IF I AM NOT FOR MYSELF . . .
The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews
By Ruth R. Wisse
Free Press. 225 pp. $22.95
THOUGH JEWISH neoconservatives occupied central positions of power in and around the last two Republican administrations and their ideas often dominated the "major Jewish organizations" that claimed to speak for American Jewry, they often bemoaned the fact that they could never win a majority of American Jews to their perspective -- and hence could never deliver many Jewish votes to their Republican allies. In this book, Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and English literature at McGill University, upholds the now well-known neo-conservative attack on liberalism as unworthy of Jewish loyalty. It is an opinion that for at least a decade has filled the pages of Commentary (where some of this book has already appeared).
Those who seem to care about "the other" -- or, worse, who think that Jews have some responsibility to alleviate others' pain and suffering -- are the quintessential liberals against whom Wisse warns us. Denouncing Israeli writers who have dared to portray Israeli insensitivity to Palestinians, Wisse assures us that these writers "lied in pretending" that their peace politics "were moral alternatives to a callous Zionism." I am honored to be on the long list of Jewish liberals who are the objects of Wisse's fury -- along with Nadine Gordimer, Anthony Lewis and Israeli writers Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman (the latter, we are told, critique Israel for "the rewards that they get from overseas readers and publishers for delivering up the image of the ugly Israeli").
Wisse notes that liberalism has been a necessary precondition for the advancement of Jews. But she believes that it now lulls Jews into a false sense of security so that they do not understand the real danger they face from Arabs who have "resuscitated ideological anti-Semitism" and "notified the world that they felt thoroughly justified in destroying Israel." "Anti-Semitism continues to achieve its goals" and, with the decline of communism and fascism, "anti-Semitism arrived at the center of world politics with the United Nations as its pulpit."
Liberalism is seen as responsible for a too-optimistic account of the possibility of human progress and of human nature. "Instead of the improvement of European society that liberals anticipated" in modern times, Wisse asks rhetorically, "suppose there had occurred a severe deterioration in the condition of the Jews, culminating in their mass destruction?" It never occurs to Wisse that it was not the triumph but the defeat of liberalism by right-wing nationalism that occasioned the rise of antisemitism and, conversely, that it was precisely the liberal societies of the West that managed to stop Hitler in coordination with Stalin.
Wisse agonizes over Jewish loyalty to liberal values and Jewish willingness to subordinate immediate economic interests for the sake of helping "the other" -- the various oppressed groups who will benefit more than the Jews from the social justice-oriented agendas of the Democratic Party and the various social change organizations. Her conclusion that the strong attraction of American Jews to liberalism is merely an attempt to propitiate antisemitism by dissociating themselves from whomever is under attack and thereby advertise their own goodness. She dismisses without argument the far more persuasive reasons why American Jews vote against their immediate economic interests: Jewish memory which reminds Jews of their ties to the oppressed, and the Torah tradition, which has always insisted that Jews be sensitive to the fate of the least powerful. It was the Torah, for example, and not some assimilationist-prone leftists, that originally insisted that Jews "love the stranger" and remember that Jews themselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. And it was the Torah that told Jews their claims to the Land of Israel were conditional on their ability to live a morally and spiritually centered life.
It is this traditional Jewish concern for the "other" that Wisse feels is misguided -- and the enlistment of the Jews in any cause "higher" than their own self-interest has been "a sublimated striving for righteousness" that has "led straight to hell." By assuming that all Palestinians are merely Jew-haters, that their claims on Palestine are extensions of an antisemitic campaign, and that their complaints about torture and oppression under the occupation are a device to turn the world against Israel, Wisse can paint an idyllic picture of Jewish nationalism and wax eloquent about the distortions of internationalism. Yet, in a year in which ethnic cleansing campaigns directed against Muslims have recreated concentration camps, Wisse seems unaware of the ways that nationalism too easily can become a vehicle for murder and oppression.
THE HEART of Wisse's book is the attempt to revive two sleights of hand that were central to the defense of Yitzhak Shamir's militant policies in the 1980s: The first is equating support for Israel and Zionism with support for Shamir, or pretending that gun-barrel Zionism is the only kind of Zionism, and conveniently forgetting that liberals and socialists played a central role in building Zionism and the State of Israel. The second sleight of hand is the denial of the particularity of Palestinian experience by assuming that Palestinians are indistinguishable from the worst antisemites of surrounding Arab countries. The real danger liberalism poses to this right-wing version of Zionism is that it treats Palestinians as real human beings -- flawed like the rest of us, and angry, but not yet willing to take responsibility for their own part in having created and perpetuated the conflict -- rather than as representatives of an evil force destined to seek the eradication of the Jews.
Precisely because Wisse's neo-con crusade against liberalism fails to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and antisemitic double standards, it lets liberals off the hook too easily, failing to confront the real ways that social change movements today fail to take seriously contemporary forms of Jewish oppression or the reality of antisemitism within their own ranks.
Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine, a bimonthly Jewish critique of Politics, Culture and Society and author of "The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left."