The Nerve of Ruth Wisse
“Ruth Wisse is worth a battalion.” This I heard at Tel Aviv University from a graduate student of mine with some expertise in military matters, being a colonel in the Israeli army. Her remark, astute in 1988, seems in retrospect positively prescient as a characterization of Wisse’s heroic new book, If I am not for Myself . . . The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews.1 For Wisse, the eminent Harvard scholar of Yiddish literature and long-time contributor to COMMENTARY, is ever mindful of the obligations of warfare—obligations which, she contends, liberals in general and many Jewish liberals in particular have dodged:
The defense of Israel against the Arabs, as against earlier anti-Semites, would require of liberals the kind of sustained exertion in the realm of ideas and political action that Israelis have had to manifest in the military defense of their country. Instead, many liberals sacrifice the Jews to liberal pieties and find that Israel is no longer a worthy cause.
While always keeping in mind the fact that she is fighting on the North American and not on the Israeli front, Ruth Wisse, more than anyone else I know, has shouldered her obligations in this war.
If I am not for Myself begins with a letter from the author to a friend who has left Canada (where Wisse herself used to live and teach) to settle in Israel. Wisse then appears to change course and abandons the epistolary form for a series of discrete chapters about the varied aspects of the liberal surrender to the forces arrayed against the Jewish national enterprise. Wisse is herself a kind of liberal, a liberal “tempered,” as Matthew Arnold once said of himself, “by experience, reflection, and renouncement.” For this reason, and because every chapter returns, in its own way, to what she calls “the connecting dramatic link between moral courage in personal life and in politics,” the whole book takes on a highly personal—or, better, familial—tone, and may be read, indeed, as an extended, if often broken-hearted, love letter.
Essentially, Wisse’s book seeks to explain why and how the Arabs in the last two-and-a-half decades have succeeded in turning upside-down the world’s (especially the liberal world’s) view of the “conflict” between themselves and the Jews in the Middle East. The master stroke of their strategy, she argues, was to expand their war from the battlefield, where they had failed to live up to their own traditions of military prowess, to the realm of ideas, where Jews had traditionally been dominant. To prosecute this latter war they relied upon a strategy of inversion.
Thus, having refused to admit a Jewish state into a region they designated as exclusively theirs, the Arab nations now accused the Jews of refusing to accept an Arab (Palestinian) state; having launched several wars, perpetrated countless terrorist attacks, and maintained an international boycott, the Arabs now accused Israel of aggression against them. Guilty of exploiting Palestinian Arab refugees and treating them as human refuse, they blamed Israel for the condition of homelessness they had themselves created and fostered. Zionism, the Jewish aspiration for a homeland, they “ declared racist because it deprived Palestinian Arabs of their homeland.”
By inverting the terms of their struggle against Israel, by shifting from the goal of “turning the Mediterranean red with Jewish blood” (the battle cry of 1967) to the pretended search for a haven for the homeless, the Arabs also succeeded in transferring the rhetoric of their opposition to Israel from the Right to the Left. The Arab oppressors had become the oppressed, the aggressors the aggressed-against. In so doing they made a calculated appeal to Western liberalism with its core beliefs in fairness, in the redress of grievance, and in the negotiability of all conflicts, however seemingly intractable.
The fundamental premise of Wisse’s argument is that this appeal has succeeded. And the reason is that when liberals—including Jewish liberals—are forced to choose between, on the one hand, their faith in rationality and the progressive improvement of mankind, and, on the other hand, the Jews, they will invariably choose the former. It will always be easier, she argues, to blame or discredit the Jews, “a very tiny people,” than to come to their defense, especially if doing so requires rethinking liberal ideas.
Ruth Wisse is by no means the first to remark that liberalism has a “Jewish problem.” In 1878, the great English novelist George Eliot observed that, among her contemporaries,
anti-Judaic advocates usually belong to a party which has felt itself glorified in winning for Jews . . . the full privileges of citizenship.
