Summer 1989 Number 29


 

INTERVIEW WITH ISRAEL SHAHAK

 

Dr. Shahak is professor of Chemistry at Hebrew University and Chairperson of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights. He emigrated to Israel after surviving the siege of the Warsaw ghetto and Nazi concentration camps. This interview was conducted by Anne Joyce, editor of American-Arab Affairs, in Washington, D.C., on June 12, 1989.

 

 

 


AAA: You have been a relentless critic of Zionism and Israeli policy. Would you out­line how this attitude developed.

 

SHAHAK: This came in two stages. At first I was a convinced Zionist by upbringing and a follower of Ben Gurion. I changed very rapidly in 1956, during the Suez war, when I was 23 years old, because it was a great shock to discover that Ben Gurion had lied, because I really believed when I was mobilized into the army that this was a war of defense. But then he comes and says that it is a war to reestablish the kingdom of David and Solomon, and that Sinai is not a part of Egypt. I saw that I would have to oppose this Messianic idea, which I still regard as the central feature in my opposi­tion to Israeli policies.

    After this shock I had plenty of time to think during the period of 1957-67. Further opposition was then based on my American experience. Between 1961 and 1963 I at­tended Stanford University, and in the course of my post-graduate studies I dis­covered that, against all my upbringing and education, American Jews are neither ab­normal nor in any way insane. I had really believed that Jews who were not living in a Jewish society were insane. This is what Zionists try to teach Jews to believe. Israe­li-Jewish education is still based on the notion that only Jews in the Jewish society in Palestine are healthy human beings, and all other Jews are insane or at least half insane. Israelis who emigrate become so too, as Rabin frequently says.

    Second, I was also taught to believe that all non-Jews are anti-Semitic by nature. And, since I didn't see very many non-Jews until 1961 when I was 28, and since young people tend to believe what they are taught, I continued to believe this after 1956, with some reservations. Upon arriving in the United States I rapidly came to the conclu­sion that the second point was also a big lie. Therefore, to this very day, my basic oppo­sition to Zionism runs much deeper than a reaction to what Zionism is doing to Pales­tinians or to Arabs. I would have opposed Zionism even if the Jewish state had been founded on an uninhabited island emerging from nowhere in the ocean because I think that their basic premises about Jews and about the whole human race are simply incorrect. My attitude about Palestinians and Arabs was formed only after 1967. The attitude toward the Arab world was actu­ally formed first. In 1967, when I was 34 years old, I was, I can boast, a real member of the Israeli establishment. For example, I was a favorite friend and pupil of Professor Ernst David Bergman, the chairman of the Israeli atomic-energy commission. Our re­lationship was so close that in spite of developments we remained friends until he died in 1975.

I could give you many other examples of my involvement. Because of this, I could understand immediately that Israel in­tended to keep the territories. I also under­stood immediately that the Arab states would not tolerate it. At this stage, in 1967, I was not sure that the Palestine national movement existed. Nevertheless, to this very day my strongest opposition to Zion­ism and Israeli policies is based on the whole relationship between Israel and all the Arab nations in the Middle East. I mean by this that Israel should not keep con­quered territories, because they don't be­long to their society and because in the long run Arab states will not tolerate such a thing. You can induce Arab societies to tolerate a state of Israel if it is based on territories inhabited in the great majority by Jews. But you cannot induce Arab societies and states to agree forever that Israel should rule over conquered Arab territo­ries.

Then, after a time, I understood also that there was the Palestinian problem, but I will not cover that here, because those other two features are the basic ones. I still think that the Palestinian problem is not the crucial part of the situation in the Middle East. The crux of the situation is the Israeli wish to dominate the whole Middle East. The Palestinians are only the first victims. Of course, I have a duty as the chairman of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, to devote a great part of my time to fighting against human-rights violations, but I also have a duty as a rational human being not to forget the basic problem. And the basic problem is not the Palestinians; the basic problem is between Israel and all the Arab world in the Middle East and especially between Israel and the more powerful Arab states. So I differentiate in my mind between the immediate needs of justice and the relief of human suffering, and the deeper political problems between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and behind them, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

 

AAA: It's interesting that you should say this, because in the last year or two -- even before the intifada started -- the Arab Israeli problem was being redefined as one be­tween Israel and the Palestinians.

