Daphne Merkin talks about orphaned dolls, Swedish mattresses, and her ragbag of luminous essays
Taking in everything from the kingdom of David to the Oslo accords, Ruth Wisse offers a radical new way to think about the Jewish relationship to power. It is Ruth Wisse’s bracing theory that the Jewish people have been corrupted—not by power but by powerlessness. An eminent professor of comparative literature at Harvard, Wisse argues that in displaying the resilience necessary to survive in exile, the Jews left too much to God. Not burdened by the weight of a military, they believed they could pursue their mission as a “light unto the nations” on a purely moral plane. Wisse demonstrates how their political weakness increased Jewish vulnerability to scapegoating and violence, as it unwittingly goaded power-seeking nations to cast them as perpetual targets. Although she sees hope in the State of Israel, Wisse questions the way the strategies of the Diaspora continue to drive the Jewish state, echoing Abba Eban’s observation that Israel was the only nation to win a war and then sue for peace. And she draws a persuasive parallel to the United States today, as it struggles to figure out how a liberal democracy can face off against enemies who view Western morality as weakness. This deeply provocative book is certain to stir debate both inside and outside the Jewish world. Wisse’s narrative offers a compelling argument that is rich with history and bristling with contemporary urgency.
In Warsaw in the autumn of 1939, shortly after the Germans captured the city and before they had walled up the Jews in a ghetto, a couple of Nazi soldiers were seen harassing a Jewish child on the street. The child’s mother ran out of the courtyard, picked up her bruised little boy, placed his cap back on his head, and said to him, “Come inside the courtyard and za a mentsh.” The word mensch—which in German means “man” or “human being”—acquires in Yiddish the moral connotation of “what a human being ought to be.” In her Polish-inflected Yiddish the mother was instructing her son to become a decent human being. Two years later in London, Shmuel (Samuel) Zygelboym described this incident to the Yiddish poet Itsik Manger. Manger had left Warsaw for Paris before the German invasion, intending to move on to Palestine, but once the war broke out, his ship was diverted and he was fortunate to make it to Liverpool, then to London. There he spent the rest of the war, haunted by the massacre that was overtaking his family back home. Zygelboym had been forced into the Warsaw Ghetto in November 1940 along with the rest of the city’s Jewish population, but as a leader of the Jewish Socialist Bund he was smuggled out to England by members of his political movement to be their representative in the Polish government-in-exile. Zygelboym tried vainly to persuade Polish and Allied authorities to do whatever they could to help rescue Polish Jews who were being starved in the ghettos and exterminated in the death camps. When Manger later transcribed the Warsaw incident as Zygelboym had told it to him, he added that no other people on the darkening continent of Europe took as seriously as Jews did the injunction to be fully human. What so impressed these men about the mother’s instruction to her son was that rather than warn against his tormentors, she warned him not to become like them. Manger and Zygelboym ascribed great value to the mother’s exact words, because although they no longer bothered to cover their heads, they felt that Yiddish had absorbed the moral values of Jewish religious civilization. The term mentsh conveyed to them the essence of Jewishness; they championed mentshlekhkayt—a commitment to human decency and mutual respect. Zygelboym took this a step further by adopting socialism as the new embodiment of Judaism for the modern age. “Za a mentsh” was thus the point at which these two modern Jews and the traditional mother still formed part of a common culture and could equally claim to be upholding the “golden chain” of Jewish values that ran from Abraham through Moses and the Hebrew Prophets to them. I was raised in this same culture, studying Genesis alongside the poems of Itsik Manger. The Montreal Jewish school I attended drew no distinction between religion and nationality: Jewish values were transmitted as a passion for justice. We were expected to rescue the remnant of the Jews of Europe by helping to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine, as well as to improve Canadian society by good citizenship and good deeds. These teachings were reinforced by example in my home. Although my father had been decisively disabused of his Communist leanings when he was a university student in Poland, his greatest pride once he became a manufacturer was that his factory had never endured a strike. The Quebec labor leader who negotiated for the textile workers’ union spoke admiringly of his decency and fairness. It was emphasized in my family, school, and community that far from granting us license, our laxity in the observance of Jewish ritual called for greater moral discipline in everyday affairs. Need I say that I continue to honor this commitment to an ideal of social justice? Jewish moral idealism remains invaluable to the world for encouraging, despite much evidence to the contrary, faith in human potential of mentsh or its Hebrew equivalent, ben-adam, literally, “son of Adam” or “child of Man.” I also understand why so many Jews join Manger and Zygelboym in seeking political or social ways of “repairing the world.” But my idea of human decency was also enlarged by something else that I learned in school when our principal addressed us in the auditorium about the