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Power Failure

Ruth Wisse takes on anti-Semitism and Jewish discomfort with being in charge

scott medintz
August 17, 2007

It may seem that there are two Ruth Wisses. One, the eminent Harvard professor of Yiddish and comparative literature, is the author of The Shlemiel as a Modern Hero, and the editor of some half-dozen anthologies of Yiddish prose and poetry, much of which she has translated herself. The other, a political firebrand, is the author of If I Am Not For Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews, a frequent contributor to Commentary and The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, and staunch public defender of politically incorrect positions. (She blamed “feminist dogma” for the ouster of Harvard president Larry Summers, comparing his very public downfall to a “Soviet show trial.”)

There is just one Ruth Wisse, of course, and for her there is no disconnect between these two aspects of her career. Her deep study of Yiddish literature, she says, taught her about “the corrupting potential of powerlessness”—a notion she elaborates in Jews and Power, the eighth book in the Jewish Encounters series from Schocken and Nextbook. Not only does the book examine the history of the Jews’ complex and unique relationship with political power, it also argues forcefully that the very survival of Israel and world Jewry may depend on a deeper understanding of the topic.

Your book is meant to be, among other things, a corrective to the notion that the political experience of the Jews has been largely ignored in favor of their religious and cultural significance. Why is this an important endeavor?

The book could have been called Jews and Anti-Jews, because it is ultimately about the way in which the Jewish relationship to power is quite opposite to that of many other nations. This dichotomy has created political tensions that have so far largely been ignored.

What makes the Jewish relationship to power so unusual?

In the Diaspora, Jews developed what I would call a politics of accommodation. I mean accommodation not in any pejorative sense, but as a strategy, a means of survival. Jews wanted to maintain their way of life but couldn’t do it in their own land. So they went about trying to prove themselves useful to rulers in return for protection. Most other nations judge themselves according to how much land they can acquire, how much power they can exert, etcetera. So the coming together of these two very different political outlooks throughout the history of the Jews has had its own consequences.

That bargain—usefulness in exchange for protection—never seemed to last.

Right. Sometimes the arrangement worked for hundreds of years. But inevitably there came a time when the protection was withdrawn. At that point the Jews were extraordinarily vulnerable because they had no independent means of self-protection.

You write that Jews sometimes have a tendency to romanticize that kind of powerlessness.

Well, here is how it happens. Jews decide to live a certain way because of their covenant and relationship with the Almighty. Sometimes the consequences of that were weakness and poverty. I think it’s reasonable to say to yourself, “I will accept the consequences of poverty if I must because they are unfortunately the price I have to pay for remaining a Jew.” But when Jews then take that a step further and say that to be a Jew is to be weak and powerless—this is the romanticization, because Jews never wanted to be weak or poor. And until recently they certainly never made a virtue of it. But there’s a lingering temptation to take the negative consequence and turn that into a positive value.

Among other things I would like to draw attention to with this book is that the corruptions of powerlessness are no less a danger than the corruptions of power. Yiddish literature is one of the things that has made me acutely aware of this this tendency to turn poverty and weakness into virtues. Many Yiddish writers, people like Sholem Aleichem and I.L.Peretz, when they were looking for Jewish heroes, found Jewish heroism in people who were able to overcome the debilitating effects of powerlessness. But others went further: they assumed that power was evil in and of itself, and ascribed moral heroism to powerlessness because it lacked power, not necessarily because it performed any good.

Still, you point out that the “politics of accommodation” has also been a source of great strength for Jews.

Yes. It turns out to have been a brilliant political experiment because what Jews perfected along the way was the power to adapt. And more so today than ever before, nothing is more valuable than that kind of elasticity.

Adaptability is often thought to be an especially effective tool in modern times and under liberal, democratic political regimes. Yet, the so-called period of Emancipation, when modern democracies were born and Jews were for the first time being granted civic rights in places like France and Germany, proved to be a particularly difficult time. Why?