 

SHAHAK: I oppose this approach very strongly for many reasons. First of all, I think that I know the real politics of the Israeli establishment very well. It is like an open book to me, both because of the amount of time I spend reading everything that is published in Hebrew and because of my upbringing. I am an integral part of them and I know their mentality and their real intentions. And there is proof of this: In spite of what I said and did, I survived -- and in Jerusalem, not in exile. In fact, my position is getting better and better as far as Israeli-Jewish society is concerned.

Israel wants to dominate the Middle East. I am using the word "dominate" because most Israelis do not want to annex further territories, just as Begin did not want to annex Lebanon, only to dominate them. In the same way you can see from what is written in Hebrew publications, which I translated during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, that when the opportunity arises -- and I am not predicting when it might happen -- Israel is interested in cut­ting Syria into small states, which will then be the puppets of Israel. All these things have been published and discussed inside Israel in many ways.

There is, of course, a wish to dominate water sources which lie beyond Palestine. Recently some important articles on water were written by a military correspondent of Haaretz. If you consider water and the basic issues of economics, then it becomes plain why Israel wants to dominate most of the Middle East (with the exception of Egypt, which is a special case) without necessarily annexing those countries. An­nexation is only supported by the extremist fringe, but domination is supported by the whole establishment. I oppose it. It is not good for my society, it is not good for the Arabs, and it is not good for human beings generally.

In those early years of 1967-68, I was -- and in many ways I still am -- a pupil of a great man called Professor Yeshayahu Lie­bovitz [see interview in fall 1988 issue of American-Arab Affaris]. He predicted that because of the conquests and the desire for domination, more and more Jews will be­come soldiers and then more and more of the soldiers will become operatives of the secret police, and at the end of this process is a society in which the Jews will only be "conquerors, secret agents and soldiers." The rest will be done by slaves. I think that this process is continuing. We currently have in the Gaza Strip a system which can only be called "computerized slavery," -- those magnetic identification cards, and so on.

Israel, in order to survive, has to re­nounce the wish for domination and then it will be a much better place for Jews also.  The immediate analogy which a lot of peo­ple are making in Israel is Germany. Not only the Germany of Hitler and the Nazis but even the former German Empire wanted to dominate Europe. What hap­pened in Japan after the attack on China is that they wanted to dominate a huge area of Asia. When Germany and Japan renounced the wish for domination, they became much nicer societies for the Japanese and Ger­mans themselves. In addition to all the Arab considerations, I would like to see Israel, by renouncing the desire for domi­nation, including domination of the Pales­tinians, become a much nicer place for Israelis to live.

 

AAA: The argument is often made by Isra­el's supporters that Israel would be imper­iled by a Palestinian state. How do you respond to this?

 

SHAHAK: This argument has a racist base because people are asking whether Israel will be imperiled by a Palestinian state or by Arabs, but they are not asking whether a Palestinian state will be imperiled by Israel. If Israel will have a narrow waist, the Palestinian state will also have a narrow waist around Jericho, and will be in two pieces -- the West Bank and Gaza Strip. So, from the beginning, this argument does not have a leg to stand upon.