carnage that had just taken place in Europe: “If each of you was to take a notebook and write on every line of every page the name of a different child, and if we collected all your notebooks, it still would not equal the number of Jewish boys and girls who were murdered by the Germans.” On May 12, 1943, Shmuel Zygelboym had committed suicide in public protest against the Allies’ indifference to the extermination of the Jews. This kind of information complicated the directive to be a mentsh. That little boy in Warsaw could not have done his mother’s bidding, because becoming fully human presupposed staying alive. After most of its 380,000 Jews had been starved or deported to the Treblinka death camp and the Jewish resistance had launched its belated revolt, the Warsaw Ghetto was torched by the Germans, who then flushed out and killed the last pockets of Jews hiding in its attics and bunkers. Zygelboym’s suicide acknowledged the political consequence of the moral solipsism he had admired four years earlier. The phrase moral solipsism describes a reckoning that is preoccupied with its own performance to the exclusion of everyone else’s. That mother in Warsaw could not have known what lay ahead of her and her child. German thinkers and scientists, artists and musicians, had earned for their country a reputation as the most cultured nation in Europe. The moderately decent behavior of conquering German soldiers in Poland in World War I gave little inkling of their murderous potential. The jurist Raphael Lemkin had to coin the term genocide in 1942 to describe the unprecedented systematic extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group. By no fair standard can European Jews be blamed for having failed to anticipate German intentions. The same cannot be said, however, for those who come after the genocidal war against the Jews—what English calls the “Holocaust,” Hebrew, the Shoah, and Yiddish, the khurbn—the same term it uses for the destruction of the Temple. 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 Zygelboym’s story without considering its outcome. Political thinkers normally include national defense as part of their planning. Plato situates the soldiers of his Republic right below rulers: he assumes that the just society must protect itself against enemies. In its reach for a perfect Union, the Constitution of the United States undertakes to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” (my emphasis). Both Plato and the framers of the American Constitution thought it self-evident that their own nations might have to be defended. The Jews of Europe had no such provision or strategy for their common defense at the point when Hitler singled them out for extermination. Jews had concentrated on their moral improvement with no political structure in place to defend Jewish civilization or the children who were expected to perpetuate it. * * * This book honors the memory of the Warsaw mother who wanted her son to become a mentsh, as well as the civilization that perpetuates her teaching. That teaching made Jews into the comeback kids of a saga that defies historical probability. The creation of Israel in the same decade as the destruction of European Jewry seems to me a more hopeful augury than the dove’s reappearance to Noah with an olive leaf after the flood. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran calls Israel a “rotten, dried tree that will be eliminated by one storm.” I think not. Jews have lived to see the downfall of every Haman and Hitler. More likely, Ahmadinejad’s words foretell the fate of a different desiccated society—his own. And yet, Jews do seem to suffer from a political deficiency. Politics has been defined as the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation. Though Jews have always constituted a nation, their political experience became the more exceptional the longer they flourished, and their atypical political patterns inspired the mistaken belief that they had no politics. This belief, in turn, prevented them and others from understanding their political interaction with other nations. To this day, Jews figure more prominently in the study of religion than they do in the study of government or political theory. Political science has shown little interest in a nation that doesn’t fit its paradigms. To address this deficiency as I see it, this book highlights the political aspect of Jewish experience. In particular, I want to see how the politics of Jews occasions the politics of anti-Jews. I look at the politics of Jews and anti-Jews in tandem because that is the way they coexist. Some readers may be concerned that such linkage would appear to hold Jews responsible for the aggression leveled against them. Rather, the tendency of Jews to seek fault in themselves is part of the harmful pattern I hope to expose. Psychologists do not demean their patients by inquiring into the patterns of abuse they have sustained. Neither should our inquiry into the patterns of Jewish political strategy be mistaken for reproach. How did the Jews get to figure so prominently in the political sights of precisely those regimes that threaten the rest of the world? Why does the president of Iran feel entitled to call for the destruction of a member nation of the world organization that presumably secures their equal rights? Democracies, if they are to remain democratic, know they must come in on the side of the Jews, but why is it so hard for them to recognize that it is in their interest to do so? How and why did anti-Semitism become arguably the most protean force in international politics? To paraphrase the rabbis, the inquiry is not ours to finish, but neither are we free to desist from it.