When Emancipation came, modern Jews felt that this would so much work to their benefit—that once you no longer had tyrannical leaders and instead had a democratic culture under which everyone was considered equal, surely that would mean an end to discrimination.

It turned out quite differently. The shift to democracy was accompanied by tremendous social, economic, and cultural upheavals. Those upheavals had to be explained. Politicians had to win over the population by persuasion. So demagogues found in the Jews the perfect explanation and an ideal target for “negative campaigning.” You’re unemployed? The Jews are taking your jobs. You’re poor? The Rothschilds are taking your money. Anti-Semites cast liberal democracy as a Jewish plot to take over the country from within. The 1879 pamphlet that officially launched modern anti-Semitism, called The Victory of Jewry over Germandom, says just that: that the Jews have already won a victory over us. It says, in effect, “You think that democracy is this wonderful thing? You think that your democracy is going to give you greater freedom? Oh, no—that’s not what happens. It’s the Jew who is using that argument in order to take advantage of our nation.”

Are you suggesting that anti-Semitism is endemic to democracy?

Yes and no. Anti-Semitism is available to every kind of government. But I think there’s a difference between formal democracy, meaning universal suffrage, and “constitutional culture”—democracy that is not just skin deep, democracy where the population has internalized democratic culture such as you see in the United States. In the U.S. people have come to understand that the entire population is in it together and has to solve its problems collectively. So the politics of blame don’t work against an alien entity. Instead, Democrats accuse Republicans and Republicans accuse Democrats, but it is always understood that “they” is a different segment of the same polity. That’s why scapegoating the Jews has not worked very successfully in the American political system. But it assuredly can and does work wherever demagogues can convince people that “others” are responsible for their distress.

That notion helps explain why pockets of anti-Semitism pop up. It tends to rear its head in cultures that don’t feel, for example, that the rule of law is being uniformly applied.

Or where they do not have a culture of self-accountability. There are minorities that blame others for their weaknesses and there are majorities that blame others for their weakness. It’s not one kind of group or another. Demagogues can arise and sometimes they can channel this kind of negative energy to their own advantage. And if a population is vulnerable at a given point, they fall for it. Blaming others is extremely dangerous because it’s a deflection of the problems. It’s a misidentification of the problems. And so it exacerbates the problem. Any population that begins to rely on anti-Semitism becomes deformed. It is putting off for a longer and longer period of time the real solution to these problems, which will have to come from within itself.

That’s why anti-Semitism should not be tolerated. Jews often make the point on moral grounds: “Look, it isn’t fair to target the Jews; it’s an act of discrimination.” And all of this is true. But I think one should make the political argument, which is much more powerful and much more objectively provable—namely, that a society that resorts to anti-Semitism will destroy itself.

Exactly. The Zionist movement attributed the problem of anti-Semitism to the fact that Jews did not have a land. The idea was that you would make the Jews unexceptional by reclaiming the land, a reasonable hypothesis at a time of emerging nation-states. No one understood that by then anti-Semitism had become such a potent political instrument that it could be used whether or not Jews had a land. In fact, no sooner had Hitler been defeated than the Arab League formed around opposition to Israel. Arabs began to use the politics of blame much more vigorously than Europeans ever did. Anti-Semitism is even more important to Arab societies and to some Muslim societies than it was for European societies, because they feel they are starting from so much farther behind the West in the process of modernization. They feel so much more threatened by modernity and the concept of equal rights.

Anti-Semitism is treated as merely a form of discrimination. It gets a cluck-cluck of the tongue and then everyone says, “Oh, isn’t that horrible. They hate the Jews. They shouldn’t hate the Jews.” There is no sustained analysis of why these countries need it so profoundly—of what role it is playing in their political culture and in their political institutions and actions.

Is that what compelled you to write this book?

