March 08

Ruth Wisse’s Sermon

Jerome Copulsky


Ruth R. Wisse, Jews and Power
Schocken, 2007.

Jews have a long and intriguing tradition of tracing the roots of Jewish powerlessness to Judaism itself. In a well-known aside in his Theological-Political Treatise, the philosopher and Jewish apostate suggested that, “Were it not that the fundamental principles of [the Jews’] religion discourage manliness, I would not hesitate to believe that they will one day, given the opportunity—such is the mutability of human affairs—establish once more their independent state, and that God will again choose them.” For Spinoza, who had been excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for “the abominable heresies that he practiced and taught,” the virtues needed to endure exile are different from those necessary to establish and maintain a state. If they did happen to be “chosen again,” the new political situation and new state would seem to require the creation of a new constitution, an overcoming of Judaism.

The notion that Jewish politics would require overcoming Jewish religious practices and virtues got taken up by Zionists in the twentieth century. David Ben Gurion famously lobbied to revoke the ban of excommunication again the philosopher, whom he regarded as a forerunner of Zionism. Zionist radicals such as Micah Joseph Berdyczewski, Joseph Hayyim Brenner, and Jacob Klatzkin struggled to liberate Jewishness from the religious tradition and the ghetto culture that they believed had stifled and fossilized its spirit. The Jewish return to history, it was believed, would require a renunciation of much of the Jewish past.

Such a sentiment is expressed by Yudka, the barely articulate protagonist of Haim Haziz’s well-known short story, “The Sermon.” In his long speech, Yudka proclaims to his astonished comrades that he stands “opposed to Jewish history,” recounting that history as one of suffering and oppression, a history that was created for, but not by, the Jewish people. “Because we didn’t make our own history,” Yudka declares, “the goyim made it for us.” In front of the kibbutz committee Yudka condemns the traditional Jewish virtue of passivity, claiming that it is the symptom of an abnormal psychology, the delusion that “the more we are degraded, the greater we think is our honor; the more we are made to suffer, the stronger we become.” Zionism, for Yudka, is not the continuation or fulfillment of Judaism. “Zionism begins with the wreckage of Judaism, from the point where the strength of the people fails.”

Ruth R. Wisse, Professor of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, is much more subtle and articulate than Yudka, yet one is tempted to read her new book, Judaism and Power, as a similar lament against Jewish history. “Jews,” she tells us at the beginning of her slender volume, “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” (xiii). The Yiddish phrase za a mentsh, “the injunction to be fully human,” sums up, for her, the essence of this kind of Jewishness, an aversion to brutality, all too often displayed at the expense of the Jews’ own security and that of their children.

Ruth R. Wiesse

Wisse rejects the claim that for two millennia the Jews lacked politics, and she is sensitive to the ways in which the Jewish people adjusted to changing and difficult circumstances, surviving through nearly two millennia of “statelessness,” maintaining and cultivating their rich religious and cultural traditions, and developing a vibrant self-governing polity-in-exile (which she suggests already displayed some of the salutary features later found in liberal democracies). The Jewish Diaspora—the existence of a people without “land, a central government, and a means of self-defense,” was “one of history’s boldest political experiments” (11). But it also enabled “a political deficiency,” which Jews need to become aware of and to overcome.

The Jews’ “political deficiency,” Wisse argues, was not borne simply of adverse historical circumstances. Its roots run deeper, in the very theological structure of Judaism itself. The decisive political relationship in Judaism is the covenant between God as Lawgiver and King and Israel as subject; the Hebrew Bible is well-known for its deep suspicion of politics and prophetic denunciations of the pretensions and presumptions of human power. Human affairs were merely a shadowplay of heavenly dictates. Jews considered military defeat as a sign of God’s judgment and disfavor—in the famous words of the liturgy, “Because of our sins we have been exiled from our Land.” They, rather than their enemies, bore responsibility for their political misfortunes. Yet, Jews took no direct responsibility for creating a better political future: the afflictions of defeat and exile were only to be mitigated by messianic promise, an expectation of divine protection and deliverance, the eventual coming of the Messiah.

This absolute trust in divine providence was a key to the Jews’ endurance; another was their remarkable faculty of adaptation and adjustment, particularly in the economic realm. Jews may have not had much real political or military power, but they were able to demonstrate their utility to those who did. “There developed between Jews and their hosts a politics of complementarity whereby Jews tried to win protection by proving their value” (52), a politics exemplified by the Book of Esther. Throughout the medieval period, the Jews inhabited a potentially precarious position, ever exposed to the whims of rulers and the resentment of the populace. Their theology of history, their absolute trust in God, allowed the Jews to endure the indignities of their situation, and to turn inward to concentrate on their own moral excellence (what Wisse regards as their “moral solipsism”). Wisse concludes that “Jews who endured exile as a temporary measure were in danger of mistaking it for a requirement of Jewish life or, worse, for a Jewish ideal.” (76).

