What's Good for the Jews

Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, in a painting by Francesco Hayez.
Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, in a painting by Francesco Hayez. (1867 / Galleria D'arte Moderna, Venezia)
Reviewed by Susan Jacoby
Sunday, August 19, 2007


By Ruth R. Wisse

Schocken/Nextbook. 231 pp. $19.95

This is the eighth title in a lively and distinguished series, "Jewish Encounters," that has taken a fresh look at such diverse figures in Jewish history as King David, the 12th-century rabbi and physician Maimonides, the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the U.S. boxer and World War II hero Barney Ross.

Jews and Power is a very different sort of endeavor -- an erudite, polemical essay that attempts to encapsulate the entire political history of diaspora Jewry in just 184 pages of text. Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, reveals her ideological position at the outset by writing that democratic governments, "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?"

Wisse hews to the right-wing mantra that President Bush went to war after 9/11 "against those who attacked his country and those who harbored the terrorists." The Bush administration, in her view, has "articulated more clearly than any of its predecessors the strategic connection between Israel's security and its own." But whether Israel and the United States are more secure as a result of the Bush administration's military actions is, to put it mildly, debatable. What it means to "come in on the side of the Jews" depends on how Jewish interests are defined and on which Jew is supplying the definition.

The central theme of Wisse's narrative, which dips back into the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BCE but really begins with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, is the way in which diaspora Jews' "harmful pattern" of accommodation to majority power led them to look inward for culpability rather than than outward toward their enemies.

For example, Wisse points out that the only contemporary account of the Jewish revolt and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem was written by the Jewish governor of Galilee, who took the Roman side and the name Flavius Josephus. "Having joined the enemy," she writes, "Josephus blamed the destruction on the 'mad folly' of the Jewish zealots." Later rabbinical commentary offered no real challenge to Josephus, and, as Wisse notes, "the Talmud . . . looks for explanations in Jewish rather than Roman behavior."

The author repeatedly uses the phrase "political failure" to describe the Jewish defeat. But what sort of political "success" could possibly have been expected as the result of a revolt by an overwhelmingly inferior fighting force against a Roman emperor determined to keep his empire intact? Had the Jews not revolted, they might have maintained a continuous presence in the biblical land of Israel -- and there would not have been a Jewish diaspora to change the course of Western history.

Wisse is a brilliant scholar of enviable narrative gifts, and there is much to admire in this essay even if one does not accept its central thesis. Her accounts of theological debates between priests and rabbis in 13th- and 14th-century Spain are particularly compelling. These debates, organized by Catholics, were truly a no-win situation for Jews. If the Jew lost, he lost -- and if he won, he might be killed by a mob. The most celebrated of these confrontations, between a Jewish convert appropriately named Pablo (Paul) Christiani and Nachmanides of Girona, the most famous Talmudic scholar of his generation, took place in Barcelona in July 1263. Nachmanides acquitted himself so ably that he was charged with blasphemy and forced to leave the country.

Much of European Jewish history is compressed into Jews and Power, which moves from medieval Spain to emancipation in France and Germany, through the birth of the Zionist movement in response to a new kind of nationalist anti-Semitism (independent of, though related to, religion) that arose in 19th-century Europe.

Then Wisse gets to her ultimate political point: Historic patterns of self-blame have reasserted themselves in Jewish efforts to reach a settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. She regards Israel's signing of the 1993 Oslo accords, which recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization, as a prime example of an overly conciliatory tendency in which "most American Jews and all too many Israelis . . . reverted to the Diaspora strategy of accommodation in a situation guaranteed to quicken and prolong the war against them." Wisse does not think it worthwhile to mention the impact of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's 1995 assassination, by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish radical, on the course of post-Oslo negotiations.

In conclusion, she charges: "Self-styled political 'realists' argue that if Israel is a liability it should be sacrificed to American priorities in the hope that the Arab-Muslim consortium targeting the Jews would be satisfied by the prospect of that limited conquest."

Who are these unnamed self-styled realists and, more important, who listens to them? Increasingly, realists of many political persuasions, Jews and non-Jews alike, have concluded that if Israel were to disappear tomorrow, it would not materially affect the threat against the West posed by an international Islamist terrorist movement based on 14th-century ideas about religion, culture and human rights.

Even if the historic Jewish strategy of political accommodation were a curse, neither the Israeli government nor the Jewish and non-Jewish neoconservatives who have advocated so forcefully for the Bush administration's foreign policies have inherited it. It is hard to escape the suspicion that the real point of this essay is to brand any Jews (and non-Jews, for that matter) who still believe in the possibility of a negotiated settlement in the Middle East as perpetuators of a ghetto appeasement mentality. ยท

Susan Jacoby is the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism."

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