Absolutely. We have an old-fashioned approach to this. The time has really come when political science has to take much more seriously that anti-Semitism is a political phenomenon, the most successful ideology of modern times. It is the only ideology that made its way from Europe to the Middle East, and played a central role among so many different peoples. Jews have to become much more comfortable with analyzing the political aspects of their existence. Yes, they are a religious civilization. Yes, they have a rich culture. But their political existence is what has become most problematic. The politics of blame ultimately kills more people than AIDS, for example, because it foments aggression which, ultimately, the Jews are too small to contain.

So, anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish problem?

It is not. Politics organizes against the Jews because they are a convenient target. It’s safer to foment aggression against the tiny Jewish people than against Britain or America. But as we see in retrospect, Hitler’s war against the Jews was a generative force for the war against all that the Jews represented, and the same now holds true for the Arab war against Israel. Bush and Blair have come in on the side of the Jews against terror for the same reason that Roosevelt and Churchill had to come in on the side of the Jews of Europe, because the enmity against the Jews is directed, ultimately, against them.

In the book you describe a recurring figure that one sees throughout Jewish culture and history: the Jewish traitor—someone who left the community and in some way betrayed it.

The level of hostility against the Jewish minority is sometimes so great that inevitably a percentage of people will want to escape. Now, those who simply assimilate, or change their religion, fine—goodbye. But others take a more complicated route. You have this phenomenon in Jewish history of people taking pride in the fact that they’ve turned against the Jews for the sake of some higher, more universal idea. This happened at the time of the Roman assault when Christianity defined itself as a higher form of Judaism, and closer to our time, when Jewish Communists said that they were a higher order of egalitarians. From their perspective, these people may feel they have the greater interests of humanity at heart. But when this “transcendence” occurs at a time of hostility against the Jews, it frequently involves blaming the Jews for causing that hostility. In the book, I describe the case of anti-Jewish converts in Christian Spain, but I’m also interested in the ferocity with which Jewish Communists went about denouncing Jewish religion, Jewish nationalism, and Hebrew.

Accusing Jews of betraying Jews is a complicated business, though, wouldn’t you say?

The line between reformers and betrayers is very thin. And it has happened that you have reformers and suddenly they will understand that in their zeal of reforming, they have actually given the enemy ammunition. Some stop short and completely re-evaluate what they have been doing. But many boast of their loftier sympathies for the oppressed.

It sounds like you’re saying it’s not okay to criticize the state of Israel?

Of course it is. I am very critical of the state of Israel for various things it does. Why shouldn’t one be? But often what’s being directed against Israel is not criticism. It is a politics of blame. The fact is if you join in the context of blame and hold Jews responsible for what befell Palestinians or hold Jews responsible for the problems of the Arab world—that’s a politics of blame. That’s not criticism. The Arab countries caused the Palestinian plight. They are the ones who did not accept partition. They opposed the Palestinian entity, preferring to keep the Palestinians homeless as evidence of Jewish iniquity.

This kind of argument has made you a controversial figure in the academic world and at Harvard. Is it a role you seek?

It never occurs to me to be controversial. I much prefer consensus and I long for agreement. But I can’t accept what seems to me the cowardice of people who will not face unpleasant facts. Many people give me advice: “Huddle as close as you can to the center because then we’ll get everybody on board.” But my feeling is that public debate resembles a tug-of-war. Your task is to state your case as forcefully and persuasively as you possibly can. If you can afford to be the outside person and pull the hardest, then you let other people huddle at the center and pull the center towards you more strongly. So few people are prepared to be that outside person and to pull as hard as they can, as effectively as they can.

Were you trying to do that with this book—pull the center towards you from the outside?

All I mean to do is to write the obvious. Sometimes I am appalled at the fact that people don’t find it obvious. In Hebrew one would say muvan meelav, it’s self-explanatory, axiomatic. But if others don’t yet find it obvious, then your job is to set it out as compellingly as you possibly can.