The Remarkable Career of Ruth Wisse, Yiddish Scholar and Political Firebrand

Harvard Prof's Neo-Con Views Often Stirred Controversy

Beneath the Placid Exterior: Ruth Wisse is a small, gray-haired woman who is not afraid to use sharp words; she once accused The New Yorker of “hate-mongering” when it came to Israel.
Ezra Glinter
Beneath the Placid Exterior: Ruth Wisse is a small, gray-haired woman who is not afraid to use sharp words; she once accused The New Yorker of “hate-mongering” when it came to Israel.

By Ezra Glinter

Published May 12, 2014, issue of May 16, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 4 of 5)

Since biblical times, Wisse writes, Jews have attributed political and military setbacks to their disobedience to God, and have had faith that He will eventually bring about the redemption. Although this belief might seem self-defeating, directing Jewish energies inward rather than toward their enemies, it enabled the Jewish people to retain a conception of themselves as actors in history rather than as mere victims. At the same time, Jews’ defensive position required them to live among their neighbors without seeking to dominate them. “I’m a very great believer in Jewish civilization, because Jews can live among others,” Wisse told me. “That they are not universalizing is sometimes considered a fault, but in fact, not everyone has to be like them.”

Yet Wisse resists the temptation to romanticize Jewish suffering. In literature she points to the difference between Sholem Aleichem, who showed that life can be rich even amid poverty, and Avrom Reyzen, who turned poverty itself into a positive value. Similarly, she writes, Jews may have had a moral superiority over their oppressors, but that is no reason to fetishize powerlessness for its own sake. In several of her books, she quotes as a cautionary example a joke from the Warsaw Ghetto, in which one Jew says to the other, “God forbid that this war should last as long as we are able to endure it.” In other words, just because we can doesn’t mean we should have to.

When it come to Israel, she argues, the tendency to look inward for a solution to conflict is a repetition of diasporic accommodationism, “whereby Jews tried to win protection by proving their value… through exemplary behavior and proofs of service.” Such a strategy may have had its place when it came to survival, but it’s hardly an ideal. And the inclination to blame Israel for the hostility against it repeats the mistake of the Enlightenment, which, no sooner had it opened the door for Jews to join non-Jewish society, faulted them for being successful at doing so. Here too, no sooner had the world granted Jews the rights of national sovereignty than it turned around and condemned them for exercising those very rights.

“I would say that the longer the war against the Jews lasts, the more Jews are going to blame themselves for it,” Wisse said. “They cannot find the solution in other people, because they cannot really affect them, so they have the comfort of finding the solution in themselves. They think, if only I’d cut my peyes and learned German, and behaved differently, and if only I had gotten my fellow Jews to behave differently, it would have solved the problem. We have been through this in so many iterations, and the best people have thought this.”

It’s hard to deny that Wisse has a point. But her perspective also has limits she doesn’t acknowledge. Perhaps I would feel as she does had I lived through the first decades of Israel’s existence and the aftermath of the Six Day War, when much of the liberal world turned against it. I certainly felt similarly during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009, when worldwide protest against Israel reached such a fever pitch that it made me, for the first time in my life, concerned for the long-term safety of Diaspora Jewry. But is Wisse’s argument a valid response to a situation in which Israel seems to be prolonging its military rule over Palestinians rather than extricating itself from a morally untenable situation? Wisse argues that the Occupation is a “consequence of the Arab war against the Jews” and cannot be seen retroactively as its cause. But does that absolve Israel of responsibility for what it does to the human beings under its control?

For many thinkers, the answer is clearly no. Michael Walzer, the longtime co-editor of Dissent magazine and professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, put it this way: “I think one way of describing the disagreement would be to say that she has great difficulty acknowledging the success of Zionism in creating a strong independent state. She is a lover of the Jewish people and feels a deep anxiety about our current situation. And I’m not without anxiety. But I am inclined to think that the success of Emancipation in Western Democracies, especially in the United States, and sovereignty in the Middle East, have made a greater difference than she acknowledges.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.