Jewish History, Jewish Religion

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Israel Shahak, Pluto Press, £12.99

This book is an attack on Israel's persecution of the Palestinians. It goes further than merely criticising the more extreme aspects of Israel by locating anti-Arab racism at the heart of the Zionist project itself. In addition the writer is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who emigrated to Israel after the war. This reissue of a book originally published in 1993 comes with forewords written by no lesser anti-imperialists than Gore Vidal, Edward Said and Ilan Pappé.

Thus the aim of the book combined with its pedigree made me very excited at the prospect of another weapon along with the works of Pappé and Gabriel Piterberg that arms us with history and ideas with which to combat Zionism from the Jewish perspective. But sadly this book is more than a disappointment. Its analysis is extremely wrong-headed, and its arguments potentially very dangerous.

Shahak's thesis is that Israel's attitude towards the Palestinians derives from a deeply rooted prejudice towards all non-Jews that is inherent in Judaism itself and its religious texts. It is an effective indictment of the rabbinical elite's long history of oppression over its own community. It also does a tremendous job of exposing many barbaric elements of Jewish theology that are frequently ignored by Zionists who promote Judaism and Israel as more civilised than its Muslim and Arab neighbours.

But Shahak is so one-sided in his denunciation of Jewish theology and its responsibility for Zionism that he begins to resemble those like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who seek to locate the crimes of Islamic fundamentalism in the Koran and Islamism in general. Fleeing blindly from the oppression of their own religious background they fall into the arms of some of the most offensive stigmas associated with anti-Semitism and Islamophobic prejudice.

The problem lies in a completely idealistic view of history. For Shahak it is in the tradition of Jewish thought that we must seek the roots of the modern phenomenon of Zionism. Of course, the specific aspects of Zionism that give form to its peculiar brand of racism are heavily influenced by Judaism, in the same way that reactionary Islamism's homophobic ideas are expressed through quotes from the Koran. And here we can see a major danger in Shahak's analysis: once we start to see crimes that are essentially political in nature as primarily religiously inspired we fall into the trap of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. This is but the most obvious and serious problem in a book filled with many others.