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Jews and Power By: Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Ruth R. Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Born in Czernowitz (now part of Ukraine) and raised in Montreal, she was the first professor to offer courses in Yiddish literature at McGill University, where she helped found the Department of Jewish Studies in the late 1960s. She is the author of the new book, Jews and Power.

FP: Dr. Ruth R. Wisse, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Wisse: Glad to be here.

FP: What inspired you to write this book?

Wisse: While studying the Jews, both professionally and as a member of the tribe, I realized what a central role they had played in political history. It disturbed me that having fought so valiantly to overcome their political handicap as a “landless” people in Europe, they should now be surrounded in the Middle East by Arab countries that begrudged them their very small homeland. Though the Jews were my immediate concern, I was equally bothered by their exaggerated place in the political calculation of others. It seemed to me crazy that such a small people should have become, for example, the major preoccupation of the United Nations. My way of coping with anxiety is to try to understand its cause, so I tried to unravel the mystery of Jewish and anti-Jewish politics.

FP: So how do Jewish politics influence anti-Jewish politics?

Wisse: My book is pretty compressed as is, but I’ll try to give a short answer. When Jews lost their sovereignty in the Land of Israel, they learned to live outside it. They remained a nation without three staples of nationhood—land, central political authority, and independent means of self-defense. Jews always knew they had a land: they prayed in its original language, followed its calendar, celebrated its holidays, and mourned its loss. But meanwhile, they tried to adjust to local conditions while following their ordained way of life. Internally, Judaism encouraged something like a rabbinically-governed participatory democracy. “Foreign affairs” required making themselves useful to local rulers in return for rights of residence and physical protection.

Thanks to their powers of adaptation, Jews prospered wherever they were allowed to do so. But they had no way of protecting whatever they acquired or achieved. Sooner or later—“later” sometimes extending for centuries—the political shake-up of a populist uprising, an attack on the kingdom, or a greedy ruler made Jews easy prey. It was always profitable to attack the Jews, and there was no political cost for doing so. Jews inadvertently became what I call a “no-fail target.” Their political strengths and weakness were fatally intertwined.

FP: Why were Jews so powerful in their ability to adapt? The Jews prospered, as you say, wherever they were allowed to do so. What have been the Jews’ greatest strengths in this context?

Wisse: The Bible and the Talmud are the places to begin looking for an answer to this question. The Bible describes how hard it was for that rabble of Jews fleeing from Egypt to become a disciplined people. Take a look not only at the Ten Commandments but at Deuteronomy chap. 28 to see how tough Jewish self-discipline is expected to be. The Jewish way of life was designed to bring out the best in us by restraining the worst. Any people that abides by—or agrees that it ought to abide by--the Jews’ covenantal arrangement with God would become as resilient as the Jews.

One thing follows from another: individual accountability before the law requires universal literacy, collective responsibility as a people requires communal self-help, keeping the Sabbath cultivates human dignity, putting a curb on aggression against others means that one has to acquire things through other means....The strengths of the Jews derive from the Jewish way of life, and sometimes persist for a generation among those who quit that way of life.

Did others covet what Jews attained without wanting to assume their discipline? Yes, from ancient times to the present. Opposition to Jews takes many forms and has many causes of which covetousness—Tenth Commandment—is assuredly one.

FP: One of your main and powerful themes is how Jews have historically blamed themselves and in so doing tried to accommodate their enemy (the Diaspora strategy), rather than confronting the enemy who wishes to destroy them. Can you talk a bit about that? The Oslo Syndrome, as Kenneth Levin has titled his book, is a tragic example, right?

Wisse: I don’t retroactively hold Jews responsible for the aggression against them. In fact, my book applauds those communal powers that allowed Jews to thrive and to create such a resilient civilization. Self-accountability, including self-criticism and self-discipline, is the basis of Jewish and democratic societies, and these are precisely the features that ensure their Jewishness and democracy.

The problem arises when enemies loom. What do democratically constituted societies do then? Do they find fault in themselves—and in one another—or do they concentrate on ways of resisting and defeating the enemy? As long as Jews lacked a government of their own, their defensive strategies were very limited. Once they constituted a state, they were morally compelled to repel their foes.

Ken Levin applies his insights as both an historian and psychologist to analyze how Israel behaves as a battered child, trying to please its abusers. I try to isolate the political dangers of accommodation, a creative strategy as far as it goes, but fatal when one is trying to accommodate would-be destroyers.

