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Jews and Power
by ruth r. wisse
schocken, 256 pages, $19.95 

Ruth Wisse is a distinguished scholar: professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, author of the classic 1971 study The Schlemiel as a Modern Hero, and editor of several anthologies of Yiddish prose and poetry, much of which she translated herself. She is also a powerful polemicist: an acerbic social critic who pulls no punches in her articles in Commentary and the Wall Street Journal and her 1992 book If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews.

With Jews and Power, Wisse proves she is an elegant essayist as well—packing into a slim volume a tightly woven, subtly argued, and intellectually stimulating argument. The eighth book in the Jewish Encounters series from Schocken and Nextbook, Jews and Power touches on a wide range of themes in Jewish thought, history, and politics. But the book’s insights aren’t confined to things Jewish. For the Jewish experience, in all its complexity, sheds light on our general human experience, in all its own complexity.

Jews and Power takes up the Jewish experience under three different dispensations. In the first part, “The Great Experiment,” Wisse explores the amazing feat of Jewish survival over two millennia of powerlessness. She sympathetically describes the creative and impressive ways Jews adjusted to exile and accommodated to powerlessness, but she also suggests the limits to the success of such accommodation. In the second part, “Unanticipated Consequences of Emancipation,” Wisse sketches—through the lens of the Jewish experience—the crisis of modern liberalism in the late nineteenth and early ­twentieth centuries. And the third part, “Return to Zion,” offers a stimulating and thought-provoking account of several aspects of the history, theory, and practice of Zionism.

There are a wealth of notable formulations, stories, and insights in Jews and Power. Consider this one, which opens the prologue: In Warsaw in the fall of 1939, a pair of Nazi soldiers were harassing a Jewish child on the street. The child’s mother ran out, picked up her bruised little boy, and said in her Polish-inflected ­Yiddish, “Come inside the courtyard and za a mentsh.” The word mentsh has in Yiddish the moral connotation of “what a human being ought to be.” The mother was instructing her son to become a decent human being—despite all the external ­circumstances.

Wisse honors the example of the Warsaw mother who wanted her son to become a good man. But she knows that decency is not enough. “The obligation to be decent is complicated for Jews by the knowledge that other societies feel driven to eliminate them from the world. Those who aspire to be decent human beings would be morally obtuse to the point of wickedness were they to retell [this] story without considering its outcome . . . . That little boy in Warsaw could not have done his mother’s bidding, because becoming fully human presupposed staying alive.” And by the end of the Holocaust, that little boy wasn’t alive.

Jews and Power complements this moment in history with another, four decades later. When Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem to begin peace talks with the Begin government, former prime minister Golda Meir reportedly said to him: “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”

Wisse respects the sincerity of Golda Meir’s remark. She is deeply appreciative of the religious and cultural traditions that make Israel so much more humane than its neighbors—the same traditions that had led European Jewry in the 1930s to take more seriously than most of their fellow Europeans the injunction to be decent. But this high-mindedness, Wisse notes sadly, can become what she calls a kind of moral solipsism: “a reckoning that is preoccupied with its own performance to the exclusion of everyone else’s.”

In other words, two millennia of creative and brilliant adaptation to powerlessness had a tendency of turning moral seriousness in on itself. “The loss of Jewish sovereignty was the defining political event in the life of the Jewish people,” Jews and Power opens, and though the Jews should be proud that they have survived since the loss of ancient Israel, “this pride in sheer survival demonstrates how the tolerance of political weakness could cross the moral line into veneration of political weakness.” Powerlessness, too, tends to corrupt.

The solution to Jewish powerlessness was Zionism. Wisse is an unapologetic Zionist, arguing that Jewish history demonstrates the need for a homeland. Through no choice of their own, she remarks, Jews had had to concentrate on their moral improvement, “with no political structure in place to defend Jewish civilization or the children who were expected to perpetuate it.” Zionist theory challenged this veneration of political weakness, and Zionist ­practice was intended to construct a ­political structure that would defend the Jewish people and Jewish ­civilization.

