After graduating from high school, Shahak served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in an elite regiment. After completing service with the IDF, he attended Hebrew University where he received his doctorate in chemistry. He became an assistant to the head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission. In 1961, he left Israel for the United States to study as a postdoctoral student at Stanford University. He returned two years later to become a teacher and researcher in chemistry at Hebrew University, where he remained until his retirement in 1990.
After the 1967 Six-Day War Shahak became critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, and a supporter of a Palestinian state, and wrote many articles and several books outlining his views of Israeli society and Judaism.
'His home on Bartenura Street in Jerusalem was a library of information about the human rights of the oppressed. The families of prisoners, the staff of closed and censored publications, the victims of eviction and confiscation--none were ever turned away. I have met influential "civil society" Palestinians alive today who were protected as students when Israel was a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University; from him they learned never to generalize about Jews. And they respected him not just for his consistent stand against discrimination but also because--he never condescended to them. He detested nationalism and religion and made no secret of his contempt for the grasping Arafat entourage. But, as he once put it to me, "I will now only meet with Palestinian spokesmen when we are out of the country. I have some severe criticisms to present to them. But I cannot do this while they are living under occupation and I can 'visit' them as a privileged citizen." This apparently small point of ethical etiquette contains almost the whole dimension of what is missing from our present discourse: the element of elementary dignity and genuine mutual recognition.'
He began publishing translations of the Hebrew press into English, alongside his own commentaries, arguing that Western activists needed better knowledge about conditions in Israel, and that the English-language editions of Hebrew newspapers were being intentionally distorted for Western audiences. This practice, along with writing letters to the editor, remained staples of his work for decades.
He became a well-known activist in international circles, co-authoring papers and giving joint speaking engagements with American activist Noam Chomsky, and winning plaudits from Christopher Hitchens and Edward Said.
Reviewer Sheldon Richman explains that for Shahak, Zionism was both a reflection of, and capitulation to, European anti-Semitism, 'since it, like the anti-Semites, holds that Jews are everywhere aliens who would best be isolated from the rest of the world.'
In 1994 he published Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, in 1997 he published Open Secrets: Israel's Nuclear and Foreign Policies, and in 1999 he published Jewish Fundamentalism In Israel, co-authored with Norton Mezvinsky. In the introduction to the last book, Mezvinsky and Shahak explained that, 'We realize that by criticizing Jewish fundamentalism we are criticizing a part of the past that we love. We wish that members of every human grouping would criticize their own past, even before criticizing others'.
In 1966, Immanuel Jakobovits, who was later appointed Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, disputed the veracity of Shahak's story, and asserted that Shahak had subsequently been forced to admit that he had fabricated the incident (according to Jackobovits, "in true Protocols style") in order to support his thesis. Jakobovits also cites a lengthy responsum by Isser Yehuda Unterman, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel at the time, who stated that, "the Sabbath must be violated to save non-Jewish life no less than Jewish lives."
Jakobovits gives two possible rationales for this ruling; first, that "Even biblical violations of the Sabbath are warranted for non-Jews 'on account of enmity', i.e., if the refusal to render such aid may imperil Jews," and second, that the Rabbis may have "deliberately introduced...a purely ethical counter-indication to laws which might otherwise be conducive to immoral results." He also notes that, as long ago as the 13th Century, "R. Menachem Meiri had stated that the prohibition to desecrate the Sabbath for the sake of Gentiles applied only to 'the ancient heathens ... because they professed no religion at all, nor did they acknowledge their duty to human society.'"
Shahak repeated his account in the opening chapter of his 1994 book, Jewish History, Jewish Religion, stating that "Neither the Israeli, nor the diaspora, rabbinical authorities ever reversed their ruling that a Jew should not violate the Sabbath in order to save the life of a Gentile. They added much sanctimonious twaddle to the effect that if the consequence of such an act puts Jews in danger, the violation of the Sabbath is permitted, for their sake." Reviewing the book, this claim, and the clamor surrounding it in the Jewish press, Werner Cohn stated that "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."
Reviewing Shahak's account after Shahak's death, Rabbi Gil Student questions whether there was any actual rationale for the alleged actions in the first place, stating: "it is certainly difficult to understand exactly what prohibition is involved in allowing someone else to use one's telephone on Shabbat." Student criticized Shahak's claim that Judaism was racist for denying medical treatment to gentiles on the Shabbath on three separate grounds:
In 1994 Shahak published Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight Of Three Thousand Years. In it he proposes that most nations' histories are initially ethnocentric. However they then evolve through a period of critical self-analysis to incorporate other perspectives. Jewish emancipation by the Enlightenment was a dual liberation, from both Christian anti-Semitism and a 'ghetto priesthood' with its 'imposed scriptural control'. But, he argued, the history of Judaism itself had not yet been the full beneficiary of modern critical perspectives.
