Israel Horizons, vol. 42, no. 3 of 4 (sic), Autumn 1994, pp. 28-9. copyright 1994 by Werner Cohn
Israel Shahak is a retired Israeli teacher of chemistry who travels the world to lecture on the evils of Zionism and the Jewish religion. His claims and opinions are so bizarre that, by themselves, they could not justify paying any attention to this book. But the work comes to us with an urgent recommendation from Noam Chomsky on its cover and with an essay by Gore Vidal as a foreword. Bearing this double cachet, the book will undoubtedly find its way to the shelves of bookstores and, at least in some limited way, to the attention of people on the Left.
Dr. Shahak says that he wants Jews to change their ways and to stop the atrocities associated with Zionism and Orthodox Jewish religion. As a first step, he wants us to face the terrible crimes that were committed by of our ancestors. One way of doing this, he says (pp. 72-3), is to develop a positive attitude toward "popular [his emphasis] anti-Jewish manifestations of the past." His prime example are the Chmielnicki massacres of 17th century Ukraine, which he wants us to celebrate as a progressive uprising:
Do decent English historians, 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.
It is indeed.
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..."
I did take the trouble to question my orthodox rabbi nephew to find what might be behind such tall tales. He had no clue. If orthodox Jews were actually taught such hateful things, surely someone would have heard. Whom is Dr. Shahak kidding ?
Orthodox Jews, according to Shahak, frequently kill those whose views they do not like. "For example, in the late 1830's 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..." Shahak gives neither the name of the town nor the year of this alleged killing. We are asked to take this tale on his say-so alone (p. 17).
In another story he gives enough detail to find a reference to the incident in the Encyclopaedia Judaica. It seems that a liberal rabbi and his family were poisoned in Lemberg (now Lvov) in 1848. According to the EJ, some orthodox fanatics were suspected of the crime. Where the EJ reports an unsolved case, which may indeed have been due to food poisoning, Shahak knows precisely who the murderers were: "the leaders of the Jewish community." How does he know this ? He won't say. This is the very stuff of the paranoid approach to historiography. (P. 17)
One of Shahak's charges has been taken very seriously. Some thirty years ago Shahak reported to the press that he had personally witnessed the following incident: an orthodox Jew saw an injured non-Jew on the Sabbath. To save the man's life, it was necessary to call an ambulance. The Jew had the phone handy but would not allow a violation of the sabbath, i.e. use of the phone, because the injured was a non-Jew. In Shahak's version, with which he begins this book, the Jew here followed the ruling the of orthodox rabbinate. The story was taken up by Ha-Arets in Israel, then by the Jewish Chronicle in London and other publications, all joining in a clamor against the barbaric orthodox. (Dr. Shahak does not seem to notice that this clamor, which he duly notes, is in itself a refutation of his charge that current Jewish life is dominated by orthodox inhumanity).
Dr. Shahak, whose nose is longer than Pinocchio's in any case, does not tell us the whole story of the incident. In the Summer 1966 issue of Tradition, an orthodox Jewish journal, we have the much more credible account by Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits (later the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth). First of all, according to Rabbi Jakobovits, and contrary to Shahak's allegation, the rabbinate had ruled clearly that not only can the Sabbath be violated under such circumstances, but such violation would be a religious duty, to save a non-Jewish life no less than a Jewish life. Moreover, we also learn that Dr. Shahak, when challenged to produce his "orthodox Jew," was forced to admit that this Jew did not exist.
For the text of Lord Jakobovits's paper, please click on http://www.edah.org/backend/document/jakobovits1.html
Much of Shahak's book, and all of his Chapter 5, are given to the allegation that the Talmud requires or permits Jews to commit crimes, including murder, against non-Jews. Here Shahak follows an old anti-Semitic tradition that began with the 1700 work Entdecktes Judenthum (Judaism Revealed) by Johann Eisenmenger.
There are gravely offensive passages in the Talmud. (And there are, as we know from our most recent history, some Jewish fringe groups who interpret traditional Jewish writings in a hateful, xenophobic manner.) Eisenmenger did not distort the Talmud, but he interpreted it maliciously. There are many mutually contradictory passages in the Talmud, and a great deal depends on methods of interpretation. The rabbis have never allowed the immoral Talmudic interpretations which Eisenmenger and his followers attribute to Judaism. Moreover, the Talmud is not unique in containing offensive material. As many scholars have pointed out, a hostile commentator could easily produce a Christianity Revealed to provide a basis for a (similarly unjustified) anti-Christian campaign. The problem of hostile Talmud interpretation is very thoroughly discussed in the first chapter of the scholarly work by Jacob Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction. Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933. Those sufficiently interested in this area to read Shahak should also take a look at Katz.
I was recently curious to learn how Talmudic teachings concerning non-Jews are actually transmitted to our generation of Jews. The Encyclopedia Talmudica, founded by Rabbi Meyer Berlin (Bar-Ilan), has a full discussion (volume 1, pp. 274-5). This source teaches that non-Jews are to be loved in the same manner as Jews; in particular, robbing a non-Jew is the same as robbing a Jew; the non-Jewish sick are to be visited just as the Jewish sick; and so forth. All this is in very direct contradiction to the assertions by Dr. Shahak, who tells us, over and over, that all religious Jews teach hatred (and worse) of non-Jews.
With very little trouble, anyone can learn for himself that the wild accusations by Israel Shahak have no foundations whatever. And this brings us back to Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal. Chomsky's contribution to this work is confined to two sentences, which are worth citing: "Shahak is an outstanding scholar, with remarkable insight and depth of knowledge. His work is informed and penetrating, a contribution of great value."
For his part, Gore Vidal tells us that an (unnamed) "American Zionist" brought Harry Truman two million dollars in cash in 1948 and that as a result US recognition of Israel went through very fast. Nevertheless, says Vidal, he himself is not an anti-Semite. Somewhat later, he finds that Shahak is particularly "...a joy to read on the great Gentile-hating Dr. Maimonides."
The association of these men with this little booklet was meant to lend credence to Dr. Shahak. I think that, on the contrary, it brings dishonor -- further dishonor -- to Chomsky and Vidal.
N.B. The French edition of Shahak's book is published by the neo-Nazi publishing house La Vieille Taupe of Paris. This edition, like the English, carries Gore Vidal's introduction. But while it lacks the endorsement of Noam Chomsky, it features a particularly egregious "avant propos" by Edward Said of Columbia University. For details, see my webpage "What Edward Said Knows."
PS (June 2001): It appears that there is an English edition of the Shahak book that also contains the Said introduction. The edition of Shahak's book advertised by amazon.com says, on its cover, that it has a foreword by Said. WC
Noam Chomsky's writings on Israel and Jews
Chomsky's Links to the neo-Nazis: Some documents
Chomsky Update: 2001
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