Like Wisse, Eliot observed the paradox of “liberal gentlemen” routinely blaming the Jews themselves for the inability of liberalism to protect them. Eliot also foreshadowed Wisse in noting how Jews, alone of all modern peoples, were not allowed by liberals to declare their national allegiances. “Why,” asked Eliot,
are we so eager for the dignity of certain populations of whom . . . we have never seen a single specimen . . . while we sneer at the notion of a renovated national dignity for the Jews?
If Western liberals in general became unsympathetic to the fate of the Jews because it contradicted their sanguine view of the world, the tenacity of the Arabs’ rejection of Israel was bound to cause a sizable defection of Jewish liberals in particular. Feeling themselves in some sense the target of the Arab campaign to destroy Israel’s moral image—a campaign aggressively pursued in universities and schools, in churches, in news media, in publishing houses, in professional organizations—many American Jewish liberals sought to escape the negative role in which they were being cast by the alleged misdeeds of Israel. Indeed, the more the Arab nations and organizations were able to discredit Israel,
the more Jews outside Israel tried to win back their own popularity by proving their innocence. The paradoxical political behavior of American Jews could . . . be described as the desire to dissociate oneself from a people under attack by advertising one’s own goodness.
Hence the spectacle, surely unique in history, of vocal members of an ethnic minority in America obsessively and publicly disclaiming responsibility for the supposed wrongdoing of their own people’s homeland. Just imagine, writes Wisse, a Polish-American organization lobbying against aid to Poland the way the Jewish Peace Lobby and New Jewish Agenda lobby against Israel and on behalf of the PLO, or (to add an example not adduced by Wisse) American Catholics negotiating with Britain on the conflict in Ulster as American Jews like the lawyer Rita Hauser “negotiate” with the PLO.
And, finally, it has not only been Jewish liberals in America who have fallen victim to the Arab war of ideas. Wisse also indicts those Israelis who, under the pressure generated by the attack on their country’s legitimacy, have acquired a habit of differentiating between two Zionisms, the pure and good Zionism of “ingathering” versus the evil Zionism of “expansionism.” As she notes, the Israeli intellectuals most prized in the West are those who, failing to temper self-criticism with self-respect, tend instead to acquiesce in the erasure of geographical perspective and historical fact that characterizes anti-Zionist propaganda. Among them she singles out the writer David Grossman, who in his chronicle The Yellow Wind incorporates the ultimate Arab improvement upon old-fashioned anti-Semitism—namely, the wholesale embezzlement of the symbols and terms of Jewish history and consciousness, so that Palestinian Arabs now “replace” Jews.
In short, never has a book so relentlessly unmasked the evasions, the flummery, the cowardice parading as courage that have long characterized a certain species of Jewish liberalism. With surgical precision Wisse cuts through the cant of “moral strutters” who, by making Israel’s existence contingent upon its being a “light unto the nations,” licentiously equate the divine election of the Jew to receive the Law with the anti-Semitic selection of the modern Jew as the prime target of international discrimination.
Nor is Wisse merely “negative” in her approach. She persistently and passionately celebrates the implicit universalism of Jewish “particularity” as against the repressiveness of internationalist idealism; she shows how Jewish nationalism, not Jewish socialism, has been the powerful force of liberation in this century; and she demonstrates how, in contrast to the absurd (and implicitly racist) notions of a “Jewish” socialism or a “Jewish” humanism, only the traditional idea of a Jewish way of life is open to all people alike, a “tree of life” to any who will take hold of it.
If I am not for Myself is a triumph of moral reasoning, a necessary and indispensable utterance on the contemporary Jewish condition, and a work of true elegance of mind. How can it be, then, that another elegant mind—one of the most elegant it has been my privilege to know since we were in college together several decades ago—has excoriated this book as “scurrilous,” “perverse,” “tendentious,” “strident,” “unpleasant,” and (with hammering insistence) “paranoid”?
The author of this attack, Robert Alter, is, like Ruth Wisse, a regular, veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. A professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley, he has, in his studies of the Hebrew Bible, given us new eyes with which to read the ancient texts; he has been the foremost interpreter of modern Hebrew literature in this country; and in his general literary criticism he has done much to restore our waning faith in literature as a means of encouraging humane understanding. He has, moreover, long been a committed Zionist (who in 1991 had the distinction of being singled out for vilification by Noam Chomsky’s fanatically anti-Zionist followers in San Francisco).
