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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jews and Power
By Ruth Wisse
231 pages; $19.95
In 70 CE the Second Jewish Commonwealth, otherwise known as the kingdom of Judea, lay on the edge of destruction. Roman troops ringed the walls of Jerusalem, and were on the verge of breaking through. The city's zealous defenders preferred to go down fighting to the last man, rather than reach any compromise that might have saved them.
But one man, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, thought different. Smuggled out of the city to meet the Roman commander, Vespasian, the scholar pleaded to be allowed to set up a refuge of Jewish study that would continue to function as a sort of demilitarized center of autonomy for his co-religionists after the fall of Jerusalem and Judea.
"Whether the Romans sent Ben Zakkai to Yavneh (Jamnia) because it was one of their cities of detention or whether he chose it because it already had a functioning Beth Din, or Jewish judicial court, this 'clear-eyed realist' took the first steps to reconstitute Jewish religious and political authority outside the land of Israel," writes Ruth Wisse.
This was a turning point in Jewish political history, one whose echoes and ramifications are still felt today. We live in the era of another such watershed moment - the restoration after two millennia of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. Yet the issues, questions and arguments about the nature, course and uses of Jewish power are no less fiercely argued in this age, and not just among Jews themselves. Indeed, it sometimes seems that much of the entire world, one whose geographical boundaries far exceed the known world of Ben Zakkai's time, is obsessed with the subject of Jewish power, be it the conventional military might of the Israel, or the supposed influence of the Jewish "lobby," "conspiracy" or "cabal" imagined in the minds of anti-Semites and anti-Zionists of varying degrees.
Into this fray steps Wisse, a noted professor of Yiddish at Harvard and one of the most fervent and erudite defenders of Israel found in the pages of such publications as Commentary and The Wall Street Journal.
Jews and Power is the latest in a series of novella-length essays or short biographies published in the Nextbook series, with the sponsorship of the Avi Chai Foundation. In its pages Wisse, who begins by noting "that Jews figure more prominently in the study of religion than they do in the study of government or politics," proposes to examine "the political aspect of Jewish experience. In particular, I want to see how the politics of Jews occasions the politics of anti-Jews."
Her work could have just as well been titled "Jews and powerlessness." Wisse makes clear from the start she is haunted by the shadow of the Holocaust, both the motives of the perpetrators and, even more so, the fact that "Jews had concentrated on their moral improvement with no political structure to defend Jewish civilization and the children who were expected to perpetrate it."
Why this was so - and why we owe it to those children who were sacrificed to ensure this doesn't happen again - is the concern at the core of this impassioned and valuable work.
Wisse structures Jews and Power roughly along chronological lines, beginning with the centuries after the Roman dispersion, when the Jewish people were suddenly deprived of both the sovereign territory and military might of a normative state. But the Jews didn't vanish into the maw of history like some many other peoples; instead, as Wisse notes, "Jewish creativity expressed itself no less in political adjustment to the Diaspora than in other realms of the spirit," enabling Jews to "function as a nation despite their geographic fragmentation."
This nation though, clearly walked a very narrow bridge; "Jewish life every way was determined everywhere and always by striking the best deal with Gentile rulers."
Wisse finds valuable lessons in negotiating that treacherous path were transmitted through such classic Jewish texts as the biblical Book of Esther and the talmudic parable of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.
Adjusting to life under gentile rule, each Jewish community organized itself in a small, self-governing body known as the kehilla, usually headed by the most learned rabbis. Because the kehilla was a voluntary grouping and lacked its own independent enforcement power, it had for its day distinctly democratic features, including boards of elected or appointed members, a dedication to high literacy rates, a biblical concern for social welfare and justice, and a greater degree of tolerance for internal debate (the famous "two Jews, three opinions" characteristic) than most of its host societies.
Ultimately though, the survival of these communities depended on maintaining the good will of the Christian or Muslim societies whose lands they inhabited. This necessitated a "foreign policy" approach Wisse finds best expressed by the rabbinic dictum dina d'malchuta dina, "the law of the land is the [Jewish] law," on any matter outside religious observance.
But as Wisse ruefully observes, "their political behavior made Jews a constant quarry... any breakdown within such a society exposes Jews to resentment and danger."
BECAUSE IN so many cases Jews were identified with the ruling establishment without belonging to it, they were an all-too-easy target both for radicals and revolutionaries attacking power structures and the authorities who found it convenient to also put blame for social unrest on the Jews.