But I will give you a purely military answer. The structure of the Israeli army is based, and must be based, on the reserve forces, unless we become a society in which the whole population are full-time soldiers and secret agents. As of now, Isra­el's strength must be based on the reserves. For example, take the ordinary factor of mobilization. In time of war, reserve forces have to be mobilized. In 1967 Israel was victorious because it fought near home. The distance between Tel Aviv, where more than half of the population lived, and the outskirts of the Sinai peninsula is rela­tively short. Between Tel Aviv and most of the West Bank it is even shorter. So we were victorious. But in 1973 the same re­serve Israeli army had to be taken to the Suez Canal. In addition to the Egyptian army, what defeated us was the distance. In purely military terms, the Israeli army can fight better if it is fighting near home. The more area that we have, the weaker it will become. You can see this also in Lebanon. We are much stronger now occupying a small slice of Lebanon than we were in 1983-85 with the additional mountains in our possession.

When you speak of reserves, you also have to take into account the psychology of reserve soldiers, because it is part of mili­tary efficiency. If you sent them far away from home, their morale would decline. Even in the territories, they can have one day a week at home. In fact, the Israeli army is in decline now because of the intifada -- not only because of the atroci­ties that it commits but because Israel keeps, in times of stress, which have now become the norm, 100,000-120,000 of its reserve soldiers in a society which is not their own. Because of this, their quality suffers. This argument, by the way, is not original with me; it has been stated by many generals. But not many Israelis assert it.

I will conclude by saying that the only way Israel can be defeated militarily now is in a Sharon-type war in which the Israeli army would be dragged far away from Is­rael into the depths of an Arab country. But it can be more slowly defeated by having the Israeli army occupy the Palestinians after the intifada. So, in purely military terms, Israel will emerge after retreat from the territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state much stronger in military and strategic ways. This, by the way, is not only relevant for the Arab world -- Arabs should know that Israel would be stronger after its retreat -- but for America. So long as the United States is supporting an Israel which is ruling over the territories, then in strategic terms it is supporting something which is becoming more and more like a broken reed. Israeli armies are declining in military terms. The society, as a modern society, is declining the longer Israel holds the territories, and therefore, is becoming more useless for American purposes. I am not analyzing American purposes, but an Israel without the territories and a Palestin­ian state would be more compatible to support them, than the Israel of Shamir holding on indefinitely to the territories. So there is also a strong element of American stupidity involved. Those in the United States who say they support Shamir or any Israeli government or establishment for American ends are making a mistake. Whatever ends the Americans have in the Middle East, the support of present-day Israeli policies will only defeat them.

 

AAA: Much has been made of secretary of state Baker's speech to AIPAC on May 22. How was the speech interpreted in Israel?

 

SHAHAK: I think that the Israelis only understood the speech in the first three or four days. Then they went back to business as usual. What Israel wants from the United States is more than any American administration ever gave it formally. This can be shown by the fact that Israel was against Shultz's plan of last year and against the Reagan plan of 1982. Israel wants from the United States unlimited support. And this is of course tied up with Israel's quest for domination of the Middle East. Let us put American policy in its crudest terms, as it was for a short time under Alexander Haig, who wanted Amer­icans to dominate the Middle East. But Sharon didn't want America to dominate the Middle East; he wanted to do it himself.  There is always an implied conflict between Israel and the United States which cannot be bridged by any formal declaration that any American administration can make. It can only be bridged by informal working agreements, as when Alexander Haig for­mally opposed the Israeli invasion of Leb­anon, but informally supported it. But those informal agreements can only work if they are not formally opposed.

If Secretary Baker had stuck to his speech, and not begun what the Israeli press called "compensating," giving Israel the idea that he did not mean what he said, this would have been an enormous gain for those people inside Israel who oppose Is­raeli domination, and who therefore oppose the unlimited American support to Israel. The most important thing he said was also the most vague one -- that Israel should renounce its dream of a Greater Israel. This was the thing that was particularly opposed in Israel. Of course, from the aspect of human rights, I am especially interested in the opening of the schools, because Israel has to renounce its dreams. If the time comes -- and I say this with the full respon­sibility of an Israeli living in Israel -- when the Secretary of State asks Israel to re­nounce its dreams of a Greater Israel, and he and his officials repeat the message twice a week for 6-8 weeks without any renunciation or compensation, then this would be a sign for a lot of people in Israel, for the Labor party supporters and the intelligent people who once supported La­bor, that we have to renounce our dreams of domination. As long as there is only one message that is then followed by compen­sations, a message that is not repeated -- repetition being very important -- there will be no impact. This meant to us, after three or four days, that Baker's statement was the same as was the case with Reagan in 1982, and with Shultz a year ago. The United States makes declarations for the purpose of being formally recorded but for no other end. Israel can do what it wants, which includes not only crushing the inti­fada, but also pursuing its current policy toward all Arab states.

