In his major essay ‘The Jewish religion and its attitude to non-Jews’ (Parts 1-2 in Khamsin #8 and Part 3 & Appendix in #9), Israel Shahak exposed and demonstrated in great detail the virulent racist strand in the Halakha (the corpus of Jewish religious law evolved over the last two millenia) and showed how this racist body of thought, far from being a dead letter or a mere museum piece, actually serves to encourage and justify the racist practices of Zionism and the State of Israel.
Roberto Sussman, in his ‘Reply to Shahak’ (Khamsin 10), comes very close to conceding this point; although he shies away from using the correct term, ‘racism’, and prefers to speak of ‘chauvinism’ (a trace of apologetics here, perhaps?…). Besides, this thesis of Shahak is irrefutable, and has been amply corroborated by events and developments in Israel since the publication of his essay.
But Sussman attacks Shahak’s view of Jewish history, as well as his general ‘moralistic’ attitude.
As for the Shahak-Sussman debate on various aspects and events in medieval and early-modern Jewish history, I do not feel competent to enter into it. In any case, I consider it to be largely a diversion, since – in my view – Shahak’s excursions into history, though interesting and thought-provoking, are merely ancilliary to the main theme, which I have outlined above. Let me simply comment that if Sussman chides Shahak for being too damning towards historical Jewish actions and attitudes, he himself seems occasionally to incline to the opposite vice of over-indulgence.
Pure historical ‘objectivity’, free of all moral judgement and unaffected by present-day concerns, is neither possible nor desirable. Perhaps the difference in approach between Shahak and Sussman is to be explained by the fact that the former is conditioned by the present Israeli reality of Jews as the ‘master race’, whereas the latter’s more defensive attitude is a hangover from the days when Jews were much more to be found among the victims of persecution than among its authors.
Here I come to my main criticism of Sussman’s position. He fails seriously to come to grips with Shahak’s justified, if painful, challenge directed at Jewish socialists: they have been remiss in remaining largely silent about Jewish racism and utterly failing to combat it.
Let me make it quite clear that by ‘Jewish socialists’ I do not mean here those socialists who merely happen to be of Jewish origin but have opted for assimilation in their host societies (a choice, by the way, which Sussman, with perhaps a touch of chauvinism, condemns as ‘miserable’). Such socialists may reasonably claim that they have no specific interest in Jewish affairs, and hence no particular responsibility to combat Jewish racism (as distinct from other reactionary phenomena).
Rather, I have in mind those socialists who devote at least part of their activity to specific Jewish issues. If in the past their silence on the question of Jewish racism could be partly excused – though never condoned! – on the grounds that the defence of Jews against anti-Semitism was a more urgent task, this excuse is utterly unacceptable today.
Here – contrary to what Sussman seems to believe – the task of developing a scientific materialist analysis of the socio-historical roots of racism, however desirable and important such a theoretical enterprise may be, is less urgent than the political imperative of exposing racism and combatting its every manifestation. After all, as Sussman himself concedes, ‘Marxist research… has not yet produced a satisfactory account of racism in its most virulent forms’. Should we then wait for the elaboration of such an account before exposing racism and fighting against it?
As far as Jewish racism is concerned, it is not merely, or even mainly, a question of ‘the Jew [having to] confront his\her past’, which would involve ‘a thorough and open critique of the Jewish religion as an important ideological source in Jewish history’, as Sussman puts it. Again, here he puts too much stress on the purely theoretical task of historical analysis, rather than on the duty to bring out into the open the facts and texts of Jewish racism and to point out their present political role.
Of course, Shahak too goes at length into historical analysis and interpretation; but he does this in addition to, not in place of, engaging in the present fight against racism. His historical analysis and interpretations may be flawed, too moralistic, too bound by the old-fashioned idealism of the Enlightenment; but Sussman’s critique of these flaws would be infinitely more convincing if he could point at an alternative, materialist and scientific analysis wedded to a Jewish-socialist practice of exposing Jewish racism and combatting it.