Israel and Anti-Gentile Traditions

Israel Shahak's theory that anti-Gentile traditions have influenced Israeli policy is well known in both Arab and anti-Semitic circles, but Jews have yet to properly confront it.

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Despite its title, Israel Shahak's Jewish History, Jewish Religion (1994) is not your average intro-to-Judaism book. It is more likely to be found in a Muslim day school in Damascus than a Jewish day school in New York, more likely to be cited on a neo-Nazi website, than your local synagogue's.

Shahak's book is an overview of Judaism and Zionism, which focuses on Jewish anti-Gentile traditions. Though he recognizes that many of these teachings are no longer authoritative, Shahak believes that they have, nonetheless, had a profound influence on the development of Jewish identity over the centuries. Most importantly, he believes that they have seeped into Zionist ideology and have affected the way Israel interacts with its non-Jewish citizens and neighbors.

Shahak, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2001, was for many years a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He also led the Israeli Civil Rights League from the mid-1970s until 1990. In Israel, he was a controversial figure, but he was revered by the international left as a tireless advocate for human rights.

Are Jewish Lives Worth More?

In Jewish History, Jewish Religion Shahak brings numerous texts and legal rulings to demonstrate Jewish antipathy to non-Jews. He mentions a passage from the Talmud that says that Jesus will be punished in hell by being immersed in boiling excrement. He relates that Jewish tradition teaches pious Jews to burn copies of the New Testament and curse the mothers of the dead when passing non-Jewish cemeteries. Shahak highlights the famous passage from Leviticus commanding Jews to "love thy neighbor as thyself" and mentions that, according to rabbinic interpretation, "thy neighbor" refers only to Jews.

Shahak further suggests that the Jewish tradition values Jewish life more than Gentile life. He cites Maimonides' assertion that whereas one who murders a Jew is subject to the death penalty, one who murders a non-Jew is not  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder 2:11). According to another leading commentator, indirectly causing the death of a non-Jew is no sin at all (Rabbi Yoel Sirkis, Bayit Hadash, commentary on Bet Yosef, Yoreh Deah 158).

Shahak reiterates the well-known Jewish teaching that the duty to save a life supersedes all other obligations and notes that the rabbis interpreted this to apply to Jews only. According to the Talmud, "Gentiles are neither to be lifted [out of a well] nor hauled down [into it]" (Tractate Avodah Zarah, 26b). Maimonides writes: "As for Gentiles with whom we are not at war…their death must not be caused, but it is forbidden to save them if they are at the point of death; if, for example, one of them is seen falling into the sea, he should not be rescued, for it is written: 'neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy fellow'--but [a Gentile] is not thy fellow" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder 4:11).

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Ari Alexander

Ari Alexander studies the modern Middle East at Oxford University.