I will give you proof of this in an article from The Washington Post of June 10, 1989, where the Jewish community in Washington condemned the Episcopalians for lobbying for the Palestinians. What I, as an Israeli, immediately noticed were the actual terms used: that the Jewish commu­nity is opposing an "additional Palestinian state." An "additional Palestinian state" means that, in their view, Jordan is now a Palestinian state. But the official name of Jordan is the "Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan," and not the "first Palestinian state." It means, as directly as anything which can be said in politics, that the cur­rent government of Israel, through its loyal American Jewish servants, intends to con­quer Jordan and change its regime. Other­wise they would not have implied in a formal declaration that Jordan is not Jor­dan.

    Let us look at the argument from the Arab side. Those who many years ago used to call Israel the "Zionist Entity," implied by this that Israel had to be conquered and its regime completely changed. The argu­ment of those Washington Jews who called Jordan the first Palestinian state, who don't accept the present structure, call for the Israeli conquest of Jordan. Whoever reads the Hebrew press knows that this is very true. Likud is committed by its own official ideology to conquer Jordan, and it will do so much sooner if it sees that the dream of a Greater Israel is not consistently op­posed. Therefore, what we should all do, including Americans, is to put pressure on the United States, both Congress and the administration, for something very minimal and very consistent with American formal policy, especially on human rights. On this point the message should be absolutely consistent, and they should repeat it as frequently as possible, because only a re­peated message will get inside the Israeli society, and finally, after a time, through the thick skulls of Shamir and maybe of Sharon. But this last I cannot promise.

 

AAA: This is a very pessimistic view.

 

SHAHAK: Yes. Because of this I am a minimalist. One single U.S. demand oppos­ing Israel, especially on its ideology or on the opening of schools, will be the begin­ning of a process. Why? Because Israel has a very potent weapon inside the United States as long as American society and politics is what it is: the pseudo-issue of terrorism. Even children can be described as being terrorists. But the Israeli dream of a Greater Israel is something else. There­fore, I would advise concentrating on one thing like this and having a very consistent demand, to be repeated as frequently as possible.

I am a pessimist for the short range, but for the longer one I am quite an optimist. The reason is, I should add, that even without American help, the only choices awaiting us as Israelis are either that we will become a slave-owning society, or we will transform ourselves by our own means, by the operation of our own social forces.

Let me quote two things. First of all, last Thursday our most important paper in terms of circulation, Yedioth Aharonot, in its monthly poll found that 58 percent of Israeli Jews expect a civil war, and only 40 percent do not. It appears in FBIS. Of course, it did not make The New York Times or The Washington Post.

You must have heard about the Israeli writer Amos Oz. He is not my cup of tea, but he represents the better part of Israeli upper-class society much better than I. In a very great rally held in Tel Aviv on Satur­day evening, May 26, he called for a civil war because he said that the religious set­tlers and other fanatics are more and more dominating Likud. He believes that the settlers, after finishing with the Palestinians (which is the less important part for him), will then transform Israeli society into a society which, for people like him, will be not a society worth living in. This is some­thing very important and very basic. Even without American help or other outside help, I have a reasonable hope -- maybe not a very decisive one, for the other side is strong -- that we will succeed. But it will take us many years and a civil war or something near it. After a civil war or even before it, we will be quite useless for Amer­ica, whatever the American aims are going to be. Reasonable and patriotic Americans can, by a very minimal form of pressure, help us avert civil war and transform our society. This requires renouncing the wish for domination and establishing a Palestin­ian state. Otherwise, we will help ourselves by a civil war.

