Jews and Power

Jews and Power

by Ruth R. Wisse


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Part of the Jewish Encounter series

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. Traditional Jews believed that upholding the covenant with God constituted a treaty with the most powerful force in the universe; this later transformed itself into a belief that, unburdened by a military, Jews could pursue their religious mission on a purely moral plain. Wisse, an eminent professor of comparative literature at Harvard, demonstrates how Jewish political weakness both increased Jewish vulnerability to scapegoating and violence, and unwittingly goaded power-seeking nations to cast Jews 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 then 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 sure 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805211740
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/04/2020
Series: Jewish Encounters Series Series
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 539,358
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

RUTH R. WISSE is Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Born in Czernowitz (now part of Ukraine) and raised in Montreal, she was the first professor to offer courses in Yiddish literature at McGill University, where she helped found the Department of Jewish Studies in the late 1960s. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Part One: The Great Experiment

There was no one left for the soldiers to kill or plunder, not a soul on which to vent their fury; for mercy would never have made them keep their hands off anyone if action was possible. So Caesar now ordered them to raze the whole City and Sanctuary to the ground, leaving the towers that overtopped the others . . . and the stretch of wall enclosing the City on the west—the wall to serve as protection for the garrison that was to be left, the towers to show later generations what a proud and mighty city had been humbled by the gallant sons of Rome. All the rest of the fortifications encircling the City were so completely leveled with the ground that no one visiting the spot would believe it had once been inhabited. This then was the end to which the mad folly of revolutionaries brought Jerusalem, a magnificent city renowned to the ends of the earth.[1]—JOSEPHUS, The Jewish War

The loss of Jewish sovereignty was the defining political event in the life of the Jewish people. Before then, Judea with its capital Jerusalem had been a province of the Roman Empire, paying heavy tribute to Rome yet conducting its affairs with perceived, if not complete, autonomy. Despite intense discord among Judea’s religious and political factions, King Herod had restored the splendor of the Temple, which served as the center of legislative and religious activity. But the capriciousness of Roman rule angered many Jews and provoked them to armed revolt. In 70 CE, following a three-year siege, Titus crushed the Jewish uprising and burned the Temple, leveling the city—as Josephus describes, so that “no one visiting the spot would believe it had once been inhabited.” Sixty-five years later, Rome put down a second Jewish rebellion with a brutality that deterred all further insurrection. Though some Jews always continued to live in the Land of Israel, the vast majority over the next eighteen centuries tried to follow the Jewish way of life outside its borders.

Memory of the national defeat seemed to divide Jewish history into unequal parts: the relatively shorter span when Jews had inhabited their land and the longer stretch of exile when they were ruled elsewhere by others. Mourning the Great Destruction became so intense that it almost rivals praise of God as the central motif of Jewish worship. “Rebuild Jerusalem the holy city quickly in our time,” reads the liturgy incorporated into the grace after meals. Every Jewish ceremony and celebration invoked the Great Destruction and expectation of Return. When a Jew dies, family members are consoled with the words, “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” For three weeks of every year, culminating in the fast of the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, Jews commemorate the fall of Jerusalem. The annual Passover Seder concludes with the pledge, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

When modern Jewish thinkers began to study the Jewish past, they, too, divided history into before and after. The great historian Heinrich Graetz (1817–1891) separated the “predominantly political character” of the pre-exilic period from the “overriding religious stamp” of the exile. That Graetz was the first Jewish historian since Josephus to attempt to tell the complete story of the nation seemed to substantiate his argument that Jews had lost their political character at the point of going into exile. According to Graetz, Judaism was originally not a religion at all but “a constitution for a body politic”: the idea of God was originally meant to work itself out not theologically but in the living history of the Jewish people. Only after the exile did religious interests gain exclusive control so that “Judaism ceased to be the constitution for a state and became a religion in the usual sense of the word.”[2] Taking politics to mean that which concerns the state and its institutions, historians following Graetz assumed that with the dispersion, Jews had ceased to function as a political people.

