
Emanuele Ottolenghi argues that Jews like Shahak act as enablers for antisemites, stating that their rhetoric plays a "crucial role... in excusing, condoning, and – in effect – abetting anti-Semitism." In his view:
Anti-Semites rely on Jews to confirm their prejudice: If Jews recur to such language and advocate such policies, how can anyone be accused of anti-Semitism for making the same arguments? [...] The mechanism through which an anti-Semitic accusation becomes respectable once a Jew endorses it is not limited to Israel–s new historians... Israel Shahak made the comparison between Israel and Nazism respectable – all the while describing Judaism according to the medieval canons of the blood libel.
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