Yet despite the values they share, Wisse’s book touched a raw nerve of anger in Alter, and in a lengthy review-essay in the New Republic (November 30, 1992) he failed to find in it even one sentence of redeeming value. In Alter’s reading, Wisse had grossly erred by suggesting that all criticism of Israel was “motivated by a sick or cynical complicity with the enemy”; had failed to distinguish between leftists and liberals, anti-Zionist propagandists like Chomsky and “staunch friends” like the sociologist Nathan Glazer; had falsely indicted all modern Israeli writers on the basis of half-a-dozen texts; had misrepresented the character of Arab hostility toward Israel as continuous with European anti-Semitism; had forgotten, in her zeal to attack liberalism, that the liberal democracies have not only conferred great benefits upon the Jews of the West but also destroyed the lethal anti-Semitism of the Hitler and Stalin regimes; and, finally, had flouted the heroic aspiration of Zionism to “normalization,” which means, among other things, dispensing with Diaspora Jewry’s “pathological” fears about omnipresent enemies.
It is precisely to such a pathology that Alter ascribes Wisse’s own alleged failures of discrimination and balance. He accuses her of suffering from a deranging obsession, which he encapsulates in the statement: “Wisse is convinced that every day is Masada.”
Unfortunately, this imputation of “Masada”-like paranoia reminds one of an earlier and rather sorry episode in Alter’s career as an occasional commentator on Jewish politics.
In the July 1973 issue of COMMENTARY, Alter published an article, “The Masada Complex.” It was provoked by the columnist Stewart Alsop’s accusation that Israel (in the person of Prime Minister Golda Meir) was then “creating its own Masada” by failing to respond positively to Egyptian “overtures.” To which Meir had retorted: “We do have a Masada complex. We have a pogrom complex. We have a Hitler complex.” Stepping back from this confrontation, Alter traced the development of the Israelis’ image of the mountain fortress in the Judean desert where the last stand of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman legions took place in 73 C.E.—a rebellion which ended in suicide rather than submission.
Pondering the large role played in the development of Israel’s image of Masada by a single Hebrew poem written in 1927, Alter expressed unease with the link between literary and political images in Israel. Thus, Golda Meir, in connecting Holocaust, pogroms, and Israel’s state of siege in the summer of 1973, might, Alter feared, have had her political thinking muddled by poetry—to the point where she failed to see that Israel was so much the dominant, virtually omnipotent, power in the region that it could very easily “afford to negotiate out of a position of strength.” In particular, Alter urged “greater flexibility and more readiness for diplomatic risk-taking than the Israelis have so far evinced.”
Three months after Alter proposed that Israel jettison its “Masada” myth, the Arabs, who showed no evidence of dispensing with their myths, launched the Yom Kippur War and very nearly overran the state. The correspondence on Alter’s “Masada Complex” in the October COMMENTARY must have reached the hands of readers as 1,400 Syrian tanks were racing down the Golan Heights (to be met by a total of 180 tanks of the omnipotent Israelis) and 80,000 Egyptian troops were besieging 500 Israeli defenders along the Suez Canal.
Alter now seems to think that Ruth Wisse’s mode of coming to Israel’s defense is almost as great a danger to the state as he once thought Golda Meir’s siege mentality to be. He accuses Wisse, too, of lacking a sense of history when she sees the Arabs as continuators of the Nazis, and he takes special umbrage at her statement that
The Arab charge that the creation of Israel is a crime against an Arab people has much in common with the earlier Christian charge that Jews denied the Son of God, or that of the Nazis that Jews polluted the Aryan race.
Although Alter readily grants that the Arabs have constantly “used” anti-Semitic ideas in their propaganda, he insists that their hostility to the Jews is not “rooted” in anti-Semitism because that hostility depends not on fantasies but “on observed behavior of the Jews,” i.e., the modern Jewish settlement of Palestine.
