Commentary Magazine


Jews and Power by Ruth R. Wisse

Against Weakness
Jews and Power
by Ruth R. Wisse
Nextbook/Schocken. 240 pp. $19.95

In her prologue to Jews and Power, Ruth R. Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University and a longtime contributor to these pages, recounts an incident from the fall of 1939. A Jewish mother from Warsaw rescues her little son from two bullying German soldiers. “‘Come inside the courtyard and za a mentsh,’” she tells the boy, using a Yiddish expression that instructs him to become “what a human being ought to be.”

Several pages later, Wisse tells another anecdote, this one about the period just prior to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. According to the Talmud, a certain Bar Kamtza, angry at the rabbis on account of a social slight, conspires to turn the Roman overlords against their Jewish subjects. He persuades Rome to test the Jews’ loyalty by sending a calf as a Temple sacrifice, and then secretly puts a blemish on the animal to render it ritually invalid. Pondering how to handle the situation, the rabbis decide not to accept the calf for sacrifice (so as not to transgress religious law) but also not to do away with the traitor Bar Kamtza (so as not to sin against God).

The two stories are separated by vast distances in time and place and significant differences in context. But they contain a similar moral, and anticipate the same tragic result. In the first case, notes Wisse, the mother, “rather than warn [her son] against his tormentors, warned him not to become like them.” In the second, she cites the caustic observation of a talmudic rabbi that “scrupulousness . . . as well as forbearance destroyed our holy house, burned our Temple Hall, and caused us to be exiled from our land.”

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This recurring tendency of Jews, both as individuals and as communities, to pay greater attention to their own moral performance than to the necessities of survival—a tendency Wisse characterizes as “moral solipsism”—is what animates her fascinating, subtle, and immensely learned study. Why, historically, did Jews feel such ambivalence about the acquisition and exercise of political power when they did not have it and were defenseless in the face of their oppressors? And why does that ambivalence persist today, when they do have political power and the measure of safety such power affords?

An answer of sorts was offered by the 19th-century German-Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, who argued that millennia of exile had transformed the very nature of Judaism from “a constitution for a body politic” into an ordinary religion devoid of politics. Yet far from being a cause for regret, this very transformation struck many Jews in Graetz’s day and later as, in Wisse’s words, an opportunity for Jewish moral and civic uplift: “Purified of the dross of politics, no longer bound by their own territory, Diaspora Jews could become better citizens of the countries in which they lived.”

In fact, ambivalence toward the exercise of power predated the Diaspora itself. The biblical prophets, Wisse writes in an early chapter of her book, had “linked a nation’s potency to its moral strength, putting the Jews on perpetual trial for their political actions before a Supreme Judge.” On the one hand, this led to a culture that stressed the importance of personal responsibility. On the other hand, by placing so much stress on what the Jews themselves had done to incur and perhaps deserve their defeats, it all but ignored the role played by their enemies.

Such attitudes would only intensify with the end of ancient Jewish statehood. Still, pace Graetz, Jews did continue to conduct politics in the Diaspora, both internally and in relation to outsiders. And, as Wisse shows, this was no trivial achievement. “Unable to command the mutual recognition that territorial nations require from one another, Jews had to win toleration [from Gentile authorities] through exemplary behavior and proofs of service.” At the same time, Diaspora Jews were able to develop striking political institutions of their own—some of which, in their reliance on voluntary consent and elected leaders, anticipated the practices of mature liberal democracies. Many Diaspora communities accommodated a high degree of personal freedom and dissent while providing a variety of social goods ranging from universal education and equitable legal rulings to competent “diplomatic” representation to the host country.

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Yet these achievements stood on a knife’s edge as long as Jews remained powerless to defend themselves. What Gentile rulers gave, they could always take away. The Jews’ economic success made them an enticing target, especially for rulers seeking to appease or divert their restive populations in the coin of Jewish property and blood. Countries that went so far as to rid themselves of their Jews may have suffered for it in the end, but no ruler was ever forced to pay a political price for doing so.

Diaspora Jewry was also profoundly vulnerable to internal treachery, in the form of malcontents succumbing, in Wisse’s words, to “the corrupting temptations of powerlessness” and seeking advantageous deals for themselves at the expense of the community. The story of Bar Kamtza presents a classic case of the syndrome; another, in the same period, was that of the quisling Jewish historian Josephus; and there are many more examples, up to the present day (including, mutatis mutandis, the likes of Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé, and Tony Judt). “The kind of Jew that Gentiles were likeliest to get to know,” Wisse notes acidly in commenting on past centuries, “was the disloyal kind whose emergence they encouraged.”

