News

Harvard Law School Makes Online Zero-L Course Free for All U.S. Law Schools Due to Coronavirus

News

For Kennedy School Fellows, Epstein-Linked Donors Present a Moral Dilemma

News

Tenants Grapple with High Rents and Local Turnover at Asana-Owned Properties

News

In April, Theft Surged as Cambridge Residents Stayed at Home

News

The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Dissidence in the Promised Land

An Israeli Professor Fights for Human Rights

By Marilyn L. Booth

"Persecution? You want a story about me? Very well, picture this. It is September 1974, and I am sitting in my room in Jerusalem. I turn on the radio and hear a discussion between two politicians. One is saying Israel Shahak should be executed, and the other is responding that as an Israeli, I shouldn't be. I assure you it didn't have a good effect on my neighbors' attitude towards me."

The speaker is relaxed and smiling. Over the past decade he has become accustomed to hearing his name coupled with invective--so accustomed that he regards the practice with amusement. However, by now he has become accepted as a fixture in his own milieu and the harsh denunciations have died down. He appears almost complacent about his role as a dissident in a fiercely patriotic and defensive society. Indeed, with a genial appearance once described as "snowman-like," he seems to have settled comfortably into a niche--comfortably, that is, until he begins to talk about his attitudes towards Israeli society.

The denial of rights to individuals has not only undermined Israel's security, Shahak claims, but has also blinded Israel's Jewish population as well as world Jewry.

While some Israelis regard this individual as a traitor, he continues to hold fast to the stated goal of preserving the state of Israel, although perhaps in a form unrecognizable to many of his countrymen.

The speaker is Israel Shahak, a professor of organic Chemistry at Hebrew University and Chairperson of the Israeli League for Human Rights. Since 1967, Shahak has become one of the Israeli government's most outspoken critics. Shahak is currently in the United States on a speaking tour that included a speech at MIT and a discussion session last week at Harvard. He says he has come to the United States to present a case for human rights--a salient issue these days.

Shahak advocates equal rights for all residents of Israel--whether they be Jewish, Christian or Muslim, Middle Eastern or European in background, Israeli citizens or residents of the occupied territories.

The Israeli League for Human Rights, which Shahak heads, is a non-political group focusing primarily on discrimination against Palestinians, both those living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and those who are Israeli citizens. In an interview last week, Shahak cited the fight against conditions of administrative imprisonment in the conquered territories as his current preoccupation. He is particularly concerned with the case of a West Bank resident, a physics teacher at the Beir Zeit college north of Jerusalem, who has been imprisoned 41 months now without a warrant or trial.

The axiom of equal rights for all people by which Shahak says he guides his organization has pushed him to the forefront of Israeli political dissidence. Although his group concentrates on individual human rights and thus has no strictly political aim, when Shahak discusses its concerns he touches on a wide range of social and economic ills in Israel. He regards these problems as largely the result of a repressive political and judicial system. The denial of rights to individuals has not only undermined Israel's security, Shahak claims, but has also "blinded" Israel's Jewish population, as well as world Jewry, to principles that are in fact integral to the Torah and to Jewish philosophical and theological writings throughout history.

The range of issues Shahak has tackled, through action or in print, include the confiscation of land and destruction of homes belonging to Palestinians, the alleged mistreatment of prisoners by the state, and press censorship against Palestinian poets and journalists--"during the Vietnam war, Vietnam could not be mentioned by Palestinian poets in occupied territories," he says. Shahak also protests what he describes as discrimination against a group of people whose official name he translates as "Jews who are not Jews"--that is, individuals who suddenly discover from official dictates that their mother or grandmother was not Jewish, causing them to lose certain rights in Israel.

The League for Human Rights, with other groups that loosely line up behind the "Israeli peace movement," are trying to combat the parallel legal systems which they claim characterize the Israeli machinery of justice. The civil law system is shadowed by a hierarchy of military courts and "Emergency Regulations" that have been in operation since the days of British rule in Palestine. The Israeli Public Prosecutor has the power to determine which set of laws will apply in a given case. As a result, many Palestinians in occupied territories have been arrested without warrents or show-cause stipulation under military law.