FP: Can you pinpoint one or two instances when Israel unwisely applied accommodation in the face of an enemy? What for instance are the dangers right now and what must Israel do and not do in your view?

Wisse: Of the Oslo accords I’ve said that no other people ever armed its enemy with the expectation of gaining security. Israelis often object when Jews like myself who don’t live there criticize their “drives for peace.” I respond that they have a right to ask for help from us in combating their enemies, but they cannot expect us to lie.

Israel faces the same dangers as any democracy at war, but compounded by the fact that it has been fighting the most lop-sided war in history. First and foremost, Israel needs to remind itself, its enemies, and the world that it is the plaintiff, not the defendant in the court of nations. Israel should state and restate its demands for unconditional diplomatic acceptance and for the basic respect owing to all nations according to the U.N. Charter. The ratio of Arab to Jewish land currently stands at about 640: 1. Israel needs to keep asking why Arab and Muslim leaders feel entitled to so much while denying them so little. Arab leaders have scapegoated Israel for sixty years with damaging consequences to their societies: Israel does them no favor by trying to ignore their aggression and swallowing their daily insult.

Jewish strength derives from self-accountability, but moral confidence and political strategy require making demands of others as well of one oneself.

FP: Your thoughts on President Bush, going to war after 9/11 and being on the side of Jews?

Wisse: Several Presidents have been great friends of Israel. But President Bush was the first to recognize that attacks on Israel are a warm-up for attacks on the US. This flies in the face of traditional State Department analysis that wants to curry favor with the Arabs and therefore sees the US friendship with Israel as a potential diplomatic handicap. The George W. Bush Administration, especially in its early years, more realistically saw just the opposite—that a strong Israel is America’s first line of defense. I regret that the President does not keep articulating this point as strongly as he did after 9/11.

I supported the war in Iraq because I felt it was necessary to take the war to the enemy rather than allowing it to be fought on American soil. That was the choice. This is not a war that could be avoided. Despite the mistakes and the risks involved, toppling Saddam Hussein was a great gift to the Iraqi people and to the Arab world, and I sincerely hope that the political opportunity it provided is not squandered. I’m sorry Bush could not or did not do more to rally the country behind this struggle that needs to be fought in words as well as by the military.

FP: You are right, and Al Qaeda is on the ropes now in Iraq – and the Western left is really upset about it.

Tell us a bit about the history of Jews and power. And illuminate for us how democracy is interwoven with being pro-Jewish. If one is anti-Jew, there exists a tendency toward totalitarianism, correct?

Wisse: Hannah Arendt opens her book on totalitarianism with an analysis of anti-Semitism, showing how the organization of politics against the Jews was fundamental to fascism and communism alike. But non-totalitarian movements use anti-Semitism in similar ways. European anti-Semitism on both the Left and the Right identified Jews as the carriers and messengers, symbol and embodiment of the parts of liberal democracy that they resisted. Liberal democracy allowed Jews to compete for the first time on more or less equal terms, and the better they adapted—including as faithful citizens of their countries of residence—the easier it was to blame them for its alleged failures: “You’re unemployed because Jews have your jobs.” “You’re poor because Jews have your money.” “The Church is losing its authority because Jews are undermining the culture.” And so forth. Anti-Semitism was a politics of blame that developed in tandem with liberal democracy to put a Jewish face on the reasons for the dislocation and anxieties of modernity. In my book I try to show that although not all anti-liberal parties were anti-Semitic, there were no anti-Semitic parties that were not anti-liberal.

FP: Would the Palestinians even have a national identity today if it wasn’t for their addiction to hating Jews?

Wisse: Unfortunately, “hating Jews” is not restricted to Palestinians, but it is certainly true that the sense of identity among Palestinian Arabs is stronger than that of, say, Jordanian Arabs with whom they share a common language and culture. This is because they cast themselves not in relation to their own history but primarily, and in some cases exclusively, as anti-Jews. Many European nationalisms identified the Jew as the archetypal intruder, Other, alien, and illegitimate usurper. (Who is a Frenchman? He who is not a Jew.) The Germans brought this to one kind of culmination, and Palestinian Arabs have gone even farther. To an amazing and unprecedented degree—unprecedented, I think, in human history—Palestinian Arabs have defined themselves in relation to another people—the Jews. The most important date on the Palestinian calendar is not any Muslim, Arab, or native Palestinian event but the day of Israel’s founding which is commemorated as the nakba, or cataclysm. The nakba, in turn, is described as the Palestinian holocaust. Websites offer survivors’ testimonies, and allege “mass deportations,” deliberately using the images and vocabulary of the destruction of European Jewry. Given the rich (some would say, all too rich) historical experience of the Jews, Palestinians gain tremendous power from casting themselves as that part of the Arab world chosen to displace the Jews.

