Professor Israel Shahak (1933-2001), born Himmelstaub, one of Israel's most prominent and courageous human rights activists, was laid to rest on 4 July 2001 in Giv'at Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem. He had died at the age of 68, after years suffering from diabetes.
Israel Shahak (born Himmelstaub) was born in Warsaw to a family of well-educated, Orthodox Zionists. He spent his childhood in the Warsaw ghetto, where he went into hiding at the start of World War II. He was caught and transferred with his mother to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he spent two years that left him handicapped for the rest of his life. He and his mother were liberated in April 1945 by the Americans, and emigrated to Israel in late 1945, when he was twelve years old.
Shahak received his doctorate in 1961 from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was appointed a lecturer in the university, and later a professor, for organic chemistry. Year after year, Shahak was voted most admired lecturer by his students.
Professor Shahak received international recognition for his research of a treatment for cancer, but was famed most of all for his controversial political standpoints. For many years, he was widely labeled "an Israel hater." Shahak became actively involved in politics and human rights in the sixties, and was renowned for his independent and original views. His denunciation of all forms and expressions of nationalism roused the anger of both Israelis and Palestinians. In 1968, he headed one of the first political organizations that opposed the Israeli occupation of the territories - the Council against House Destruction. Following the 1967 War, Shahak joined the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights; he was elected president of the League in 1970 and remained in that position until 1990 when the organization collapsed. Professor Shahak's appearances in numerous international forums, in which he denounced the Israeli occupation, raised public anger at home and in the early 1970s more than one voice was heard demanding that he be dismissed from the Hebrew University faculty and be tried for treason. Intellectuals throughout the world stood by his side, including his friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Noam Chomsky, but few Israelis supported his views. His lectures and publications enraged the Israeli left even more than the right - Shahak often attacked the hypocrisy of the left in Israel. Prof. Amnon Rubinstein (Meretz) at one point appealed to the interior minister to confiscate Shahak's passport to prevent him going abroad to "slander" Israel.
In 1990, Shahak retired from the university because of diabetes. However, until his last day he continued to follow and criticize the Israeli media, firing off many letters to editors.