"Anti-Semitism put a Jewish face on all that threatened security of the old order," writes Wisse. She also notes that the rise of more open and democratic societies in the 19th century, rather than helping the Jews who were well prepared politically to thrive in such environments, only worsened their predicament; "Anti-Semitism condemned the Jews for their virtues and charged them with exploiting the societies they hoped to join."
She is, of course, referring primarily to Europe in the post-emancipation period. But reading this, I couldn't help thinking about how it also applies to the criticism that Walt/Mearsheimer and others have recently directed against the "Israel lobby," in essence condemning the American Jewish community for the civic virtues that have helped make it so successful in arguing that support for Israel is in the US national interest, and not the betrayal of it that they would have it be.
Zionism was a natural response to the no-win political situation in which the Jews increasingly found themselves, as well as an expected echo of similar national liberation movements that arose during the same period. But the early Zionists were wrong, Wisse observes, in their belief that establishing a state would transform traditional anti-Semitic attitudes and "normalize" the unfortunately unique political status of the Jews.
"This did not happen," she writes, "any more than emancipation regularized the political status of the Jews in Europe, and for the same reason - that those opposed to such toleration accused Jews of exploiting it to their advantage. The 'Arab-Israeli' conflict did not turn out to be - as so many pretend it is - a normal territorial conflict dispute between two claimants to the same land. Rather, the Arab war against Israel is an asymmetrical attack by the Arab-Islamist world on the idea of a Jewish homeland."
The rise of Islamic extremism as the dominating factor in the Israeli-Arab conflict makes it increasingly hard to dispute that point, or the author's contention that "prospects for peace in our time depend on how soon Israel is granted the unexceptional place it earned in the family of nations."
Still, as Wisse moves from historical analysis to contemporary commentary, even readers who admire and agree with most of the former in Jews and Power may find themselves taking issue with some of the latter. For me, that point comes when Wisse places Israeli territorial concessions in the context of her analysis of Diaspora Jewish political modes. "Sovereign Israel was obviously able to defend [itself] better than were Jewish polities of the Diaspora," she recognizes, but adds that "far from exposing Jews to the temptations of might, the creation of Israel had inadvertently reproduced in the Middle East a political imbalance almost identical to the one that Jews had experienced in the Diaspora."
This Diaspora Jew turned Israeli says no; despite Israel's very real vulnerabilities, neither its political contingencies nor Israeli attitudes toward the use (or possible misuse) of power are "almost identical" to that of Diaspora Jewry, not by a long shot.
It may well be, as Wisse asserts, that the Oslo Accords and the Gaza disengagement were supported by some here on the basis of "a series of self-delusions" in which Israel "had been conned in substituting a wish for a possibility."
But Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon undertook those steps not because they were among those Israelis whom Wisse sees as "no more inclined or able to subdue the Arabs than the nations among whom Jews had sojourned in exile."
It was rather because Rabin and Sharon were very much "clear-eyed realists" who understood how to exercise power, even ruthlessly, when needed, as well as how to recognize its limits when compromise and concession are necessary to sustain such power over the long term.
After all, if it is to survive in the years ahead as what Wisse rightly calls "the fighting front line of the democratic world," the Jewish state will need leaders and a citizenry who possess both the reckless courage of the Zealots and the prudent judgment of a Yohanan ben Zakkai.
Five questions with Ruth Wisse
Why write now about the subject of Jews and power?
Apparently, certain things become obvious only at a given point - not sooner.
It wasn't until the 1970s that scholars began identifying Jewish political traditions, and this despite the fact that the struggle for Israel was almost entirely a "political" process. I'm very sorry it took me many years to come to see the political dilemma I try to describe in my book. I hope that my book will help move Jewish thinking in this direction.
Your book doesn't mention the Walt/Mearsheimer report, even though there is a strong connection to your subject. Was this deliberate or because of the timing?
I wrote my book before Walt and Mearsheimer published. They are a tiny blip in the history of anti-Jewish politics.
Your book takes a fairly strong position on the Oslo Accords. As a Diaspora Jew, are you totally comfortable with expressing yourself publicly on Israeli politics?
I think Israelis should ask much more than they do of Diaspora Jews. The one thing they cannot expect us to do for them is to lie.
Is it ever a problem for you in Cambridge intellectual circles as a fervent advocate of Israel identified with the conservative movement?
Natan Sharansky faced difficulties in Soviet Russia; not I in Cambridge.
You are one of the leading authorities on Yiddish. What role do you see for the language on a practical level, if at all, for contemporary Jewry?
I think the question you ask deserves a serious answer. Let me mull it over for a while.