Confining Palestinian Arabs to refugee camps was a deliberate strategy of Arab rulers who did not mind sacrificing generations of their fellow Arabs to perpetual misery so that they would constitute the common excuse for scapegoating Israel. And what of the Palestinian leaders? Mahmoud Abbas wrote his dissertation in Moscow not on some aspect of nation building but on how Zionists assisted Nazis in exaggerating the Holocaust. What kind of national leader is more obsessed with defaming another people than with improving his own? But children born into the Palestinian refugee situation are born into this view of themselves, and until they are reeducated in a positive identity they will remain warped by this negative identification.

My book is about the imperfect politics of the Jews, but I am no less concerned about the Arab casualties of anti-Jewish politics.

Unfortunately, “hating Jews” is not restricted to Palestinians, but it is certainly true that the sense of identity among Palestinian Arabs is stronger than that of, say, Jordanian Arabs with whom they share a common language and culture. This is because they cast themselves not in relation to their own history but primarily, and in some cases exclusively, as anti-Jews.

Many European nationalisms intensified their sense of national identity by identifying the Jew as the archetypal intruder, Other, alien, and illegitimate usurper. (Who is a Frenchman? He who is not a Jew.) The Germans brought this to one kind of culmination, and Palestinian Arabs have gone even farther. To an amazing and unprecedented degree—unprecedented, I think, in human history—Palestinian Arabs have defined themselves in relation to another people—the Jews. The most important date on the Palestinian calendar is not any Muslim, Arab, or native Palestinian event but the day of Israel’s founding which is commemorated as the nakba, or cataclysm. The nakba, in turn, is described as the Palestinian holocaust. Websites offer survivors’ testimonies, and allege “mass deportations,” deliberately using the images and vocabulary of the destruction of European Jewry. Given the rich (some would say, all too rich) historical experience of the Jews, Palestinians gain tremendous power from casting themselves as that part of the Arab world chosen to displace the Jews.

Confining Palestinian Arabs to refugee camps was a deliberate strategy of Arab rulers who did not mind sacrificing generations of their fellow Arabs to perpetual misery so that they would constitute the common excuse for scapegoating Israel and the fodder for perpetual war against Israel. And what of the Palestinian leaders? Mahmoud Abbas wrote his dissertation in Moscow not on some aspect of nation building but on how Zionists assisted Nazis in exaggerating the Holocaust. What kind of national leader is more obsessed with defaming another people than with improving his own? But children born into the Palestinian refugee situation are born into this view of themselves, and until they are reeducated in a positive identity they will remain warped by this negative identification.

My book is about the imperfect politics of the Jews, but I am no less concerned about the casualties of anti-Jewish politics which are destructive of Jews and anti-Jews both.

FP: What is your interpretation of the Jewish leftist psychology that leads to blaming Israel and reaching out in solidarity to the enemy? (i.e. Noam Chomsky embracing Nasrallah, etc.)

Wisse: Anti-Jewish Jews are a byproduct of all universalist movements that try to “transcend” particularism. This was as true of some Christians as it is of some Leftists. The Jews who gravitate toward such movements want to get rid of Jewish distinctiveness first of all. Some of them claim to be doing it for the sake of the Jews, to rid them of their burden in history. I try not be distracted by their antagonism since we currently face much more serious enemies.

FP: Are you optimistic or pessimistic in terms of Jews and Israelis to deal with the threats that they face today and in the near future?

Wisse: I can’t do better in response to this question than to quote the conclusion of an essay I’ve just published in Commentary, “How Not to Remember & How Not to Forget:”

Whenever my older brother Ben calculated the political odds against the Jews, he would look to the reality of the Jewish homeland in Israel as an antidote to his dejection. The inscription we chose for his tombstone, from I Samuel 15:20, may serve the same purpose for others who, like him, occasionally succumb to despair: netzah yisrael lo y’shaker. A promise translated in the King James Version as “the Strength of Israel will not lie,” it may more simply be rendered as “Israel will survive forever.”

I try to express my optimism by facing up to the threats you refer to, and by spending as much time in Israel as I can.

FP: Dr. Ruth R. Wisse, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Wisse: Thanks for having me as your guest.


Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.


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