But surely, one might argue, the anti-Semitism of European Christendom also began with “observed behavior of the Jews” before it evolved into something more pathological. For as Alter himself wrote in an article published in 1991:
The Jews did emphatically reject the divinity of Jesus, the truth of the Gospels, and the authority of the Church, just as they were denounced for doing in anti-Judaic exhortation.
The fully developed tree is not reducible to its root. And even if one believed Alter’s astonishing statement that “The Israeli-Arab conflict is a conflict of two peoples over one land,” one might ask what has compelled the Arabs to transform a “normal” political conflict into an anti-Semitic crusade, forced them to collaborate with Hitler in the 1940’s and with neo-Nazi organizations in the 1990’s, forced them to disseminate The Protocols of the Elders of the Zion?
Alter’s charge that Wisse has a “frozen view of history” (because she sees anti-Zionism as continuous with anti-Semitism) invites the strenuous denial which she has made in her response to his attack.2 The charge also invites a tu quoque. Thus, Alter indicates, quite rightly, that the designers of Israel’s military strategy and many of the state’s political leaders were themselves “liberal” in the broad sense of the term. But his fierce defense of contemporary Israeli liberals and leftists takes no account of how that tradition has changed since the 1977 election, when the Labor party lost control of what it had come to consider its ownership of government to people it viewed as cultural inferiors.
During its fifteen years in opposition, the Israeli Left built up a terrific energy of resentment against the state, against religious Jews, even in some quarters against Zionism itself. The Dayan of Israeli politics is no longer Moshe but his daughter Yael, the novelist and Knesset member who runs to meet with Yasir Arafat in order to signal her support of sanctions against her own country. The Benvenisti of Israeli culture is no longer David, the proud historian of the land, but his son, the sociologist Meron, who travels the world to tell audiences that Israel is “the master-race democracy.” The Abba Eban who in 1980 could mockingly congratulate George Ball, former Under Secretary of State, for managing to last six minutes “without blaming Israel for whatever he was talking about” would in 1990 feel no qualms about accepting an appointment as George Ball Lecturer at Princeton University.
It is with some trepidation that I venture any criticism of Israeli intellectuals, since one of Alter’s most bitterly stated objections to Wisse concerns her criticisms of such Israelis of the Left,
including many who have stalwartly served in three or more wars and have seen friends and comrades perish in combat.
Yet how far, one wonders, is Alter willing to go in extending an exemption from moral responsibility on grounds of military service? Should it be granted to Matti Peled, a retired major general who is a long-time favorite on the pro-PLO lecture circuit? Is Alter certain that Ilan Halevi, designated by the PLO as its Israeli representative to the Socialist International, or the professor at Haifa who has made a career out of declaring that “Zionism’s original sin” can only be expunged by Israel’s extinction, or the Israelis who sign New York Times ads calling for “dismantling the state” as an act of “minimum justice,” have not done their military service? It is one of the great achievements of Zionism that the kind of Jew who in this country would end up as a conscientious objector in the American Friends Service Committee will in Israel serve in the army. But that should not make us forget that battlefield courage is only one kind of courage.
Of no group of liberal-Left Israelis is Alter more defensive than certain writers, especially Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman. In her chapter on “The Ugly Israeli,” Wisse contends that anti-Zionism now affects Israeli attitudes toward Israel in precisely the way anti-Semitism once affected Jewish attitudes toward Jewishness:
Despite the transforming presence of a Jewish country, intellectuals and writers in Israel today, like their Diaspora counterparts of the 1930’s, try to separate their own “progressive” desire for an independent homeland from the “reactionary” desires of their fellow Jews, in order to escape the Arab politics of hatred.
She analyzes two stories, S. Yizhar’s “The Prisoner” (1948) and A.B. Yehoshua’s “Facing the Forests” (1963), to illustrate her argument that what admitted Israeli literature into the liberal cultural mainstream of the West was its tendency to judge Jewish behavior by the severest standards without taking account of omnipresent Arab hostility.
