Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4


Jewish History, Jewish Religion

Israel Shahak
Jewish History, Jewish Religion
Pluto Press, London 1994, pp. 127, £11.99

APART FROM providing a useful supplement to Enzo Traverso’s work reviewed in our last issue, few books explain quite so much modern history as this one does. Why is a state professing a universalist religion so ruthlessly racist with its Palestinian victims? Why are more of its governmental crises ‘caused by religious reasons, often trivial, than by any other cause’ (p. 98)? Why do so many studious-looking gentlemen dressed in mid-nineteenth century clothing turn out to stone archaeologists digging up bronze age burials? Why does a people of such small numbers once believed to inhabit an area no larger than Wales harbour such far-reaching plans of conquest? How did the ideals of the later Old Testament prophets give rise to such a frightening and frightful obscurantism, backed by so predatory a state?

Shahak’s credentials for his bold exposure of the racist corruption of Israeli politics are impeccable. A retired professor of chemistry who had suffered in Belsen and served in the Israeli army, he turned to civil rights activity when he found to his disgust that rabbis who supported a Jew who refused to call an ambulance for a gentile on the sabbath were acting in accordance with Talmudic law (p. 1). Although he makes no secret of his ‘opposition to Marxism, both in philosophy and as a social theory’ (p. 49), much that is vital to a revolutionary understanding of world politics is crammed into his pages, with a staggering display of erudition, and not a word of it is wasted.

He makes it plain that not all the victims of anti-Semitism have been Jews, for racism breeds racism. Some horrible examples are given of Talmudic hostility to other peoples and creeds, even monotheistic ones (pp. 20–7, 74–98), and it is with some sadness that we learn that this spirit even infected Maimonides (pp. viii, 24–6, 80). But there is far more to the book than this.

Its analysis of the main phases in the history of Judaism (pp. 50–7) places them firmly within the development of the social conditions of its existence, a dimension that is so signally lacking in Traverso’s book. He explains our inability to grasp the real mechanism that drives Israel forward today from the fact that whilst knowledge of the Old Testament is widely disseminated, modern Judaism’s inheritance from Kabbala and Talmud is almost unknown to outsiders, and it is this fusion of traditional lore that exercises such a fatal influence upon the state (pp. 36ff.). His description of Kabbalism in chapter three as a ‘decay of monotheism’, and of Jewish society in eighteenth century Germany as ‘burning of books, persecution of writers, disputes about the magic powers of amulets’ (p. 16) might be upsetting to many, but it is backed by numerous and telling examples. By this time, he concludes, classical Judaism had degenerated into ‘a tribal collection of empty religious and magic superstitions’ (p. 47).

Nowhere was this worse than in Poland, ‘the most superstitious and fanatic of all Jewish communities’ (p. 63). It was this population from Eastern Europe, and particularly from Poland and the Ukraine, that set the tone for the politics of modern Israel. It was, as he points out, a community totally without a peasantry and with little sympathy for its predicament, since the rôle of the Jews as bailiffs and tax gatherers on behalf of the nobility in these lands had long exposed it to peasant uprisings and attendant pogroms (pp. 52–5, 61–6, 72–4, etc.). Now the inhabitants of the land whom they displaced were also predominantly peasants. ‘Insane as it sounds’, he concludes, ‘it is nevertheless plain upon close examination of the real motives of the Zionists, that one of the most deep-seated ideological sources of the Zionist establishment’s persistent hostility towards the Palestinians is the fact that they are identified in the minds of many East European Jews with the rebellious East European peasants who participated in the Chmielnicki uprising and in similar revolts.’ (p. 72)

And the position of Israel in global politics also condemns it to ‘a rôle not unlike that of the Jews in pre-1795 Poland: that of a bailiff to the imperial oppressor’ (p. 73). Only by unlocking this culture can we understand the incredible frenzy in some circles whenever the Israeli government comes to any sort of agreement, however advantageous, with its neighbours. For some rabbinical authorities interpret the poetical flourishes of the Old Testament so as to include within the borders of Biblical Israel all Egypt as far as Cairo, and ‘Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, etc., as far as the Euphrates (p. 9), whilst ‘in all Talmudic authorities the Land of Israel includes Cyprus’ (p. 90).

I could go further, but to bring out everything of value from this book would be to write a review as long as the book itself. Far better read it instead, and encourage all your friends to read it as well!

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011