Politics, power and antisemitism

Ruth Wisse wonders why in all generations do people find Jews such a convenient target

Ruth Wisse 311 (photo credit: Matt Craig/Harvard News Office)
Ruth Wisse 311
(photo credit: Matt Craig/Harvard News Office)
“Why would a professor of Yiddish write about politics and power?” The question was posed on Tuesday night by Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz to Ruth Wisse, author of the best-selling book Jews and Power, the Hebrew edition of which should be released by the end of this year.
Wisse is a professor of Yiddish literature and of comparative literature at Harvard University, where Katz was a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism in 2012-13. Wisse had been one of his teachers.
Wisse saw nothing unusual in the question.
“Yiddish forces you to think about Jewish politics,” she said at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai, citing how some 10 million people spoke Yiddish in 1939, and a short time afterward, “this world of Yiddish was extinguished.”
Wisse, 81, said she was greatly bothered growing up by the verse in the Passover Haggada that states: “In every generation they will rise up against us,” and she wondered why in all generations do people find Jews such a convenient political target.
She had never really found an answer.
“The puzzle is still with me,” she said.
What amazes her is that instead of being obsessed with this, the Jewish world simply accepts the recurring situation.
“We have not concentrated on politics,” she said. “How do Jews function politically in relation to other people?” The war against Jews, she said, is unilateral. “Most people think of warfare as a binary action.
There’s a winner and there’s a loser. Jews did not see war as a binary action. You were not defeated by Babylon, you did not meet God’s standards. They lost because they did not satisfy God’s requirements.”
In Wisse’s perception, “that makes you indestructible. You go into exile, but did Jews ever give up on returning to the Land of Israel?” she declared to a ripple of applause..
Other nations see Jews as a people that succeeds wherever it goes, she said. “It’s always entrepreneurial, but it never has the power to protect itself.”
Throughout history, she observed, Jews have been there to expel, to massacre and to expropriate from.
Wisse was critical of studies of antisemitism which, she said, are mostly statistics.
Although antisemitism stretches back to beyond the First Temple, Wisse said its modern form was created by emancipation, because Jews went into professions that were previously denied to them – and they excelled.
More than that, she noted, antisemitism has become a unifying political movement.
“All anti-liberal movements are attracted to antisemitism.”
Although fascism and communism are not doing too well on their own, what they have in common is antisemitism, which Wisse said is “the most powerful ideology of modern times.”
While she believes that the future of the State of Israel is in the hands of the citizens of Israel, she is convinced that neither Israel nor anyone else can solve the Arab problem. “The reason they’re against us is because they cannot accept the principle of coexistence,” she said.
When Katz tried to turn the conversation to American Jewry, Wisse said that “Israelis have come a long way. My worry is more for American Jewry.”
Then she paused for a moment and said that whatever his problems are at the moment, “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is the leader of the free world.”
When the subject of BDS was raised by Katz, Wisse pointed out that it was nothing new.
“The boycott against Israel began in 1945. It’s one of the first things the Arab League adopted.” The idea at the time was to weaken Jewish industry in Palestine. Wisse is also convinced that the Arab world will never allow the Palestinians to have their own state – not that it would be very visible on the map if they did have a state.
Usually when speaking on this subject, she said, she has a large map of the Middle East on which one can hardly see Israel.
She did not have a very high opinion of Israel’s public diplomacy, which she said was always on the defense instead of being on the attack. In every synagogue, she said, there is a notice above the ark with the words “Know before whom you stand.” The same holds true when arguing with one’s enemies. “Know before whom you stand and attack, attack, attack.”
Asked about President Donald Trump, Wisse said she couldn’t comment because there had never been a president like him in the United States. When the election campaign first started and she and her husband and their Conservative friends sat around the Shabbat table evaluating candidates, “Trump’s name never came up – not even once.” All she would allow herself to say about the Trump administration was “I’m more optimistic than I would have been with Hillary Clinton.”