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Part of the standard liturgy of Jewish prayer is the pronouncement that "we were exiled for our sins." The victories of the Babylonians and the Romans were not ascribed to the imperialist aggression of those predatory powers. Nor did our tradition assign blame for those defeats to the weakness of the Jewish forces, or even to the stupidity of both the strategic and tactical decisions made by the Jews' leaders.
Instead, the focus has always been on factors that rendered the foes of ancient Israel mere ciphers in the hands of an angry Providence. Rather than rapacious militarized empires, they were merely the executioners carrying out the sentence handed down by the God of Israel.
For a defeated people struggling to maintain its separate existence in a world in which military defeat and exile meant extinction, this was a handy theory. As Harvard University scholar Ruth Wisse writes in her new book Jews And Power: "The explanation of military defeat as a consequence not of the enemy's prowess but of the Jews' failure to please the Lord insulated Jews from some of the vagaries of warâ€¦ by situating their politics within a scheme of transcendent judgment, they did not have to accept the verdict of the battlefield."
COMING as it does at a moment in history when the ambivalence of many Jews regarding the exercise of power by the State of Israel is growing, Wisse's slim history of the curious relationship between Jews and power is a timely reminder that the consequences of this debate are by no means insignificant for the future of the Jewish people.
This theory of history laid the foundation for survival in a world in which Jews lacked the ability to defend themselves. But since they were never in a position to exercise power on others - and thus face the difficult moral dilemmas that come with victory - the identification with the victim ceased being a rationalization and became a virtue in and of itself.
WISSE NOTES a poem by Yiddish writer H. Leivick on resilience in the face of calamity as being instructive of a curious attitude toward anti-Semitic atrocities. "I burn and I burn and I am not consumed," wrote Leivick. "I pick myself up and stride onward."
Rather than a positive assertion of indefatigability, Wisse sees this as indicative of a foolish acceptance of an intolerable situation. "This pride in sheer survival demonstrates how the toleration of political weakness could cross the moral line into veneration of political weakness. Jews who endured exile as a temporary measure were in danger of mistaking it for a requirement of Jewish life or, worse, for a Jewish ideal."
Wisse makes the point that "the original Jewish obligation to become for God 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' called for the power to ensure human dignity. Jews may have lacked the military might to commit evil in ruling over others, but they were still obliged to uphold the good. What good could Jews do absent the power to act in history?"
EVENTUALLY, even the ability to endure endless indignity was not enough. The futility of passivity in the face of hate became apparent as emancipation in 19th-century Europe gave way to modern anti-Semitism and the rise of exterminationist ideologies.
The only sensible response to this dilemma was to recreate the power to defend themselves that Jews had supposedly forsworn after their exile.
The Dreyfus affair, which precipitated Theodor Herzl's founding of the modern Zionist movement was, in Wisse's words, "European Jewry's 9/11, the attack that could not be ignored."
One Jewish response to Herzl's political Zionism was from Ahad Ha'am, the pen name of philosopher Asher Ginsberg. He criticized the secular Herzl for his lack of sympathy with Jewish tradition, and his emphasis on politics and power.
In recent times, Ahad Ha'am has been justly praised for understanding that Israel would become the spiritual center of even those Diaspora communities such as the United States, whose Jews would never themselves make aliya. But he has also been embraced by leftist anti-Zionists such as the best-selling American novelist Michael Chabon, who fantasizes about Israel's extirpation at birth, and the former Israeli leader Avrum Burg, who now compares Israel to Nazi Germany.
But Wisse zeroes in on what Ahad Ha'am didn't understand, and Herzl and those who followed his path, like David Ben-Gurion and Ze'ev Jabotinsky, did (the latter two differed about a great deal, but not about the imperative of Jewish self-defense). The Jews were running out of time. What they needed was the power to resist the murderers, not an illusory moral high ground.
ISRAEL'S BIRTH in 1948 came too late to save a European Jewry whose existence still depended on the mercy of non-Jews. But its principal failure was that, contrary to Herzl's expectations, Zionism did not extinguish hatred of the Jews. As Wisse has written previously, anti-Semitism was the most successful ideology of the 20th century and the one that came closest to achieving its goals. Israel became the focus of world anti-Semitism, rather than its cure.
With much of the world not willing to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, the battle for Jewish survival now depends on an ability to assume the responsibilities of exercising power. And after 2,000 years of venerating powerlessness, it's hardly surprising that many Jews have found this difficult. Wisse sees the Oslo Accords, which she correctly dismisses as a "capitulation" to terror, as an example of Israel adopting a failed Diaspora strategy of accommodation.
In the wake of Oslo's predictable collapse, Israel's only option is to hang tough and wait for its enemies to change. Given the predilection of many Jews to focus only on their own actions and ignore the motivations and plans of their foes, that is advice some are incapable of accepting.
These days, those who prefer to obsess about Israel's inability to achieve an impossible moral perfection rather than about its foes' intentions may find themselves applauded by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. But given that Israel is a state still marked for death by Iranian mullahs who may soon have nuclear weapons, Palestinian terrorists and a new generation of Western anti-Semites who masquerade as humanists, the triumph of such views is a luxury Jews cannot afford.
FOR WISSE, the good news is that in the wake of Sept. 11, the great power of our own day - the United States - has come to understand that its own security in the war against Islamist terror is indistinguishable from that of Israel. Whether that belief will continue to be vindicated as Americans shrink from the rigors of a long war against a foe who cannot easily be defeated has yet to be seen. But no matter what the United States does, Israel's battle for survival will continue to depend on a willingness to assert power in self-defense.
"The glorification of powerlessness is as antithetical to Judaism as belief in the son of God," argues Wisse. Drumming that piece of common sense into Jewish heads raised on myths of a Jewish morality that ignores self-interest won't be easy. But the alternative will be a repeat of ancient tragedies that none of us may live to rationalize.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. jtobin@jewishexponent