on 15 January 2012
This is an interesting book on a very neglected subject.
If you want to understand the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict read this book.
Shahak charts the course of Jewish identity over history, and it makes a fascinating read.
The Foreward has been written anew for each edition of the book which was first published in 1994.
The original one is by Gore Vidal who is full of praise for the book and who describes Shahak as being 'The latest, if not the last, great prophet'
He is certainly a very interesting man, and this is a very interesting read.
The other 'Forewards', in order, are written by Edward Said, Norton Mezvinsky, and latterly Ilan Pappe, and all are extremely impressed with the book, especially Said, and Pappe. It is not a long book, but it is very enlightening.
Israel Shahak explains how ridiculous is the notion that 'zionism' and 'Jewish' are quite separate entities.
They are inextricably intertwined.
The roots of zionist thought and 'exclusivity' are directly drawn overwhelmingly from Babylonian Talmudic writings, and the very basis of the zionist dream of creating their 'Jewish state' in Palestine is justified by and originates from, schools of thought at the very heart of Orthodox Classical Judaism.
Though Israel claims to be a 'secular' state (a state having no religious or spiritual basis), the continued expansion of their borders and the brutal suppression of anyone seen as the enemy (including unarmed civilians) is routinely justified by reference to Talmudic writings, and usually (rather paradoxically) by' Jewish' people who claim to be areligious !
Religious ideals also drive so much Israeli military policy.
Confused ? So am I !
What is also surprising is just how multiplicitous and various has been the question of 'Jewish identity' over history.
Another important point to emerge very clearly from this book is that, to assume a 'common' Judeo-Christian heritage is a serious mistake.
The two are actually quite at odds with one another,
Yes, Jesus was born a Jew, BUT he was a jew who renounced his Judaism and proceeded to set up a whole new faith; namely Christianity.
Judaism and Christianity are actually like chalk and cheese in many ways - they are not 'brothers in arms' as seems to be so often assumed [certainly on the Christian side] nowadays
Another aspect I find absolutely fascinating is the explanation of the very controlling, totalitarian nature of the rabbinical hierarchy throughout Jewish history.
Controlling of their own Jewish community.
Today this fixation with 'iron control' has perhaps been extended to the rest of us ? (the 'mainstream' News Media, ADL, AIPAC etc.,)
It seems that over history, many of the laws that 'opened up' freedoms and liberty for the Jewish community actually were imposed by those in charge of wider society (usually Christian) who although they often didn't much like what the Orthodox Jewish religion stood for, actually offered them as individuals more freedoms than did their own elders, who also as soon as they got the chance, would usually do all in their power to shut the new found freedoms right back down again.
This is not just Shahak's opinion, he gives clear examples to back up any of his claims, so anyone who disagrees with him can always do their own research on the relevant texts and periods in history, and then challenge what he says.
It is perhaps instructive that no-one seems to have actually done this.
I wonder why not considering the repressive climate that usually surrounds this subject ?
The obvious conclusion is that what Shahak is saying is actually so.
The book is very well put together I must say, rendering what could very easily become a very deep complex subject into a thoroughly readable informative text.
He was not surprisingly, despised by the authorities in Israel during his lifetime whilst simultaneously admired by Jewish intellectuals like Gore Vidal.
The 'Right' in Israel (and Orthodox Jewry) were surely very glad to see the back of the little man with the wild hairstyle with his death in 2001.
I think secular Jewish people should be very proud of him because he was a lovely guy, a real humanist.
Someone who, having spent part of his childhood in the Belsen Concentration Camp, lamented the increasing slide toward totalitarianism of the newly formed Israeli state, and it's increasingly brutal repression of the indigenous Palestinian people, whom they 'officially' regard as 'inferior'.
Shahak sees the roots of all this in Orthodox Jewish theology.
In other words a 'logical development' rather than a symptom of an honourable project that has simply 'gone wrong'.
Israel Shahak points to the fact that there are tracts at the very heart of Talmudic theology that openly, consistently and continuously claim that Jewish people are a higher form of life than non-Jews whom it usually describes as being 'unclean' or no better than beasts.
Classical Jewish theology also promotes a view that continuously espouses 'hatred of the stranger'.
Shahak cross-references and identifies the relevant texts and gives numerous examples.
It is important to make the observation that these examples are not drawn from obscure outdated Jewish texts irrelevant to the modern day, they lay at the heart of Classical Jewish Theology nowadays - that is why Shahak is so concerned and convinced that they need to be challenged along with other forms of racism and xenophobia.