Not all Jewish scholars and historians shared Graetz’s regret for the consequences of the exile. Some modern thinkers became convinced that despite its liabilities, the absence of political power had benefited the Jewish people in the long run. Herman Cohen, the main spokesman for liberal Judaism in Germany in the early years of the twentieth century, held that Jews had been able to develop a universal ideal of messianic redemption because they had been freed of the burdens of a state. In his view, Jewish religion alone was the driving force of modern Jewish life, having become more ethically advanced because it was freed of nationalism and a state apparatus. “Religion ought to become more political by educating citizens in the love of humanity, while politics ought to assume the religious tasks of mediating between the individual and the rest of humanity.” Purified of the dross of politics, no longer bound by their own territory, Diaspora Jews could become better citizens of the countries in which they lived.[3] Immanuel Kant’s ethical ideals could be realized more fully by Jews than they could by Christians precisely because Jews were unscathed by the corruptions of power.

The Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, Cohen’s ideological opposite in all other respects, agreed that as a consequence of exile Jews had become a spiritual nation, purified, reborn for new life.[4] Jews were for him primarily a nationality, not a religious group. Encouraged by the model of a multiethnic Austro-Hungarian empire, he believed that Jews were already ahead of the curve in transcending the grosser demands of statehood. “A nationality which lacks a defensive protection of state or territory develops, instead, forces of inner defense and employs its national energy to strengthen the social and spiritual factors for unity.”[5] Locating Jewish strength precisely where materialists would have sought its weakness, Dubnow believed with Cohen that Jews could claim preeminence in the modern world not in spite of but on account of their lack of political power. He expected Jews to remain strong national minorities wherever they lived in sufficient numbers, maintaining their national distinctiveness through language, culture, education, and social institutions. His most radical proposal was that the kahal, the medieval Jewish community council, could be reconstituted as a secular institution of Jewish autonomy as part of a federated European state.

Dubnow’s hopes for Jewish minority status in Europe were sorely tested by his own experience; he was forced to flee from St. Petersburg to Berlin after the collapse of the tsarist empire, then from Berlin to Riga after the rise of Nazism, and was driven to his death from the Riga Ghetto on December 8, 1941. It would be unfair to say that he paid the price for his optimism, since the Germans arranged the same ending for all Jews, irrespective of the ideas they had held. But some of his fellow intellectuals had been warier of establishing a politically viable autonomy in Europe, warning that Jews must first be granted their natural rights as Jews, not merely as citizens, as a precondition for their national recovery. In 1873 the Yiddish and Hebrew novelist known by the pen name of Mendele the Book Peddler (Mendele Moykher Sforim) had described a pack of dogs and a gang of boys beating an old mare to the point of death. When the bloodied creature is discovered in the ditch—behold! She speaks, claiming to be of noble birth, transformed centuries ago by the sorcerers of Pharaoh into her present lowlier state. Briefly restored to human (and male) form by the Wonder Worker who led her out of Egypt, she was forced back into servitude by her enemies and kept in that servile condition for “as long as the Jewish exile.” The Wandering Mare of this allegory reveals to her modern Jewish interlocutor that she will be able to regain human form only if she is released from her curse by the (Gentile) powers that damned her.

Others reformers went further: in response to Russian pogroms of 1881, Leo Pinsker issued a call for Jewish self-emancipation, arguing that exile had turned Jews into a nation of zombies. Wandering like corpses among the living, they frightened Gentiles, who were afraid of ghosts.[6] The Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik excoriated his fellow Jews for allowing themselves to become the targets of slaughter:

Upon the mound lie two, and both are headless—
A Jew and his dog.
The self-same axe struck both, and both were flung
Unto the self-same heap where swine seek dung.[7]

Wasting no sympathy on the victims, Bialik ignored instances of Jewish self-defense in order to magnify his indictment of Jewish submissiveness. Self-liberation became a watchword for those in the Diaspora who were determined to chart their own future.

[1] Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. G. A. Williamson (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1959), 339.
[2] Heinrich Graetz, title essay in The Structure of Jewish History, trans., ed., and introduced by Ismar Schorsch (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1975), 63-124. Quotations on pp. 70 and 84.
[3] Herman Cohen, "Graetz's Philosophy of Jewish History," in Alan L. Mittleman, The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah: Perspectives on the Persistence of the Political in Judaism (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2000), 35.
[4] Simon Dubnow, Nationalism and History: Essays on Old and New Judaism, ed. Koppel S. Pinson (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1958), 80.
[5] Ibid., 99.
[6] Leo Pinsker, "Auto-Emancipation: An Appeal to His People by a Russian Jew," trans. David Blondheim, in The Zionist Idea, ed. Arthur Hertzburg (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1959), 181-98.
[7] Bialik, "In the City of Slaughter," trans. A. M. Klein, in David G. Roskies, ed., The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 161.

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