Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn

July 13, 2001

Remembering Israel Shahak

Whenever people start complaining about the scandalously biased press coverage of Israel's conduct towards Palestinians, by way of cheering them up, I remind them that 20 years ago the coverage was even worse.

Back then, remember, reviewers gave a respectful welcome to Joan Peters' book From Times Immemorial, which purported to argue that Palestinians had no claims on the land of Canaan, and that they had snuck into Israel from Saudi Arabia in comparatively recent times. The New York Times lavished praise on this nonsense which was duly exposed as fraudulent from start to finish. Back then, newspapers gave similarly polite coverage to prime minister Golda Meir's pronouncement that there were no such people as Palestinians. To write, as I often did, about Palestinians' just claims, as represented by the PLO, was to invite torrents of abuse. In New York particularly it was virtually impossible to have a rational political discussion on the topic.

If today the coverage is fractionally more honest, credit should go in part to a quirky, cantankerous professor of organic chemistry, born in a cultivated Jewish family in Warsaw, who died last week in his apartment in Jerusalem, his body worn out at the early age of 68, thanks in no small measure to the two years he spent as a boy in the German concentration camp at Bergen Belsen.

Year after year those on Shahak's mailing list would get, every few weeks, a package containing six or so single-space typewritten foolscap pages of his translations from the Hebrew-language press in Israel, studded with his own acerbic and often eruditely amusing comments. Each package would usually address a theme, such as housing demolitions of Palestinians by the Israelis, or corruption in the IDF and Mossad.

To read them was not only to learn facts entirely inaccessible in any English-language publication, but also to realize that in Hebrew-language newspapers such as Ha'aretz and Yediot Ahronot there were honorable reporters and editors without any qualms about writing and publishing material extraordinarily discreditable to Israel's "official truths," as diligently recycled by the western press corps in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Of course, these journalists could have hired translators or even learned Hebrew, but they didn't. They relied on the Jerusalem Post which, precisely because it was accessible in English, was wholly dedicated to "official truths."

I first met Shahak in 1980 in New York. I'd been reading his communiqués and conveying their import as best I could to an American audience, and wasn't quite sure what sort of person this tireless translator and erudite footnoter would turn out to be.

He was on the short side and looked older than the 47 years he carried at that time. With accented English, he leapt from the travails of Palestinian farmers to learned exposition of the famous affair of Sabbatai Sevi, the mystical Messiah who transfixed seventeenth-century Jewry. In our very first conversation he drew a line between the credulity of Sevi's followers and the Gush Emunim or "block of the faithful" who organized settlers on the West Bank.

He was a singular man, an original. His loathing of hypocrisy rendered social democracy unappetizing to him. Politically he always seemed to me to be a nineteenth-century liberal in the best sense of the term. He was above all a rationalist, who had reviewed the evidence for God's existence at the age of 13 and found it wanting. This was a year after he had been freed from Bergen Belsen and was deciding to migrate to the Palestine of the British Mandate. Just over 20 years later, after the Six Day war he took an unsparing look at Israel's brutal treatment of Palestinians and decided that Israel was not a democracy and that the system of racist oppression bore many elements that were reminiscent of Nazism. "Nazi-like" was a much used epithet in Shahak's notations, and it incensed many. In 1968 he began, as he put it, "to act."

Back at the start of the 1980s the image of Israel as a rational exercise in social democracy flourished mightily and thus it was all the more startling to hear Shahak's expositions of the racist, mystical strains in Israel's religio-political culture.

"This mysticism," he told me, "is extremely dangerous. If you accept religiously the validity of 16th and 17th century mysticism, then you have the basis for their conclusions. It has parallels to Christian fundamentalism. If you accept the idea that Jonathan Edwards was right in the 17th century, many things that Jerry Falwell says now follow. In normal Judaism the messiah will redeem Israel; the Jewish people will conquer the land of Israel, build the temple and that is all. There will be a Jewish state and the world will go on as before. In Jewish mysticism the coming of the messiah is a cosmic event. The messiah redeems the fall of Adam and Eve. The world is full of the power of Satan – I don't have to give you the parallels – and Satan prevents cosmic salvation. It will be the messiah, with the help of mystic contemplation of right-thinking Jews, who will redeem the whole world. No sacrifice is too great to achieve this goal." He paused. "The right-wing religious fanatics compose the most dangerous group, socially and politically, that has existed in the entire history of Israel."

Looking back at my record of that first session with Shahak, I see that our conversation started with a typical Shahakian comparison: "It would be a good thing, I think, for Americans to ask themselves once a year whether the USA was a democracy before 1865; that is, before the constitutional abolition of slavery. The situation of the state of Israel and of the territories occupied by it is quite analogous. Just as the situation of the occupied territories resembles that of the pre-1865 South, so the situation inside the state of Israel resembles that of many states of the USA some 50 or 60 years ago when racism was popular, and when the really influential Ku Klux Klan made and unmade politicians, just as Gush Emunim now does in Israel."

Shahak was full of unexpected learning. He delighted in ironies. Though they had virtually no imperial tradition, the Danes, he told me, had imposed in their tiny colony of St. Croix one of the most ferocious labor codes in history. A moment later he was discoursing on a strange international tribunal of judges that toured through the Congo in full ceremonial judicial regalia in the early twentieth century, interviewing people about the horrors of their subjugation by King Leopold. Then he embarked on a discourse on Jewish jokes, a topic on which he claimed to be a great authority. We agreed that I should come to Israel and he would show me around, outlining his views on Jewish jokes as he did so. Alas, I never found time to take him up on the offer.

What effects did Shahak's unsparing explications of the situation in Israel have on public opinion? I would say, over the years, that he exercised great influence, ripples from his bulletins and, later, from his books, spreading slowly, often imperceptibly out through the pond. He didn't always get things right. For years he prophesied a war between Israel and Syria that never came. He could be volcanic in his disputes. He was a great man, a great conscience, because he understood not only the broad outlines and historical origins of systems of oppression and racism, he understood the sting of these oppressions and racisms in all their pettiest details, like a military bureaucrat in the Territories bullying a Palestinian tomato farmer because his permit for sale was torn.

"Here is a practical proposal to you," he said to me at the end of our first meeting. "Discuss the basic facts of the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel as much as you can, going right down to the basics of everyday racism. Point out the obvious contradiction between what the majority of American Jews demand for themselves in the USA and what they defend in Israel. Do not be intimidated in the struggle against racism and for human dignity, equality and freedom by any demagoguery about peace and democracy, if they are used in the cause of discrimination, and perhaps the words of the prophet (Amos, 5.15) will come true. ‘Hate the evil and love the good and establish judgment in the gate, it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.'"

Copyright © 2001 Alexander Cockburn

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Text-only printable version of this article

Alexander Cockburn, one of America's best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. An Oxford graduate, he was an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Statesman, before becoming a permanent resident of the United States in 1973. Cockburn wrote on the press and politics for the Village Voice, and, all through the 1980s, he was a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He co-edits, with Jeffrey St. Clair, the lively Counterpunch newsletter, and is the author of several books, including Corruptions of Empire and, most recently, Al Gore: A User's Manual. His exclusive column appears fortnightly on Antiwar.com.

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