In short, Jews tended to blame themselves for their political weakness yet developed a long-term strategy of accommodation and adaptation to ensure their survival. These two factors—self-blame and the ability to accommodate to greater powers—combined to form the Jews’ unique politics of exile: “Adjustment to dependency in other people’s lands adduced a political narrative in which Jews retained control over their national destiny by accepting responsibility for the political failure” (23). This, then, was the “political deficiency” which Wisse argues complicated the Jews’ entrance into the modern world.

The so-called “bargain of Emancipation” called for Jews to relinquish their national identity to become citizens of the modern, increasingly democratic nation-state. Many European Jews eagerly accepted the deal, transforming Judaism to a “mere” religion, and happily shedding their national particularity to reap the benefits of modern society. There were, however, serious dangers that lurked in the emerging order. “Blindsided by their apparent political progress and thrilled by the real augmentation of their civil liberties,” Wisse writes, “Jews failed to appreciate that the replacement of a single autocratic ruler by an elected assembly has potentially reduced rather than increased their political influence” (86).

The emergence of modern anti-Semitism as a worldview and political program exposes this dark side of modernity. Nostalgic for the waning order, critics of modernity regarded the Jews as its primary beneficiaries, and therefore the agents responsible for its ills and dislocations. Resentment and fear led them to imagine a great occult Jewish power, operating behind the scenes, controlling the destinies of nations. The all-powerful God was replaced by the “International Jew.” Ironically, as the Jew tried to normalize his situation by casting off his Jewishness, the anti-Semite mythologized him, conceiving him as a vigorous and cunning monster. Shaped by the politics of exile, accustomed to adapting to autocratic rulers, the modern Jew was helpless to understand or face the threat of popular anti-Semitic movements.

Zionism can in many respects be regarded as a revolt against both the religious tradition of waiting passively for redemption and the newly constructed “liberal” Judaism which would facilitate the Jews’ entrance into modern bourgeois society. By forging the Jews into a living nation, by providing them with a place of their own, Zionism would reestablish Jewish pride and cure the disease of anti-Semitism. But Wisse argues that the galut politics of accommodation were so ingrained in the Jewish experience that even those Jews who left the exile for Palestine were slow to shed its methods and tactics. So-called “liberal” Zionists sought to further their goals by seeking the assistance of the Great Powers, arguing that a Jewish homeland would be good for liberalism, good for the world, and good for the Arabs. This was a delusion illustrated by what Wisse regards as the fantasy of Reschid Bey, the “good Arab” of Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland, a book which Wisse suggests “replicates the adaptive policies of the Diaspora” (107). What was lacking at the beginning of the Zionist project was the crucial “military component.” Wisse celebrates the Revisionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the paramilitary units such as the Irgun, which she suggests understood the need for a vigorous military force more clearly than the leadership of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine.

Despite the hope of the Zionists to rescue Jews from the abnormality of the exile, Wisse suggests that the situation of Israel in the world in some sense replicated the precarious situation of the Diaspora. Anti-Zionism is merely the latest manifestation of a long history of Jew hatred: the Jew remains a useful political target, the scapegoat for all sorts of grievances and resentments. Since “the animus against them was not directed to any correctable attribute or rectifiable lapses” (138), Wisse contends that it is an error to think that it is anything but the mere existence of a Jewish state that produces this hatred. Anti-Zionism is simply “the organization of politics in opposition to Israel” (139), and it cannot be satisfied by any change in policy short of Israel’s destruction.


While Jews and Power advances a powerful master narrative of Jewish history and an analysis of the Jewish psyche, careful students of Jewish history and politics will not fail to notice the lacunae in Wisse’s historical account; they will wonder why there is no mention of many of the Jews who have pondered deeply the meaning of Jewish politics, thinkers as varied as Saadia Gaon, Moses Maimonides, Isaac Abravanel, Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, and Martin Buber, to name just a few, and no engagement with recent scholarship on Jewish history or on the Jewish political tradition.