Of the first story (about mistreatment of an Arab prisoner by Israeli soldiers), Wisse stipulates explicitly: “I don’t mean to suggest, not even slightly, that [admittance into liberal Western culture] was Yizhar’s consideration in writing.” Nevertheless, Alter does not so much confute her analysis of the stories as upbraid her for questioning the motives of their authors. He shows no interest in her suggestion that readers of Yehoshua’s tale (about an Arab who, with Jewish help, burns a Jewish National Fund forest to the ground) might have included the Arabs who, showing that life can imitate art, burned down the Carmel forest in 1989—but he himself presents Irgun forces as virtually armed with the verses of the rightist poet Uri Zvi Greenberg when they attacked Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin in 1948.
The chemistry of human motivation is subtle, especially if we allow for the distinction between conscious and unconscious motives. But numerous Israelis of the type for whom Alter speaks have been perfectly open about their consuming interest in being read, accepted, and influential abroad. Avishai Margalit, a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University and an ideologue of Peace Now, stated some years ago that “an article in the New York Times is much more influential than the same article published [in Israel].” More recently, left-wing Israeli apologists for the scandalous decision to award the Israel Prize to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (intrepid purveyor of the Israeli-Nazi equation) justified the action as “a special way of telling the whole world that we are one of the most . . . democratic societies.”
But something much more serious than the pursuit of fame or fortune and the gratification of vanity is involved in the appeal of Israeli writers to liberals abroad. Alter says, correctly, that Zionist pioneers wanted to “tak[e] control of their own destiny under the conditions of national autonomy enjoyed by other peoples.” Yet in February 1988 (as Wisse points out), some of his own favorite Zionist exemplars—Oz, Yehoshua, the poet Yehuda Amichai, and the journalist Amos Elon—published a strident manifesto in the New York Times demanding that “all friends of Israel in the United States . . . speak up” against Israeli policy in the occupied territories.
According to Alter, these writers worked in the last election campaign for the “moderate-Left Meretz party,” which is now part of the Rabin government; presumably they approve of the actions of one Meretz minister last October who hailed James Baker’s “Fuck the Jews” eruption as “a legitimate expression,” and another who declared, after the Bush-Baker downfall, that
Baker was good for Israel because he pressured us to make concessions. . . . Without massive U.S. intervention we will be stuck.
The desire to escape the consequences of national self-determination by inviting foreign intervention may be consonant with “moderate” leftism, but can it really be called Zionism?
Dan Vittorio Segre, an Israeli writer and specialist on Zionism, does not share Ruth Wisse’s view that anti-Zionism is an extension, refinement, and dramatization of anti-Semitism. But he does say that anti-Zionism has a powerful, neurotic logic of its own,
a logic that has inspired a worldwide campaign of hate against four million Jews who have created a state on a territory smaller than the island of Sicily.
If Segre is right, then it seems irresponsible, if not worse, to disparage Wisse’s engaged, passionate attempt to get at least Jews to resist anti-Zionism.
As it happens, nobody has described the danger of a self-criticism that is not tempered with self-respect and political honesty better than one of the writers Alter defends, the novelist A.B. Yehoshua:
When I saw the depths of crazy self-hatred to which some of my leftist friends had sunk, I started thinking. I decided that I would judge Israelis by the same standards as I judge the rest of the world—not by absolute standards. . . . I’m afraid of this self-hatred, because I know that it can be exploited. When Englishmen or Frenchmen hate themselves—and some do—it doesn’t put their countries at risk. They’re in their countries unconditionally. Whereas here, self-hatred is always connected to something else. . . .
Unfortunately, Yehoshua himself, who uttered those words in 1987, has notably failed to live up to the ideal he enunciated then. But that hardly detracts from its desirability. To the contrary, it testifies to the extremity of a predicament in which many Jews find themselves today and to which, it grieves me to say, my old friend and intellectual guide Robert Alter has now contributed his mite. But to this same agonizing predicament, Ruth Wisse, for one, has responded with unmatched clarity and courage.
1 Free Press, 225 pp., $22.95.
2 See the New Republic, April 19, 1993, for Wisse's lengthy reply to Alter and his shorter, but again acrimonious, response. She says there that “I differ from [Alter] in not entertaining a frozen view of history, in wanting, rather, to change its course. . . . I think that liberals should break with their past, and express their faith in the potential transformation of Arab society by insisting that the Arabs turn their attention away from the Jews toward their own self-improvement.”