“Power tends to corrupt,” the old saying goes, but centuries of powerlessness in the Diaspora has been a corrupting influence on the Jewish people, argues Ruth R. Wisse in this concise, provocative essay. A professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, Wisse recounts key moments in the history of the Jewish people that illu strate their fraught relationship to political power; these episodes inform her analysis of the essence of anti-Semitism and of the future of Israel and of democracy. The following questions are designed to help guide a discussion of the issues Wisse raises in her book. Jews and Power “The loss of Jewish sovereignty was the defining event in the life of the Jewish people,” Wisse writes. (page 4) How did the loss of sovereignty shape the Jewish political experience? What role did God traditionally play in the Jewish conception of power? What are the theological implications of Jewish politics in the Diaspora? In Israel? What institutions did Jews in the Diaspora develop for governing themselves? How did Jews relate to the rulers of the societies in which they lived? Wisse says that, in the Diaspora, Jews have followed a “politics of complementarity whereby Jews tried to win protection by proving their value.” (page 52) How has this approach to politics helped Jews thrive? What are its pitfalls? Wisse criticizes the view that accommodation is “part of the moral essence of Judaism itself.” (page 175) Where does this idea come from? Do you agree with her criticism? “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” the saying goes. Wisse argues that powerlessness also corrupts. How so? What do you think? At the beginning of Jews and Power, Wisse relates an anecdote about a Jewish child in Warsaw; haras sed by Nazis, he is told by his mother to be a mentsh—a decent human being. Why does she choose to open her book with this story? How is Wisse arguing with the mother’s response? What does the story of Esther, the Jewish queen who saved her people from destruction, reveal about Jews’ role in politics and their relationship to political power? The rise of Western liberal democracy, beginning in the late 18th century, emancipated Jews. What about the Jewish relationship to power made them ready for liberal democracy? Did emancipation make Jews more or less secure? How did Christians and Muslims perceive the fact that Jews did not have their state or army? How did this differ from Jewish perceptions? Wisse writes that Christianity differed from Judaism in that “it did not require a nation to adopt the religious standards of an individual.” And she writes that Muhammad had “no hesitancy about Islam’s use of power as a corollary of its moral purpose.” Compare Jewish, Christian, and Muslim ideas about political power Wisse points out “the mistaken belief that [Jews] had no politics.” (page xiv) Why do you think the politics of the Jewish people been overlooked for so long? Power and Language How did the Jewish emphasis on universal literacy and study shape Jewish political culture? How does Wisse’s background as a professor of Yiddish literature shape her argument in Jews and Power? Throughout the book, Wisse draws on several literary traditions—English, German, Yiddish, biblical and modern Hebrew—to further her argument. Which literary examples do you find most persuasive or memorable? Wisse points out that more than one in ten winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature have been Jews. Why? What does this have to do with the Jews’ relationship to power? Wisse writes that “the Jews’ relation to language stands midway between Christians, for whom the Bible is the Bible irrespective of its language, and Muslims, for whom the divine word assumes an exclusively Arabic form.” (page 41) What do these different attitudes toward holy texts say about each group’s ideas about politics and power? Jews, Power, and Israel Wisse identifies two problems not solved by state of Israel: “the problem of nations that blamed their dysfunction on the Jews” and “the relation of Jews to political power.” (page 173) Can these problems be overcome? Which is the bigger obstacle to Jewish survival? Wisse writes, “The politics of adaptation proved its ultimate genius in building Israel.” (page 116) What does she mean by this? What unintended consequences did this adaptiveness create? Wisse keeps returning to Reschid Bey, the fictional Arab character created by Theodor Herzl, who expresses gratitude for the Jewish settlement and development of Israel. What does Reschid Bey represent for Herzl? For Wisse? Wisse condemns the phony political equivalence between a culture of blame and a politics of accommodation” in the Middle East. (page 153) What does she mean by this? Wisse quotes the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who told the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.” (page 156) Was Meir expressing strength or weakness? Jews and Anti-Jews Wisse calls anti-Semitism “the most effective ideology in Europe.” (page 96) How so? Is anti-Semitism inevitable? In the introduction, Wisse describes this book as one about “how the politics of Jews occasions the politics of anti-Jews.” (page xiv) What does she mean by this? “The polities of Arabs and Jews are set on a collision course because of their asymmetrical traditions of conquest and accommodation,” (page 153) Wisse writes. How does she support this idea. Do you agree? Wisse argues that Palestinian identity is defined not on its own terms but in opposition to Israel. What examples does she cite? Do you agree? Jews, Power, and Democracy After 9/11, James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA, declared, “We are all Jews now.” (page 180) What did he mean by this? The French intellectual Jean-Fran ßois Revel, who warned that some essential aspects of democratic societies—self-criticism, high moral standards—make them vulnerable to non democratic antagonists. In her conclusion, Wisse argues that the same could be said of Jews. How so? Do you agree with her argument? What are its limitations? Wisse distinguishes between societies that allow their members to vote and those with a “constitutional culture.” What is a constitutional culture? What habits or institutions are necessary for a democracy to sustain itself? Wisse states that presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush were “provoked into fighting the anti-Jews” as a matter of self-preservation. What does she mean by this? Wisse ends her book by calling Jews “the fighting front line of the democratic world.” “What does she mean by this?” Do you agree?
“A book . . . that celebrates the Jewish return to sovereign power, in all its promise and complexity, is as unusual as it is welcome. Wisse has written such a book . . . [Jews and Power is] a good, fighting book that contains much information in few pages.” Continue reading
"Challenging, erudite and penetrating...Wisse shows no fear in these pages in saying exactly what she thinks, and you can’t help but be impressed with her chutzpah, even if you totally disagree with her...Jews and Power makes no claim for objectivity, but it is an elucidating book. It will cause liberals to question their self-consciousness about Israel, since Wisse’s argument about Jewish apologism challenges liberal ideas of victimhood. For conservatives, the book offers an intellectual understanding of what otherwise might seem to be only tribalistic loyalties." Continue reading
“Wisse is a brilliant scholar of enviable narrative gifts, and there is much to admire in this essay.” Continue reading
RUTH R. WISSE is Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Born in Czernowitz and raised in Montreal, she was the first professor to introduce courses in Yiddish literature at McGill University, where … Continue reading
Daphne Merkin talks about orphaned dolls, Swedish mattresses, and her ragbag of luminous essays