 

AAA: Do you think it will actually come to that?

 

SHAHAK: How was slavery abolished in the United States, by exhortations? Be­tween 1961 and 1963, when I was in the United States I was thinking about this, but I did so even more in 1967 and 1968. I have been influenced by those who were pre­pared in the United States to risk war before 1860-1861, rather than continue the spread of slavery. I made a very great study of Lincoln and of the Republicans before the civil war, and I am a follower of the principles which they adopted then: that even if slavery has to be tolerated, it should not be allowed to spread, even if civil war ensues, because of that famous quotation that a society cannot remain for long half free and half slave.

This is exactly what I mentioned about the two eventualities; Israel can become only either completely free in the formal sense or completely enslaved. I don't know a modern democracy which was estab­lished without a form of war or civil war. Swiss democracy was established after a civil war in 1847. We can avert war because we are so dependent upon the United States, but if we were not, civil war would have been a certainty. Because of our pe­culiar situation of dependency upon the United States, we can be an exception. If not, we will have to fight among ourselves.

 

AAA: On this visit to the United States, have you had contact with American Jew­ish groups?

 

SHAHAK: The organized Jewish groups I don't want to have any contact with. They are now completely following the line laid down in Jerusalem, with the sword of Da­mocles hanging over their heads: if they are not willing to be loyal slaves, then the issue of who is a Jew will be reintroduced in the Knesset. I think it is a very bad policy to even have dialogue with organized Jews. I don't mean Rita Hauser or others like her -- she is being excommunicated by her own community. When you speak of American Jews, you should sharply distinguish be­tween two different, and now polarized, entities: those who are organized, whether in the denominations (i.e., synagogues) or in the big organizations, belonging to the Presidents' Conference of the Jewish orga­nizations and all Jews who act as individu­als or in small groups. The first group, which is the most important one for politi­cal pressure, is for a time lost to any positive effort. It will be changed only after we Israelis change. This is a feature of their willing slavery to Israel. They are so slav­ishly following Israeli models, they have been compared by the Hebrew press to communists under the Comintern, with their loyalty to Stalin.

Now, I will follow the parallel and ask you what follows from this fact: The com­munists began to change first of all in Russia itself, as the glasnost of Gorbachev proves, and then the rest of the parties followed slowly after. We are the Moscow of American organized Jews. Of course, one has to add, this does not include all the Jews in the United States. If we have our glasnost, they will follow, not always by understanding what our glasnost is, but by following the Israeli fashion. Without our changing, there is no hope that they will change. Of course, I don't mean those who sign ads in The New York Times, but I assure you that Norman Mailer is not a member of the organized Jewish commu­nity in any real sense.

 

AAA: I read an interview with you in The Guardian originally printed in October 1988, in which you said that the next six months would be critically important. Has that prediction been borne out?

 

SHAHAK: No, it was a mistake. I didn't calculate two factors. I didn't take into account that the Israeli army would prac­tice for several months a policy of relative restraint, in allowing many villages and towns to be free. I didn't believe that they were capable of such relative wisdom, which has conserved the strength of the army.

I also miscalculated the powers of endur­ance of the Palestinians. I feel great admi­ration when I visit them. Their suffering is so intense that I wonder all the time how long they can survive. But they are surviv­ing, apparently because of the transforma­tion of their society. It is not the stones and children that make them survive but the suppression of drugs. The Palestinian soci­ety, which was quite infected by drugs, especially in the Gaza Strip two years ago, is, I think, now one of the cleanest societies in this respect. The suppression of prosti­tution, the equality or near equality of women, all these are sources of their strength.