Shahak alleges that Talmudic Judaism is a totalitarian religion where rabbinical law governs every aspect of Jewish behaviour. Shahak's approach to the subject draws on both Karl Popper's concept of a closed society, his analysis of totalitarian thought-patterns in Plato's thought, and also on Moses Hadas's suggestion of a Platonic influence on rabbinical thought. He views Jewish chauvinism and religious fanaticism as grounded in this theological tradition. For Shahak, the religious roots of this 'Jewish ideology' had two important consequences:
Shahak also analyses the period from the beginning of the last millennium (CE) to the advent of the modern state when most Jews lived under rabbinical law in segregated communities. These communities, writes Shahak, were under the patronage of non-Jewish nobles who typically used them to enforce their authority on a non-Jewish peasant class. Rebellions by such peasants in which all feudal agents were attacked, Shahak argues, have wrongly been perceived as anti-Jewish persecutions. Consequently, he calls for significant parts of Jewish history to be re-evaluated from a universal perspective.
Shahak also claims that Zionism is an attempt to re-establish a closed Jewish community and that this has resulted in discrimination against non-Jews. He concludes the book by stating, 'Although the struggle against antisemitism (and of all other forms of racism) should never cease, the struggle against Jewish chauvinism and exclusivism, which must include a critique of classical Judaism, is now of equal or greater importance'.
The work was praised by Gore Vidal and Edward Said, both of whom wrote introductions to the book at various times. Robert Fisk wrote that his 'examination of Jewish religious fundamentalism' was "invaluable":
[Shahak] concludes that "there can no longer be any doubt that the most horrifying acts of oppression in the West Bank are motivated by Jewish religious fanaticism." He quotes from an official exhortation to religious Jewish soldiers about Gentiles, published by the Israeli army's Central Region Command in which the chief chaplain writes: "When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah (the legal system of classical Judaism) they may and even should be killed ... In no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilised ... In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good.
Some authors have described specific claims in Jewish History, Jewish Religion as fabrications, and have accused Shahak of making "grotesque charges".
After his death, Shahak received tributes from a number of sources. His co-author Norton Mezvinsky stated he was "a rare intellectual giant and a superior humanist", and Edward Said described him as "a very brave man who should be honored for his services to humanity. Christopher Hitchens, who considered Shahak a "dear friend and comrade", said he was a "a brilliant and devoted student of the archaeology of Jerusalem and Palestine", and that "during his chairmanship of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, [he] set a personal example that would be very difficult to emulate." On Antiwar.com Alexander Cockburn described him as a "tireless translator and erudite footnoter" and "a singular man, an original", while Allen C. Brownfield writing in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, said he had a "genuinely prophetic Jewish voice, one which ardently advocated democracy and human rights. In his obituary in The Guardian Elfi Pallis described him as "an old-fashioned liberal", and Michel Warschawski stated that he was "above all one of the last philosophers of the 18th century school of enlightenment, rationalism, and liberalism, in the American meaning of the concept.
Others accused Shahak of fabricating incidents, "blaming the victim", distorting the normative meaning of Jewish texts, and misrepresenting Jewish belief and law. According to Paul Bogdanor, Shahak "regaled his audience with a stream of outrageous libels, ludicrous fabrications, and transparent hoaxes. As each successive allegation was exposed and discredited, he would simply proceed to a new invention.
Shahak's works also found a receptive audience among neo-Nazis, antisemites and Holocaust deniers, and his articles and the full texts of his works can be found on websites such as Radio Islam, Bible Believers, Jew Watch, CODOH, and "Historical Review Press". David Duke mourned Shahak, stating he had exposed "numerous examples of hateful Judaic laws... that permit Jews to cheat, to steal, to rob, to kill, to rape, to lie, even to enslave Christians, and dedicated his book Jewish Supremacism to him.
In the introduction to his 2002 edition of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, Shahak's co-author Norton Mezvinsky wrote that antisemites and antisemitic groups "utilize unduly Shahak's criticisms in trying to justify their hatred of Jews. They have continued to do this either by citing and/or using out-of-context some of Shahak's points."
In 1995 Werner Cohn wrote of Shahak:
Without question, he is the world's most conspicuous Jewish antisemite... Like the Nazis before him, Shahak specialized in defaming the Talmud. In fact, he has made it his life's work to popularize the anti-Talmud ruminations of the 18th century German antisemite, Johann Eisenmenger.
Emanuele Ottolenghi argues that Jews like Shahak act as enablers for antisemites, stating that their rhetoric plays a "crucial role... in excusing, condoning, and — in effect — abetting anti-Semitism." In his view:
Anti-Semites rely on Jews to confirm their prejudice: If Jews recur to such language and advocate such policies, how can anyone be accused of anti-Semitism for making the same arguments? [...] The mechanism through which an anti-Semitic accusation becomes respectable once a Jew endorses it is not limited to Israel’s new historians... Israel Shahak made the comparison between Israel and Nazism respectable — all the while describing Judaism according to the medieval canons of the blood libel.
Collections of articles: