Samson In Chains (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A new book argues that Israel's self-doubt is an unwanted and unneeded legacy of the Diaspora In this tightly written, erudite account of Jewish strategies of survival in the face of gentile power, Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University, traces the ambivalent Jewish dialogue with authority in the Diaspora to Israel's troubled relationship with the international community. In both cases, Jews are seen as perennial victims, seeking the protection of the powerful, as they confront hatred and bigotry on an uneven playing field. It is as if there is an uninterrupted linear progression of vulnerability and victimhood from the Diaspora experience to modern-day Israel. And therein lies the book's major failing: "Jews and Power" provides virtually no analysis of the way Israeli Jews have wielded independent state and military power. In developing her thesis, Wisse shows how, through the ages, disenfranchised Jewish Diaspora communities evolved sophisticated survival stratagems, identifying occupations that would make them useful to their adopted lands, while seeking special dispensations and protection from the local ruling powers. She posits the "Esther syndrome" as an archetypal Jewish modus operandi, Jews repelling Jew-hating Hamans through close ties with the ruler. But, says Wisse, special protection fanned jealousy and hatred, and dependence on the powerful made for extreme vulnerability. The situation of Diaspora Jews was always inherently precarious. Denied the capacity to control their destiny, Diaspora Jews saw in their God the ultimate dispenser of justice and the wielder of Jewish power. Those who humiliated or harmed Jews would eventually reap their just deserts through divine retribution. But there was an important corollary: In this essentially moral universe, if Jews suffered, it must be their fault. The retributive God punished the transgressions of his own people and their tormentors alike. As a result, Jews developed a strength-sapping sense of self-blame for political failure in the here and now. And, Wisse maintains, this tendency of Jews to find fault with themselves has been carried over into modern-day Israel with equally deleterious effect. As Diaspora Jews fenced with power in their adopted places of residence, Wisse argues that they developed a dual identity, maintaining religious separatism while adapting to local mores and customs. This condition left them "ideologically in exile and existentially at home." As part of this duality, they developed closed "Jewish" languages, like Yiddish or Ladino, while mastering the common lingua franca. Their linguistic aptitude was such that to date Jews have received one tenth of the Nobel prizes for literature. In Wisse's view, the two great modern movements that should have resolved the dilemma of "Jews and Power," liberal democracy and Zionism, both failed to do so. Wisse's account of liberal democracy's failure treads a well-worn path: On the one hand, it offered Jews full and equal citizenship; on the other, it allowed freedom to disseminate anti-Semitism as a rallying cry for political mobilization. That road led to the Holocaust. More original and far more contentious is her account of Zionism's inability to alleviate Jewish vulnerability. Zionism's founding fathers, she argues, hoped that the establishment of a Jewish state would end anti-Semitism and give Israel an equal place among the nations. But it failed to achieve either goal. Instead, Israel found itself outnumbered in a hostile Arab sea, facing a new strain of state anti-Semitism and an inbuilt numerical disadvantage in the international community. "Far from exposing Jews to the temptations of might, the creation of Israel had reproduced in the Middle East a political imbalance almost identical to the one Jews had experienced in the Diaspora," she writes. Wisse asserts that from the outset, Zionist thinkers, including Herzl, were averse to the use of power. There was no attempt to regain the land by force and the early Jewish militias in Palestine were formed only in reluctant self-defense against Arab marauders. But to imply, as Wisse does, that this supposedly inherent Jewish aversion to the use of force has somehow been transmitted to the collective psyche of modern war-torn Israel with its state of the art weaponry, compulsory conscription, and determination to defend itself by itself against all its many foes by whatever means necessary seems far-fetched. Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.