Professor Ruth Wisse is known in academia for her accomplishments as a Yiddish language and culture scholar who dares to tackle a wide range of issues, from Jewish humor and literature to the much thornier topics of Jewish politics and what she views as an uncanny failure of Jewish society as a whole to defend Jewish lives.
This is a refreshing point of view in a generation of Jewish scholarship seeking to present the reader with the wealth of Jewish lives in Diaspora. The existence of non-nebbish modes of being, Jewish pirates (Sinan Reis, Moses Cohen Henriques) and Jewish mobsters (Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky), Jewish porn stars (Nina Hartley, James Deen) and Jewish boxers (Daniel Mendoza, Max Baer) is often pointed to as a sign of Jewish normalcy and even accomplishment.
Criminals aren’t usually applauded but, when seen from the safe distance of time and acquired social class, it’s not so bad to consider the option old-granddad was tough as nails and able to get his own way, much better than, for example, the father in the opening scene of the 1981 animation film American Pop, where Haifa-born Jewish-American director Ralph Bakshi presents the father of a lineage of Jewish-American men killed in a pogrom while praying during the first few minutes of the film.
In contrast, Wisse’s seminal book Jews and Power dared to ask the opposite question when it was published in 2007, if Jews are so successful they can be good at anything they like to be, from pirates to bankers to boxers, why is it that as a collective, the Jewish people have been so terrible at politics?
“We Jews often say ‘Am Yisrael Hai’ (the people of Israel live),” Wisse says in an interview with The Jerusalem Post
, ahead of arriving this week for the launch of the Hebrew version of Jews and Power, published by the Tikva Foundation. “But to lose one third of your people (during the Holocaust) is not a great political success.”
The book seeks to explain “how we became a no-fail target that is so convenient for others to exploit,” she says. She points to the United Nations, where hateful speeches about the only Jewish state on earth merit little response, not to mention punishment, at an institution claiming to foster peace and tolerance.
This is why, in a book devoted to Jewish power, Wisse did not include the historical Jewish kingdoms of Yemen, Khazaria and Ethiopia, as they did not influence the main thread of Jewish historical experience. The political success of the Jews who created the Himyarite Kingdom in what is now Yemen did not help their descendants during the Mawza Exile of 1679.
Noting that she didn’t focus on how power was used by Jews during the Kingdom of David either, Wisse said that she decided to focus on the destruction of the First Temple to answer this question: “How did the Jews become such an attractive target?” Arguing that it is this question, which is the sui generis (unique, of its own kind) question of the collective Jewish historical experience, is both the one most vital to answer and the one Jews usually disliked dealing with.
After all, it’s much more rewarding to focus on a unique heroic case like the Sobibór uprising than to consider the destruction of European Jewry and what that might say about Jewish strength and ability to understand what’s going on.
Wisse suggests that in order to survive in exile and deal with the loss of power and lives that came with the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews created a unique model of comprehending reality. True, they were in captivity and subjected to the rule of non-Jews, but the fact of non-Jewish might was only possible because of God, the King of Kings, who both allowed his people to be ravaged and is also able to restore them to a position of strength – if they prove worthy.
This triangle composed of the Jewish nation, non-Jewish rulers, and the Jewish special relationship with the King of Kings – was strong enough to carry the Jews forward despite the pains and humiliations of the long exile.
“Jews really did believe they have a connection to a tremendous power as God can really take you back to your land” (as happened after Cyrus’s edict, which ended the captivity of Babylon). “This faith made the Jews indestructible, because no matter what humiliations you had to endure, eventually, with God’s grace, you could triumph.” It was this strength that allowed Jewish mothers to bring children into a world that proved, again and again, that it is hostile to Jewish lives, Wisse reasons.
Yet this model that gives great honor to God and His special relation to Jews, also ignores the non-Jewish entity in it. When non-Jewish rulers betray Jews, humiliate Jews or murder Jews because it’s convenient or politically sensible or just an easy crime to commit – the Jews seem able to pick themselves up again and carry on at no cost at all to the rulers.
Before the 1263 Disputation of Barcelona, King James the First of Aragon promised Nachmanides that he would be able to speak freely and not be punished for it, yet Nachmanides is forced into exile after he successfully defends the Jewish faith.
“Jews who tried to outsource their protection would eventually be betrayed,” says Wisse, “once they are no longer useful or once there is something to be gained by sacrificing them.”
When considering the current clash between Jewish-Israeli civilization and Arab-Muslim civilization, Wisse point out that unlike Moses, who was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, and unlike Jesus, who, according to Christian belief, was crucified for the sins of humanity, Mohammad was able to assume a powerful role during his life time as prophet and leader and lead his new nation to impressive military victories.
This, in turn, allowed the Muslim civilization to view power in an entirely different way than either Jews or Christians.
When discussing how so much of the Palestinian national discourse is based on the negation of Israel and Jewish history, Wisse presents the option that, at least at the moment, Palestinians can not let go of the idea that the only way to bring the current conflict to an end is with total power residing in Muslim hands and the Jews returning to the subjected status of a people protected, or not protected, according to the interests of Arab rulers.
This is why the book devotes a section to the Oslo Peace Accords, which Wisse sees as another example of Jewish attempts to outsource self-defense mixed with the notion that only what the Jews do matters, “I think you can’t find another case in history of a nation that arms another nation that wants to kill it,” she says, “arming your enemy to gain security.”
The price for that decision, she claims, is still being paid by Israelis today.
The English-to-Hebrew translation by Tsur Ehrlich is flowing, easy to follow, and the Tikva Foundation font is visually clear. Hebrew readers will be delighted to discover a wealth of online resources to help them learn more about the subject matter. The discussion regarding the Barcelona Disputation includes a link to the Herzog College-operated Daat website, where, if one wishes to do so, the entire disputation (which lasted days) is described at length. The same is true for Palestinian media quoted in the book. It is published by Toby Press.
This democratization of knowledge is not limited to this book alone; an online course is now being offered by the Tikva Foundation in which Wisse will present one of her favorite books, the 1876 novel Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, to a wide an audience as possible.
“Eliot thought of Jews as a test case for British democracy,” Wisse says, “and the heroine of the novel understands the need to let go of Daniel Deronda as a suitable husband” as he decides to make his way to the east and labor for Jewish independence.
Noting that not all nations are inherently predisposed to abuse Jews, Wisse argues.“Self-reliant democracies that do not seek conquests, have no need to blame others for their own problems.”
The book launch for Jews and Power takes place today, November 7 at 8:30 p.m. at Beit Avi Chai, 44 King George St. Jerusalem. Wisse will also take part in a special screening of “Black Honey,” a documentary film about Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever in which she is featured as noted scholar of Yiddish literature and fiction. That screening will take place on November 11 at 8:30 p.m. at Beit Avi Chai, followed by a discussion with Wisse.
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