For example, Maimonides in his 'Guide to the Perplexed', discusses (Book III, Chapter 51) how various sections of humanity can attain the supreme religious value, the true worship of God. However, he explains that certain categories are incapable of even approaching this, among them he lists 'Blacks', describing them as having the nature of 'mute animals', and 'not being on the level of human beings'. They are 'below a man' says Maimonides, but 'above a monkey'.
How's that for racism ?
American (English) translations of Maimonides' Guide (written in Hebrew) apparently make use of the untranslated word 'Kushites' instead of directly translating the word 'Kushim' (Hebrew for 'Blacks') and so a reader with no knowledge of Hebrew is none the wiser.
The passage is, however still there, it hasn't been challenged or omitted by present day Jewish scholars. Why not ?
This sort of stuff is common throughout Classical Jewish theology so it seems, but much of the time, rather than such a specific group it is just 'anyone' who isn't Jewish (Goyim) that are on the receiving end of such invective.
Shahak goes on to point out that Jewish people are expected to adhere to this nonsense, and often in history as a community, suffered severe penalties if they did not adhere to the ridiculous rules and obligations that stemmed from it.
I was intrigued that, again in history, whilst Christians were not allowed by dint of their faith to lend money and charge interest (Usury), Jewish people were also under their own rules, not allowed to do so but only to other Jews, the prohibition did not apply when they were dealing with non-Jews.
This 'double standard' in terms of behaviour towards Jews and non-Jews covers a very wide spectrum of topics within Classical Judaism and even includes the subject of 'murder'. The murder of a Jew is considered the most heinous offence meriting sanctions beyond that covered by normal administrative justice, however a Jew who murders a gentile is only guilty of what Talmudic laws refer to as a sin against 'a law of Heaven' not punishable by a court; and to cause the death of a Gentile indirectly is no sin at all.
(the roots of the 'double-dealing' stereotype perhaps ?)
It seems that in Europe over the centuries,the Jewish community often found themselves placed in society somewhere between the people with the real power and influence, and the poor (the peasants)
Consequently, Jewish people often were the people who had the task of enforcing the will of the rich and powerful on the poor (rather like the Asian communities in many African countries in more modern times), and according to Shahak, though they did suffer hostility and pogroms from time to time, were rarely as badly treated as the peasants themselves.
Shahak also contends that occupying this 'position' in society goes a long way toward explaining much of the historical periodic hostility they faced as a community, especially when considered alongside the ridiculous claim of 'exclusiveness' and 'superiority' to the rest of us.
I find it hard to believe that an intelligent person could actually believe that he/ she is innately superior simply by dint of the ethnic group he/ she belongs to, but there we are. 'There's nowt so queer as folk' as the old adage tells us.
He also explains that 'modern anti-semitism' as personified by the nazi era was a completely new phenomenon with no historical parallel, contrary to the assertion of most modern Jewish commentators.
Shahak explains that during historic 'Jewish pogroms', individual Jews could usually save themselves by converting to Christianity whereas converting to Christianity under the nazis was not an option, the nazi slogan was 'Once a Jew, always a Jew'.
This was quite unlike any persecution in history says Shahak, and as always he cites clear evidence to back his claim.
Shahak is taking issue with many central tenets of Classical Judaism which he sees as causing much of the historic hostility faced by Jewish communities and which he also sees as laying at the heart of modern day Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.
I wish more people would read it.
I found it to be a compelling read, very clear and precise. A real eye opener.
Israel Shahak denounces 'real' anti-semitism but he also denounces (just as loudly) 'Jewish chauvinism and exclusiveness' (which he sees as being reverse sides of the same coin and which he sees as going largely unchallenged in modern times) and calls for a re-appraisal of Classical Jewish theology.
I can only agree.
I am surprised the modern day 'Jewish Lobby' haven't attempted to have this book banned or burnt (which is something they also seem to have had quite a disposition for doing in the past)
I believe it to be a very enlightening book designed to show just what a nonsense the whole subject of 'Jewish exclusiveness' and 'chosenness' actually is, and how at many points in history, the Jewish communities themselves have eventually suffered the most from this divisive, sectarian nonsense.
In the case of Israel and the 'gutter zionists', there clearly is a very dark side to all of this for non-Jews who get in the way.
If you want an insight into the reality of a 'chosen' people, or if you simply want to understand Israeli policy, buy this book.