I will tell you a story. I was in the village of Beita, not after the horror, but before, by I think two or three months. I went to Beita to see with my own eyes that women in such a conservative Muslim village are members of popular committees and give orders to men. Since I am not only a pessimist, but also a skeptic, my Palestin­ian friends took me directly there and showed me. Only when I saw it did I believe it. Palestinians have wonderful powers of endurance and achievement. (I think their greatest achievement was their defeat of the Israeli intelligence Services.)

 

AAA: PLO spokesman Nabil Shaath and Abba Eban are traveling around the United States having public debates with one an­other. What effect do you think that this might have?

 

SHAHAK: I think it is a very damaging dialogue. It is something that brings Nabil Shaath, and through him the whole PLO, into contempt, especially among Israelis, not merely people like me, but Israelis of all ranges of opinion. The reason is this. Nabil Shaath always begins a dialogue with Eban by saying that for twenty years he dreamed of such a debate in which he would be victorious, but that now there is nothing to debate because they are agreeing. Abba Eban is a member of the Labor party, one of whose members, Yitzhak Rabin, is com­mitting all those horrors in the territories. Many Israelis have described Nabil Shaath as selling out because of this. So do many Palestinians because they expect some self-respect and some sort of opposition to a member of the Israeli Labor party.

There is quite a difference between Nabil Shaath's dialogue at Columbia University with Abba Eban and the one with Yossi Sarid of the Ratz party. I can and I do oppose Sarid, but everyone should have the greatest respect for him, because he spends half of his time denouncing Israeli atrocities and acting against the suffering of Palestin­ians. And all people in opposition on the left of the present government should be re­spected, but not the members of the Labor party. Members of the Labor party, by the ordinary principle of democratic parliamen­tary responsibility, are directly to blame for what Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin does. To agree with everything that Abba Eban says, since Abba Eban is not de­nouncing Rabin's atrocities, means that Nabil Shaath agrees that Palestinian babies should be murdered, that women should be molested -- a new development now -- and so on. Nabil Shaath, and all those in the PLO bureaucracy who behave as he does, are because of this universally despised in Israel by a great majority of Israelis, right, left and center.

 

AAA: What recent developments in Israel should Americans be concerned about?

 

SHAHAK: The two most important things which have happened in the last two to three weeks are first, the issuing of all inhabitants of the Gaza Strip with magnetic plastic I.D. cards. They cannot leave the Gaza Strip without these cards. This is worse than what happens in South Africa because inhabitants of Soweto can go to Johannesburg, they just cannot live there. This is computerized slavery. The system is going to be adopted in the West Bank, too.

The second aspect of the same problem is that several cities in Israel, like Ashdod and Petach-Tikva, have already forbidden entry to all Palestinians from the territories ex­cept those under the supervision of a Jew­ish employer. The reason that a civil war (between Jews and Jews) or something ap­proaching it can break out, is because of what is happening in Petach-Tikva now, in which a prison compound with barbed wire was set up for all Palestinians from the territories who want to work in the city. They will be brought by buses or trucks to the prison compound, which has been pho­tographed by the Hebrew press and Amer­ican television. The Jewish employer will come and take them out to work under his supervision and then he will return them. A great part of Israeli Jewish society -- up to 20 percent or more, headed by protest movements to which I belong: The Year 21 and Enough with the Conquest and Peace Now -- is determined to push the non-vio­lent struggle against slavery to the utmost, meaning also to the verge of disobeying the law. They will do this not because of what is happening in the territories, but because we are defending our own society. We don't want to live in a slave society. Our moral and internal strength when protesting the slavery which we see is ten times greater than when we are protesting what is unseen. On this note, I hope that both the Americans and the Arabs would accept all of us Israelis, including the most radical ones like me, as members of a society whose behavior should be analyzed in so­cial terms, even when we say that we want to live in an Israel which will not become a Nazi-like society.