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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Indeed, Maimonides is the focus of much of Shahak's analysis. Shahak believes that the 12th-century philosopher and talmudist was a Gentile-hater and racist. He quotes Maimonides' statement that, "their [the Turks and the blacks] nature is like the nature of mute animals, and according to my opinion they are not on the level of human beings" (Guide For the Perplexed, Book III, Chapter 51).

Practical Ramifications

Shahak recognizes that many of these traditions are not followed in practice, but he believes that, in general, they have been covered up, instead of confronted. In support of this claim, he refers to another a violent passage from Maimonides that is not translated in the bilingual addition of the Guide published in Jerusalem in 1962. He sees this as a deliberate deception on the part of the editors to soften classical Jewish militancy. His own English translation of the passage, which discusses the command to kill Jewish infidels reads: "It is a duty to exterminate them with one's own hands. Such as Jesus of Nazareth and his pupils, and Tzadoq and Baitos [the founders of the Sadducees] and their pupils, may the name of the wicked rot."

According to Shahak, Jewish "traditions of contempt" infiltrated Zionism and have affected Israeli policy towards its Arab citizens and the Palestinians. He cites three main areas where he believes this has occurred: residency rights, employment rights, and equality before the law.

As an example, he mentions that 92% of Israel's land is legally restricted to Jews. While in other countries it would be labeled anti-Semitic if a policy excluded Jews from living on or owning land, in the Israeli context Jews tolerate it. He adds that based on the distinction in classical Judaism between reverence for Jewish cemeteries and not for non-Jewish ones, the state of Israel has destroyed hundreds of Muslim cemeteries, including one in order to build the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Shahak cites a booklet published by the Central Regional Command of the Israeli Army which states that it is permissible, and even encouraged, to kill civilians encountered in war. "In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good." In a footnote, Shahak mentions that this booklet was withdrawn from circulation on the command of the Chief of Staff, but he nonetheless, believes that even the brief appearance of such a text can only be explained by an accurate assessment of the inequality in Jewish tradition between the lives of Jews and non-Jews.

Jews Have Ignored Shahak's Work, Others Haven't

Whatever your opinion of Shahak and his arguments, Jewish History, Jewish Religion should be taken seriously for a number of reasons.

For one, the texts that Shahak cites are real (though Shahak's sporadic use of footnotes makes it difficult to check all of them). Oftentimes, the interpretation of these texts is debatable and their prominence in Judaism negligible, but nonetheless, they are part of Jewish tradition and, therefore, cannot be ignored. And, indeed, they are not ignored. As alluded to above, Shahak's work is very popular in both Arab and Muslim circles (Radio Islam contains the full text of Shahak's work) as well as groups that are often openly anti-Semitic (David Duke and Bradley Smith include Shahak's book on their websites).

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Ari Alexander

Ari Alexander studies the modern Middle East at Oxford University.