We need more like Ruth Wisse in academia - opinion

Only when professors like Ruth Wisse outnumber today’s professorial propagandists will universities return to their core educational missions and help solve society’s problems, not exacerbate them.

 RUTH WISSE receives the National Humanities Medal in the White House in Washington, in 2007.  (photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
RUTH WISSE receives the National Humanities Medal in the White House in Washington, in 2007.
(photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Modern American universities should issue their sky-high tuition bills with warning labels: Propagandizing professors may endanger your ideological health and ability to think. This shift from cultivating critical thought to imposing hyper-critical thoughts about certain targets, and uncritical devotion to certain sacred cows, particularly hurts young Jews. American Jewish parenting pivots disproportionately around getting kids into college, just as campus radicalism pivots disproportionately around bashing Israel.

Ruth Wisse’s new memoir suggests it’s not as bad as it seems… it’s worse. If in 1978 John LeBoutillier wrote Harvard Hates America – Wisse’s memoir could be titled “Harvard Hates the Truth – and the Jews.”

At first glance, Wisse seems to be telling yet another rags-to-riches North American dream story, academic-style, from Holocaust to Harvard. Alas, seeing Harvard from the inside – and from the Right side of the ideological spectrum – she discovers an institution that has lost its way. This derailment, she argues, reflects an America that has lost its soul. She decides: “My story is worth telling not because of what I overcame, but because of what we all have yet to overcome.”

Born in 1936 in Czernowitz, Romania – now in Ukraine – she and her family fled Stalin as well as Hitler, making it to the New World, even as beloved relatives didn’t make it at all. Blessed with the opportunities freedom brings, she studied literature, rubbing elbows with a galaxy of literary stars. She worked at summer camp with Leonard Cohen, kibitzed with Saul Bellow, gave Elie Wiesel a lift when he visited Montreal, squabbled with – then befriended – Cynthia Ozick, and had the aggressively-secular Isaac Bashevis Singer serve as the Cohen – the High Priest – at her oldest son’s Pidyon HaBen, redeeming him as the first-born.

Along the way, Wisse helped launch an academic discipline she first doubted would get traction – studying Yiddish literature. In 1993, she truly made it, to a named chair at Harvard University, earning a National Humanities Medal in 2007.

Despite her sobering peek behind the Harvard curtains, Wisse’s irrepressible personality makes the book uplifting. The clever title captures the pinch-me tone she often takes. Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation acknowledges that she – like most Jews today – is an anomaly in Jewish history, a lucky Jew. She evokes Montreal at its best, especially from the 1940s through 1960s, thriving as an immigrant, a McGill student, and a path-breaking professor helping to establish Jewish Studies as a discipline – with her specialization in Yiddish Literature. (We overlapped briefly at McGill, but I have been privileged to keep in touch with her sporadically since.)

Along the way, Wisse explains – especially to this skeptical Zionist reader – the joys of Yiddish. In her home and her school, Yiddish was not the stalking horse for socialism or Diasporism, “but the repository of Jewish literature and culture, of Sholem Aleichem and Y.L. Peretz.” It is a rich, nuanced language of jokes, songs, poetry, of “high culture,” purer than the Americanized, vulgarized second-gen Yiddish of sighing and suffering I encountered in New York.

Like every great thinker and teacher, Wisse puts the “no” in iconoclast. As she wisely explains when balancing her protective fondness for Poles and her fury at Polish Jew-hatred: “Politics requires triangulation… one set of values can contradict another.” That is why she reveres our Holocaust martyrs but abhors American Jews’ Holocaust-worship centering Jewish identity-building around “the mass murder” of Jews rather than “the greatest comeback story on record… the recovery of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.” And that is why she could help secure equal rights for female academics while rejecting the “secondhand Marxism” fueling feminism, endorse “decriminalizing abortion” without “equating it with appendicitis,” and enjoy a fulfilling, demanding career yet champion “standard views about the primacy and nature of family.”

At Harvard, Wisse fights the pervasive “groupthink,” the shift from education toward “grievance compliance,” the administrative cowardice, and the antisemitic Jews enabling obsessive anti-Zionists to bully craven Jews while demonizing Israel. These cascading problems are interconnected: “The loss of Jewish and liberal moral self-confidence, which is the inevitable by-product of anti-Jewish and anti-liberal politics, is the surest sign of civilizational decline.”

Wisse sees “no immediate prospects” of reversing “the academic decline” that she “was powerless to arrest.” Nevertheless, without offering heavy-handed five-point plans or some curriculum to inoculate first-years against these ‘woke’ re-education camps, Wisse’s must-read inspirational tale actually offers two ways to resist this madness.

First, you need a strong identity. In Wisse’s case, it’s a proud, robust, Israel-based Jewish identity. “I learned early on that the Jewish people grow organically from the Jewish family,” she writes. 

And she celebrates that family’s home – Israel. “I pinned my hopes for human civilization on the ability of Jews to maintain their national sovereignty,” she explains. As someone with zero-tolerance for fools – or traitors – she adds: “From the time that anti-Zionism began to make its way into America, I could not respect, much less befriend, anyone who joined the prosecution.”

More broadly, her life-story offers the antidote every student needs – a fair, passionate scholar-teacher, motivated by “the intertwined joys of learning and teaching,” someone who not only thinks independently but encourages others to think independently. “Every precious new class is a chance to share my appreciation for important literary works,” she writes. “If I sometimes teach as if my life depended on it, that is how it feels to me.”

Goosebumps!

Only when truly liberal professors like Ruth Wisse outnumber today’s professorial propagandists will universities return to their core educational missions and help solve society’s problems, not exacerbate them.

The writer is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and three books on Zionism. His book, ‘Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People,’ co-authored with Natan Sharansky was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.