But Zionism is itself part of Jewish history, subject to the same paradoxes and complexities. Wisse’s sketch of the intellectual and political history of Zionism is by no means a simple apologia. She points out the limitations of the liberal Zionism of Theodor Herzl, with a particularly telling account of the “New Society” he portrays is his 1902 utopian novel, Altneuland (Old New Land). She is more sympathetic to the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am, whose Hebrew essays were “a healthy corrective to the sterile culture” of Herzl’s envisioned Zionist state. But, as Wisse puts it, “if Herzl lacked Jewish historical depth, Ahad Ha’am failed to grasp that Jews were running out of time.”

The most impressive Zionists seem not to have been its theorists but its practitioners, such as the great rivals David ben Gurion and Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky. Perhaps the only figure Wisse presents as unambiguously heroic, though, is Joseph Trumpeldor. An officer in the czarist army who left Russia for Palestine in 1912, Trumpeldor fought with the British in World War I, ­winning from his commanding officer praise as the bravest man he ever knew. In 1920, Trumpeldor was killed as he led the successful defense of the northern Jewish settlement Tel Hai against Arab attackers. Trumpeldor’s dying words immediately became famous: Ein davar, tov lamut be’ad artzeinu (“Never mind, it’s good to die for one’s country”).

Jabotinsky interpreted this to mean, “Do not exaggerate; do not see danger where none exists; do not regard a man who does his duty as a hero—for history is long, the Jewish people everlasting, and truth is sacred, but everything else, trouble and care and pain and death, ein davar.” Wisse adds, “Putting the emphasis on the end of his sentence rather than the overture, Trumpeldor may have been saying that he preferred to lay down his life for his own country rather than someone else’s.” Surely he was saying both.

Jews and Power captures the impressive, even amazing, character of the Zionist achievement in the real world. But that achievement is a work in progress. And while the existence of Israel should change—must change—the ways in which Jews think about their moral relation to power, old habits die hard. A new understanding that does justice both to the necessities of power and to the dictates of decency does not yet seem at hand.

Wisse’s essay is subtle in its thinking and generous in its tone, but that hasn’t stopped her critics from misrepresenting her. Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, reviewed Jews and Power in the Washington Post. She concluded, “It is hard to escape the suspicion that the real point of this essay is to brand any Jews (and non-Jews, for that matter) who still believe in the possibility of a negotiated settlement in the Middle East as perpetuators of a ghetto appeasement ­mentality.”

That “hard to escape” is a nice touch. The reviewer can find nothing in the book to quote that would support her charge that Wisse wants to “brand” Jews who believe in a negotiated settlement as “perpetuators of a ghetto appeasement mentality.” Indeed, no one has done more than Wisse, with her translation of and writing about Yiddish literature, to overcome that grotesque caricature of prewar European Jewry. If Jacoby couldn’t escape her “suspicion” about the “real point” of Wisse’s essay, she didn’t try very hard.

Of course, Wisse knows the dangers facing Israel, just as she is well aware of questions about the future of the Middle East and the course of the worldwide struggle against Islamic extremism. “In defending themselves,” she writes, “Jews have been turned into the fighting front line of the democratic world.” After the attacks of September 11, no one can escape knowledge of the dangers facing the world. And as anti-Judaism, anti-Americanism, and general hostility to the West increasingly merge, the little state of Israel and the entire Jewish people seem once again caught in the crosshairs of history.

But, in a sense, we are all caught in those crosshairs. In Jews and Power, Ruth Wisse only hints at how the experience of Zionism has relevance beyond the Jews. But if Zionism is an attempt to marry power and morality—to join religion and liberalism, tradition and modernity, patriotism and principle—then America has a great deal in common with Israel. Indeed, all the people in the world who wish to stand against both death-loving Islamic fanaticism and soulless European postmodernism—what are they, if not Zionists?

William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard.

Photo by Denis Doukhan - Pixabay. Image cropped.