The League points out that just six years ago even Palestinians in Israel proper were subject to these regulations, which frequently limited their movement from town to town, inhibited their freedom of speech and made their property liable to search at any time and often allegedly for no apparent reason. In general, Shahak says, Israel's Arab citizens (as opposed to West Bank residents) appear much, better off than they were even two years ago. However, Shahak continued to fight what he calls the uneven, double system of justice that still exists today.

To explain just what he believes his enemy is, he compares it to a feature of the American legal system.

"You have in this country a law called the conspiracy law, which I think you will agree with me is a horrible law. It is applied very rarely, and when it is, it evokes great protest. In Israel we also have a horrible system of laws, but when it is applied it doesn't even draw much protest. But, just as in this country I think honest people should fight for the abolishment of the law of conspiracy, which is first unjust and then unnecessary, we in Israel should fight the military laws."

One point Shahak insists on making almost as often as he speaks or writes is the distinction between "principle" and "slogan." The former he describes as a belief under which an individual orders his life and a nation orders its social system. The latter is merely polemic.

Shahak seems qualified to emphasize that distinction, for his activities over the past several years demonstrate a consistent adherence to principle. Shahak immigrated to Palestine in 1945 from his native Warsaw, Poland. A survivor of the Nazi concentration camp in Bergen Belsen, he says that the historical experience of the Jews should have made them the most stringent adherents to institutionalized human rights. In fact, however, he believes that blind devotion to the Israeli state has obstructed devotion to principle.

Shahak contends that American Jews "deify" the state of Israel, thereby losing their ability to constructively criticize policies they would oppose in other situations. His writing on that subject is explosive. He asserted in a bulletin published by his group in 1972 that "the majority of fellow Jews... worship the material State of Israel like our ancestors worshipped the Golden Calf and Baal."

Although Shahak's activities certainly arouse controversy and anger in the Israeli political arena, he avoids political alignment with any group. Labeling himself as a fiscally conservative "anti-Marxist," he nevertheless works closely with many socialists and communists, including outspoken lawyer Felicia Langer, whose defense of the many Palestinians brought before Israeli tribunals has made her one of the most prominent members of the Israeli peace movement.

While the Israeli faction headed by spokesmen such as Shahak and Langer remains very visible and vocal, it is still a tiny minority. Shahak said he expects the group's impact to remain at its present low level for the next several years. He estimates that the active membership of his own group is no more than a few hundred, although many more would rally to his cause, Shahak adds, if matters really came to a head--in the event of another war, for example. He characterizes the current mood in Israel as one of apathy that has "put the peace movement as a whole into retreat for two years now, as the elections have shown."

Israel's internal reaction against the relaxation of political demands and social structures comes at a time when President Carter's emphasis on human rights and his pressure on the Israeli government to soften its line vis-a-vis the Palestinians has focused greater attention than ever before on specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issue of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, allegations of torture raised against the Israeli military authorities by Palestinians and Red Cross workers, and louder murmurs of distrust among Third World states due to Israel's friendship with South Africa, are all facets of this new attention.

In such a context, Shahak's actions seem calculated to make more enemies than ever, but he says the mood of apathy on the one hand, and the partial improvement in the human rights situation within Israel on the other, has lessened the harassment of him personally and has stopped the "persecution" of his group. Yet according to Shahak, this change in atmosphere is not due to a greater awareness among the Israeli people of the linkage of human rights to Israel's survival--an issue the professor regards as crucial.

He places a large share of the blame for this attitude on the American government and people. Continued support of the U.S. administration for "the Israeli prime minister, whoever he is," weakens the drive for peace and human rights as it fills the Israeli trade gap of $3.5 billion per year, Shahak said.

Shahak is anything but optimistic about the chances for a political solution in the near future. He anticipates war within the next year and paints a bleak scenario.

"In the next war there are only two possibilities. One is a victory a la [Israeli Prime Minister Manahem] Begin, which means smashing the armies of the confrontation states, conquering Jordan and dismembering Syria and Lebanon into several small states which will be ruled with the help of minorities. In such a situation the oil states will become very afraid and they will ask the United States to save them. The United States will rush--by invitation--to save Kuwait and perhaps other places, and once you 'save' them you will continue to 'save' them for a long time," he predicted.