The treatment of Zionist history is cursory and tendentious; it overlooks the significant ideological and practical differences between the dominant Labor and the Revisionist Zionist parties, ignoring the latter’s expansionist aims (the aspiration for a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan) and blood and iron ideology, while expressing sympathy for its bloody tactics. Wisse also neglects the complicated political and military maneuvers which surrounded the birth of the State of Israel and Israel’s relations with her Arab population and neighbors. She chooses not to grapple with the substantial economic, cultural and political prestige today enjoyed by American Jews. Moreover, Wisse’s notion of “anti-Zionism” encompasses too many phenomena over too long a time frame to be analytically useful, and the causal link she infers between the Jewish political deficiency and anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is unconvincing.

But Wisse’s intention in Jews and Power is not to provide a thorough and judicious account of the vicissitudes of Jewish power over the centuries or a detailed account of the threats Israel faces today. (David Biale has done a much better job at the former in his nuanced 1986 book Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, which Wisse blithely dismisses as “an effort to chasten modern Israel.”) The narrative of Jewish ambivalence regarding power combined with Arab intransigence underwrites Wisse’s hard-line politics and leads to her stern warning: The Jews’ “capacity for accommodation dooms them if they fail to repel their assailants when necessary” (172). For Wisse, the old Diaspora politics of accommodation corrupted not only emancipation Jewry as it tried to negotiate its place in the new political order , but also “liberal” Zionists, such as Herzl in their engagement with the Great powers and fantasies of coexistence in Palestine. Its malignant effects can today be seen in those Jews who believe it is possible to compromise and make peace with their enemies. Those Jews who exhibit a “veneration of Jewish weakness” possess Jewish moral solipsism without faith in the biblical God.

What, then, is to be done? Wisse concludes that (1) Jewish politics has helped bring about an anti-Jewish politics which blames the Jews for everything; (2) Jews in Israel find themselves in a siege situation, one which replicates the political vulnerabilities of the Diaspora; (3) Israel, as a target of anti-democratic forces, is “a crucially situated outpost of the West” (192), “the fighting front line of the democratic world.” (By stressing what Israel can do for America, indeed, for the entire “democratic world,” Wisse ironically seems to relapse into a “politics of complementarity.”) In short, Wisse counsels Jews to “be like all other nations,” to not be afraid to exert their might, to emphatically reject the Diaspora “strategy of accommodation.” What this means practically is unclear; one might deduce that Wisse endorses a broadly rejectionist stance with regard to negotiations which are, of course, based on the willingness and ability to compromise.

And it is here that one senses a deeper problem with Wisse’s analysis and recommendations. While she details at length the Jews’ ambivalent or abnormal attitude towards “power,” Wisse never discusses what a “normal” attitude might be. (Her admiration for the Irgun may lead the reader to dark suspicions.) Moreover, she fails to distinguish between the veneration of power and political responsibility. It is clear that to appreciate power is not the same thing as to exert it in a responsible manner. Wisse never recognizes the relationship between the deployment of military power and its political and ethical consequences.

That Wisse is unwilling or unable to think clearly about political responsibility is illuminated early in her book in her discussion of the Jewish revolt against Rome. Wisse blames Josephus for blaming Jewish sectarianism; she blames the Sages for blaming internal dissention and “baseless hatred” (without considering the myriad of Rabbinic texts that condemn the wickedness and cruelty of Rome); she blames the Romans for destroying Jerusalem. But she does not consider the fundamental question of the wisdom of the Jewish revolt in the first place. Nor does she take into account Maimonides’ famous opinion on the matter: “This is why our kingdom was lost and our Temple was destroyed and we were brought to this: for our fathers sinned and are no more because they found many books dealing with these themes of the stargazers, these things being the root of idolatry, as we have made clear in ‘Laws Concerning Idolatry.’ They erred and were drawn after them, imagining them to be glorious science and to be of great utility. They did not busy themselves with the art of war or with the conquest of lands, but imagined that those studies would help them.” Josephus may have turned against his fellow countrymen, but that does not mean that he was altogether wrong in regarding the actions of his erstwhile comrades as “a mad folly.” (Wisse stresses how trust in God led to political passivity; she might also have considered how it could also lead in the opposite direction, with disastrous results.)

This lack of interest in political responsibility accounts for Wisse’s failure to consider the factors that led Israel to engage in the Oslo experiment throughout the 1990s, and to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005, specifically, the enormous costs—political, financial, military, and moral—of occupying another people. These decisions were made and implemented by unsentimental men—Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon—former generals who had no illusions about the nature of the enemy. Wisse focus her attention solely on Oslo, which she regards as a “self-delusion” and a “capitulation” (to what or whom it is not clear). Yet, it is doubtful that Rabin saw in Arafat the arrival of Reschid Bey. But instead of considering the motives of the Rabin government and carefully weighing the political and demographic realities, international pressure, and desire to consolidate Israeli power by passing off control of a hostile population, that led Yitzhak Rabin to negotiate with Yasir Arafat and the PLO, Wisse simply regards Israel’s acceptance of Oslo as an unfortunate reversion to “the Diaspora strategy of accommodation” (169). Years after the collapse of Oslo, Israel remains the region’s preeminent military (and still the sole nuclear) power; the Palestinians have fared much worse.

