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Ruth Wisse, The Paradox of Jewish Politics (Hebrew version of Jews and Power)

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 30, Numbers 1–2

Ruth Wisse, The Paradox of Jewish Politics (Hebrew version of Jews and Power). Toby Press, 2018, 209 pp.

On the surface, the audience that this book, originally published in English under the title Jews and Power, is addressing are the “nations” that find it difficult to comprehend the rationale of a Jewish state. It has now been translated into a flowing Hebrew by Tsur Ehrlich who as usual did an excellent job. I applaud the Keshet and Tikvah foundations for supporting this initiative. Regrettably, the task of explaining the need for and rationale of a Jewish state is no longer just for external purposes. We witness today the emergence of ideas, both on the left and the right, that call one of the greatest enterprises in Jewish history into doubt.

I will begin with the ultimate conclusion of the book. The rationale of a Jewish state lies, according to Wisse, in the contradiction between the inherent Jewish advocacy of harmony and justice on the one hand, and survival in a self-help international system on the other. Jewish civility, or as she calls it, mentshlishkeit—“a commitment to human decency and mutual respect”—has proven not to befit the form of political life in which the Jews found themselves since the loss of Jewish sovereignty. Unfortunately, the Jews who remained in a state of powerlessness did not fit the world in which they resided. According to Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, the Jewish turn to power has always been, and in the modern world is more than ever a requisite for survival.

Although it is very concise, the book offers other important points that have been ignored in current Israeli academic literature. First, Wisse notes that in contrast to the common notion among Israeli political scientists, Jewish governance did not stop while the Jews were in exile. The culture of learning, even by ordinary people, instilled a “constitutional culture” in the Jewish political ethos. While being surrounded by a feudal system of governance, the Jews developed a self-government system that they carried with them into modernity. These findings—developed by the late Daniel J. Elazar, who founded a discipline dubbed “Jewish Political Studies” and whose contribution in this regard Wisse mentions in the book—are still scarce in Israeli political studies. Indeed it was Elazar who founded the Jewish Political Studies Review where this review appears.

Another dimension that would be very instructive, especially for Israeli literature students, is offered by the chapter on the politics of language. To be sure, it is the author’s forte. Israelis could undoubtedly find some significant insights with regard to ascertaining their Jewish origins. It is in this context that Wisse advances her thesis about an important feature of Jewish behavior in their host countries: adaptability. The Jews erroneously thought that by adopting the language of the nations among whom they dwelled, they would diminish hatred. Instead the reaction was one of suspicion and fear about competition and internal takeover—in short, classical anti-Semitism. A current comment by British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that British Jews do not understand “English irony” reminds us that indeed such attitudes were not confined to pre-World War II Germany.

Another interesting chapter is the one entitled “Jewish Foreign Policy.”1 Because of their unique state of affairs as a nation without a territory, the Jews developed a special arrangement that Wisse calls the “politics of complementarity,” implying that Jews tried to win protection from their hosts in exchange for their services. Again, this chapter goes against the common view among Israel’s state founders and intellectuals that the Jews disappeared from the world arena following their military defeats by the Romans during the first and second centuries CE, and restored their role only with the founding of the Jewish state.

Wisse’s journey through Jewish history leads her finally to the necessity and rationale for establishing a Jewish state. She asserts that Zionist leaders, however, followed their old-style approach, namely, appealing to the good faith of the great powers. They believed that in exchange for Zionist Jews’ participation in these countries’ armies during the world wars alongside their development of the Land of Israel/Palestine, they would receive a territorial state. This state would also be accepted by the local Arabs, and in it the fate of the Jews would change. But, again, nothing has changed. Anti-Semitism was now replaced by anti-Zionism both in the Middle East and on the world scene, as demonstrated in the United Nations General Assembly and the UN’s associated international institutions. The Oslo process, so characteristic of the Jewish “politics of accommodation,” has again proven how mistaken the Jews are in their expectations that they can get a fair response for their contributions from their neighbors and the international community.

To sum up, my thoughts on the book after reading the original version were expressed in my book on The Jewish Origins of Israeli Foreign Policy (see the biographical note). There I submitted that Wisse was responding to a school in Judaism that has resurfaced in the United States and that perceives Jewish possession of physical power as incongruous with Jews’ mission in the world. Accordingly, Jews are at their best in the Diaspora when they are not sovereign. Reading Wisse’s book now in Hebrew, I find her critique of that school very important for Israeli audiences. In any case, I recommend the book for academic audiences that deal with the Middle East, Israel, and Jewish public life both in Israel and the Diaspora.

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  1. I am pleased that Wisse uses this concept in the Hebrew version instead of “Jewish foreign affairs” in the English version. I used it for decades in some of my research. See, e.g., Shmuel Sandler, “Is There a Jewish Foreign Policy?” Jewish Journal of Sociology 29, 2 (1987): 115-21; Shmuel Sandler, “Towards a Theory of World Jewish Politics and Jewish Foreign Policy,” Hebraic Political Studies 2, 3 (2007): 326-60.