"The second alternative is a repetition of the Day of Atonement war, something inconclusive after which Israel without Begin will come to the United States on their knees and ask for the Rogers Plan," Shahak said. "So I think the United States cannot lose either way--it also in the long run cannot win. But the lone power in the Middle East is the U.S. and everyone knows it."

Shahak speaks very matter-of-factly about what he believes are the intentions of his own government. He describes Menahem Begin as a man who believes in war. "He is honest to his principles and he is committed to the principle that Jordan is a part of the land of Israel and should be made a part of the Jewish state. Not only the PLO has a covenant--the Herut [Begin's party] has also had a covenant since 1948," Shahak said, which includes the notion that both sides of the Jordan belong by right to Israel.

At the same time that he scores the Israeli government, however, Shahak has some strong criticism to level at the Palestinians. He is especially critical of the PLO's use of the slogan "democratic secular state," for Shahak claims the Palestinians have never defined or explained the concept in print to his satisfaction.

Shahak says he is "an Israeli Jew working in his community, and my political duty is to try to make my community understand the Palestinian demands. I am continually faced by the question of what Palestinians mean by the word 'secular'--since it has not been explained. If not followed by clarification, the word 'secular' in the world-famous slogan not only does not evoke understanding inside this community--it evokes contempt."

Shahak views the upswing in "religious fanaticism," among both Muslims in the Arab nations and the Jews in Israel, with dismay. He is skeptical of just what "secularism" is taken to mean. He recalls a PLO custom in pre-civil-war Labanon. When a Palestinian fighter died in combat, his funeral procession would be led by a Muslim mufti [religious leader] and a Christian priest walking hand in hand. "This doesn't mean secularity," Shahak concludes with a laugh. "'Secular' means, for people like me, putting the clergy in their place."

Shahak's enemies have accused him at various times of being a demagogue, a madman and a traitor. Amnon Rubenstein, dean of Tel Aviv University Law School, wrote in Haaretz, a major Israeli daily, in 1974 that, "Many of us rightly regard his activities... as a mental perversion, something which is so utterly disgusting that it does not even deserve comment." Rubenstein went on to say that although he would not put Shahak on trial for fear of making him a martyr, "I have no doubt that there is much evidence--at least prima facie -- that justifies bringing Shahak to trial on a charge of treason."

Even if Shahal is a demagogue, his speech-making is only an accompaniment to his actions. After his lecture tour ends in mid-October, Shahak will return to his teaching and the peace movement in Israel. He says he believes that very little can be accomplished outside one's own country. He illustrates his point by noting that the Soviet Union expels its dissidents.

Perhaps Shahak's unruly teddy-bear appearance belies his public identity as a "dangerous" critic of the Israeli status quo; perhaps his thick accent and inattention to English syntax when speaking camouflages the eloquence of his pleas for human rights. Although he might appear less at home in a law court or a police detention center than in the chemistry lab (where the Israeli government, no doubt, fervently wishes he would remain), Israel Shahak's championing of human rights gives him the composure of someone who is doing what he believes in--and he directs advice to listeners from that perspective.

"There is much evidence--at least prima facie--that justifies bringing Shahak to trial on a charge of treason."--Amnon Rubenstein, 1974.

To Americans, he says, "As an American you will be drawn into the situation, sucked into the vortex, whether you want it or not. You will be faced with it sooner or later. The more you as Americans--both personally and collectively-- withdraw into silence, the more the problem will catch you. I advise you to try to defend both the Jews in the Soviet Union and the Palestinians in occupied territories."

To his own countrymen he gives another warning--this from a bulletin written in 1972, but similar to what he is still saying:

"It pains me very much that such a great part of my people are in what I can only describe as a state of apostasy. Instead of worshipping God and only God, instead of following and being true to the idea of Justice... they are not only doing the reverse, not only taking refuge in the most crude tribalism and worship of force, but literally cutting the branch on which they are sitting, I say to them: By your hypocrisy and double-thinking, by your condoning and supporting racism and oppression, you are bringing a calamity on your own heads. Everything that is done to Palestinian-Arabs, with your encouragement and support today, will be done to yourselves tomorrow."

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags