Israel Shahak (Hebrew: ישראל שחק; born Himmelstaub, April 28, 1933 — July 2, 2001) was a Polish-born Israeli professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, known especially as a radical political thinker, author, and civil rights activist. Between 1970-1990, he was president of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights and was an outspoken critic of the Israeli government. Shahak’s writings on Judaism have been a source of widespread controversy.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Shahak was the youngest child of a cultured, religious, pro-Zionist, Ashkenazi Jewish family. During German occupation of Poland, his family was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. His brother escaped and joined the Royal Air Force. His mother paid a poor Catholic family to hide him, but when her money ran out he was returned. In 1943 he and his family were sent to the Poniatowa concentration camp, near Lublin, where his father died. Israel and his mother managed to escape and returned to Warsaw, but within the year, they were both sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Shahak was liberated from the camp in 1945, and shortly thereafter emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine, where he wanted to join a kibbutz, but was turned down as “too weedy”.
From age 12, Shahak cared for and provided economic support for his mother who survived the Nazi camp in a very poor physical condition. After a period of learning in a religious boarding school in Kfar Hassidim, he moved with his mother to Tel Aviv. 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 Ernst David Bergmann.
In 1961, Shahak 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. He published many scientific papers, mostly on organic fluorine compounds. After the 1967 Six-Day War and the ensuing occupation, Shahak became critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, a supporter of a Palestinian state, and wrote many articles and several books outlining his views of Israeli society and Judaism.
In his later years, Shahak lived in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem. He died in Jerusalem at age 68 due to complications from diabetes and was buried in the Givat Shaul cemetery. In an obituary published in The Nation, Christopher Hitchens wrote that Shahak’s home was “a library of information about the human rights…..He became a well-known activist in international circles, co-authoring papers and giving joint speaking engagements with American political dissident Noam Chomsky, and winning plaudits from Jean Paul Sartre, Gore Vidal, 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’.