Dissidence in the Promised Land

An Israeli Professor Fights for Human Rights

"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.

Recommended Articles