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.
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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.”

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