Indeed, while Wisse laments the corrupting effects of Jewish powerlessness, she is not at all concerned about the corrupting potential of Jewish power. There is no discussion in her book of the effects on the Israeli citizenry (not to mention the Palestinians) of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Intifadas, the Lebanon Wars. Rather than stare unflinchingly at and grapple with the problems raised by the possession and use of political and military power, Wisse instead confuses concern for justice and the corrosive effects of Israel’s policies with a perverse craving for powerlessness. It is such confusion, I think, that leads her to indulge in a nasty swipe at the Israeli Left (Peace Now is simply dismissed as an attempt to “satisfy the will … of the Arabs” (151)), and to express such contempt for those Israelis who perform their military service while lobbying for peace. Such men and women, who have experienced “Jewish power” first hand, are denounced as hypocrites, “promoting their enemies’ cause over their own” (153). For the most part, Wisse does not name names or peddle salacious quotations of those Jews who are critical of Israel’s policies (as did Alvin Rosenfeld in his notorious 2006 essay, “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism”), but the implication is clear: they are the modern avatars of Josephus, medieval informers and converts to Catholicism. (Even the old Herut firebrand Menachem Begin is regarded by Wisse as a bit of a softie for handing over the Sinai as a provision of the Camp David peace treaty with Egypt.) They are the regrettable products of the Jewish political deficiency.

One could, however, draw a far different conclusion—that the Jews’ historical experience may have at times induced Israel to overreact or miscalculate militarily, to respond to provocations disproportionately, in an attempt to demonstrate Israeli strength and resolve. Any balanced consideration of the subject would have to take into account Israel’s excesses as well as its restraint—how it has controlled disputed territory, its assaults on Palestinian towns and villages, the interrogation of prisoners, demolitions of homes, and so forth. One would also expect treatment of disastrous recent war in Lebanon. All of this is absent in Wisse’s account.

One of the assertions of the book is that, due to the nature of the combatants, any real and lasting peace in the Middle East may well be impossible. Wisse draws a crude dichotomy between an Arab/Muslim “political tradition” of violence and expansionism and its “culture of blame,” and the traditional Jewish “politics of accommodation” (153). “In real life,” Wisse confidently informs us, “Jews and Arabs constituted not parallel but politically opposite and contrasting societies” (165). What other than a clash could then be expected? One may be excused for thinking that “real life” may be somewhat more complicated. While abhorring the “politics of blame” that she claims distorts and sickens Arab society, Wisse turns around to hold the Arabs (and Palestinians) completely accountable for their own misfortunes. (Wisse displays nothing but contempt for the Palestinians, whose national identity, she claims, is constructed solely in negation of Israel. Regarding their suffering, “One may sympathize with Palestinians,” Wisse instructs, “but it is precisely this sympathy that keeps them hostage to brutish practices” (164).)

Yet, she permits herself to dream of another path, of a road not taken, “without indulging Herzl’s kind of political fantasy,” (131) of course. If only the Arabs accepted the U.N. partition plan of 1947—Wisse laments at one point, an old and tired line, as if the entire conflict, the entire tragic history of Arab and Jew, could be drawn back to that single decision, that single act of Arab obstinacy. (That the partition agreement was vehemently opposed, one should remember, by the right-wing Jewish groups such as the Irgun that Wisse admires, does not disrupt her reverie.) Of course, Wisse admits, there would have been “some voluntary shifts of population” and “modest territorial adjustments” and so on. If we take Wisse’s book seriously, the very expression of such a counter-history is a symptom of that very Jewish illness she desires so desperately to cure.

This is unfortunate, for the challenges that Israel faces today, as in the past, are real and difficult. There is, no doubt, much that may be learned from a careful study of Jewish history and of the Jews’ political experience. But it is misguided to imagine that Jewish toughness today will overcome the vulnerabilities of the past. Politics is not therapy. One hopes, however, that it may be possible to learn to respect power and to remain, at the same time, Mentshen.



Jerome E. Copulsky is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Director of Judaic Studies at Goucher College.