Perpetual vulnerability also inflicted a more subtle damage on the Jewish psyche. A “politics of accommodation,” as Wisse calls it, was clearly necessary to Jewish survival in the Diaspora, even if it sometimes failed. And yet the pride Jews could legitimately take in their sheer survival despite their political weakness “could cross the moral line into veneration of political weakness. Jews who endured exile as a temporary measure were in danger of mistaking it for a requirement of Jewish life or, worse, for a Jewish ideal.”

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If anything, this idealization of political weakness grew more intense with the civic emancipation of European Jewry (at least its Western half) beginning in the late 18th century. Eagerly accepting the terms proposed by the Count of Clermont-Tonnere in the French National Assembly—that “Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals”—European Jews seized the proffered opportunity to escape the ghettoized confines that had marked them as distinct and, therefore, as targets. Where previously they had attempted to negotiate their existence in various host societies while maintaining their own corporate identity, now, as citizens, they could join those societies, and become, in effect, politically invisible.

Of course, things did not work out as planned. After eighteen centuries of learning to adapt skillfully to changing circumstances, Jews were uniquely prepared to succeed in the fast-changing world of the 19th century. Yet, as Wisse writes, “the more perceptibly Jews benefited from modernity, the simpler it was [for politicians] to charge them with responsibility for its disturbances.” For many, Jews now became the face of liberalism, and especially of the threat it represented to the established order of things: class distinctions, social hierarchies, settled cultural values, and the like. The old religiously-based hatred of Jews transmogrified into a more dangerous racial hatred, dubbed “anti-Semitism” by the proto-Nazi German pamphleteer Wilhelm Marr.

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The rest of this history is well known, including the tale of the dramatic transformation in Jewish consciousness wrought by 19th- and 20th-century Zionism. But Wisse is especially adept at reminding us of how old habits of mind persisted even among the most committed Zionists: i.e., those who were bent on breaking, once and for all, the old Diaspora habits of submissiveness, and who understood the dangers of remaining indifferent to considerations of power.

In his 1902 utopian novel Altneuland (“Old-New Land”), Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, permitted himself to imagine the new Zion as a nation in need neither of an army nor of a strong central government, a place where politics itself—“that plague” —would be abjured. Seventy-five years after this novel’s publication, 30 years after the founding of the state of Israel, former Prime Minister Golda Meir greeted President Anwar Sadat of Egypt on his historic flight to Jerusalem with the reproach that while she could forgive the Egyptian army’s killing of Israeli soldiers in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, she could never forgive Sadat for forcing her young soldiers to kill young Egyptians. Observes Wisse:

Golda expressed more concern with Israeli children’s decency than with her enemies’ designs on them. She would have demonstrated greater understanding of her Egyptian counterpart and greater appreciation of political reality had she asked Sadat to convey to his people the message, “We Jews are here to stay,” requiring decency, tolerance, and realism of them.

The similarity is inescapable between Golda Meir’s curious reasoning and that of the Warsaw mother—not to mention the thinking that lay behind Israel’s headlong rush to strike a deal with Yasir Arafat, its most implacable enemy, in the ill-fated Oslo Accords of the early 1990’s. Such recurring fits of “moral solipsism” raise the question asked by a character in a story by the turn-of-the-20th-century British Jewish writer Israel Zangwill—the question, that is, of whether Jews are “too sophisticated a people for such a primitive and savage function” as self-defense.

So far, thankfully, the answer seems to be no, at least insofar as the overwhelming majority of Israelis are concerned. Even members of the Peace Now movement, Wisse writes, “did not interrupt their military service while they lobbied in Washington for a Palestinian state and otherwise promoted their enemies’ cause over their own.” Israeli political realism benefits (if that is the right word) from the nearness of the enemy and the constancy of the assault on Jewish lives. Even so, as this salutary book insistently warns, misgivings about the exercise of power in self-defense retain a neurotic and damaging grip on the Jewish imagination.

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And not on the Jewish imagination alone, one is driven to add. Indeed, no alert reader of Jews and Power can help being struck by the relevance of its concerns to the dilemmas confronted by the United States today in our struggle with radical Islam. How often have the abuses at Abu Ghraib been cited as evidence that, in fighting Islamist terror, we have so degraded ourselves as to undercut the legitimacy of the fight itself? How many times have we been told that, so long as the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay remains open, the U.S. lacks moral standing on the issue of human rights? It is hardly surprising that critics or enemies of the U.S. should employ such spurious and self-serving arguments. What is worrisome is the degree to which they have gained currency in our own political debates.

Wisse’s book does not explore these topics. But it is a testament to the importance of her theme, and to the thoroughness with which she examines it, that Jews and Power can also serve as a basis for pondering the broader self-doubt, often cloaked in pretensions of superior morality, that today infects much of the liberal democratic West. For providing that lesson, and for doing so with passion, eloquence, and peerless intellectual verve, Ruth Wisse deserves all honor and gratitude.

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