Jews live in a world of code – words that say one thing and mean something entirely different to the initiated. Religion, nationality, ethnicity, Zionism, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, intersectionality, racism, tikkun olam, peace – alone or next to “process” – Holocaust and holocaust all mean to the speaker what they mean to the speaker. What the listener, Jewish or not, hears is often something else.
What is clear to the magnificent Ruth R. Wisse in Jews and Power is that the evolution of Jews, as practitioners of a religion and as nationalists and as people of widely varying ethnicity, has no parallel. Jews worked to adapt to political conditions in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere over centuries and under wildly disparate conditions. At all times, in all places, she notes in the Introduction to the new Second Edition, “Jews needed accommodation; anti-Jews needed an object of blame.” Code, and understanding code, were essential to survival.
Wisse, a Fellow of the Jewish Policy Center, is a former professor of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Born in Czernowitz, part of modern-day Ukraine, she spent most of her childhood in Montreal, and earned a Ph.D. from McGill University. To say she often writes and speaks about the politics of anti-Semitism, why Israel is under attack in our universities, as well as the study of Yiddish literature, is to understate her importance in helping Jews understand themselves and understand the inevitable Jew-haters.
In explaining her motivation for writing and updating Jews and Power, Wisse says, “I want to see how the politics of Jews occasions the politics of anti-Jews… in tandem because that is the way they coexist.” Not to blame the Jews, but as an attempt to understand “how and why…Anti-Semitism became arguably the most protean force in international politics.”
All of that before Chapter One.
The three “staples of nationhood” are land, a central government, and a means of self-defense. The Jewish people’s first experiment in retaining nationhood without them was the Babylonian exile. There, two intellectual threads kept them separate when other tribes simply disappeared. First was the attachment to the land they had left – “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” This is the origin of breaking a glass at a Jewish wedding – at the “happiest hour” the memory of lost Jerusalem appears.
Second was the Jews’ relationship with God. His job is to avenge His people, destroy their enemies, and restore them to Zion. For other people, this is the role of the state and the army, but Jews had no state or army – thus, Jews took the role of supplicants or, sometimes, as the cause of God’s unwillingness to rescue His people. Even negative “agency” was better than being the object of the whims of the universe. Often, they asked God to provide vengeance: “Fair Babylon, you predator, a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us; a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!”
But if nationhood requires three staples that the Jews didn’t have, Jews had three other staples – “Torah, worship, and deeds of lovingkindness.” (Torah, Avodah v’Gmilut Chasadim) These staples, especially the Torah, which was translated into the vernacular and studied and shared by the community, were portable. Study was mandatory, and time for study was much to be desired in poor and working communities. Israel’s present and growing issues with perpetual Torah students who do not serve in the armed forces of the State stem from this mandate.
Wisse’s historical description of Jewish courts, teachers, and texts not only answers questions about Jews and power, but also about how we Jews became the people we are. Over years, decades, and centuries, even unreligious Jews assimilated the peoplehood and the ethic. “Za a mentsch” was an admonition familiar even to Jews who didn’t speak Yiddish.
Side note No. 1: The translation and study of the laws of the Torah stands in contrast to the “Arabic only” Quran, and the rote memorization of the Hadiths by generations of Muslim youth. An Egyptian Muslim friend had seriously read and studied the Hebrew Bible. Discussing Joseph, I mentioned that he had made “ill reports” to his father about his brothers, engendering the aggravation that got him sold off to Egypt.
“Oh, no,” said my friend. “Joseph was a Prophet – he never did anything wrong. He couldn’t.” My example of Moses defying God and not reaching the Promised Land was met with the same objection. “Moses was a Prophet and Prophets are perfect.” At some point, we stopped discussing the Torah.
Side note No. 2: The best-selling book in South Korea (and close to the top in Japan and China) is a translation of the Talmud. Koreans read it to learn the secret of Jewish success – not “secrets” in the European anti-Semitic sense, but in the sense of knowing Jews to be an ancient people, like Koreans, and wanting to understand. What they miss is that the secret is not in the book, but rather in the pilpul – the mechanism for asking and answering questions that has no educational parallel in Asia.
These, throughout the first two sections of Jews and Power, are keys to Jews, philo-Semites, and anti-Semites.
Powers of Protection
Across countries and eras, Jewish communities made accommodation with local rulers, offering benefits and services in exchange for security. However, Part One makes it clear that the arrangement was throughout history entirely one-sided. As long as the governing powers valued the Jews over other things, they were relatively safe. But “other things” could and did include populist mobs, riots and better offers, at which point, the Jews would be jettisoned.
In later cases, this could be ascribed to the relationship between Jews and Christians and Muslims, chronically fraught with tension – but Wisse starts at Elephantine in 411 BCE. It could also be ascribed, as Thomas Sowell did, to the position of “middleman minorities” including Jews, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and Ibos in Nigeria.
“It is not just what these minorities have achieved, but how they have achieved it, that evokes suspicion and resentments,” wrote Sowell. Wisse explains, “The very functions of lending and charging interest, of bartering rather than producing necessities, trigger distrust. Envy and resentment are provided not by wealth alone, but by the intermediary role and social habits that set and keep these groups apart.”
For Christians and Muslims, it was Jews as “the other” and the “infidel.” And for Jews, it was the covenantal relationship with God and the belief that God would, at some point, avenge the enemies of the Jews and lead them home. “The Eternal shall grant his people strength; the Eternal shall bless his people with peace.” This relationship gave the Jews an expectation of unfailing divine protection, along with temporary protection from earthly rulers.
The concept of protection and the rise of self-protection is most interesting in Part Three: Return to Zion.
The return to the historic Jewish homeland was a “push-me-pull-you” phenomenon. On the “push me” side, Moses Leib Lilienblum noted that not a single western European country had taken appreciable numbers of Jews fleeing Russian pogroms. It was time for Jews, who were “hated, hounded, beaten, murdered, and incarcerated” to return to the Land of Israel. On the “pull you” side was the rise of European nationalism – if they could do it, why couldn’t the Jews?
Here is one of the most intriguing parts of the book. For all the skills the Jews developed in the Diaspora, one they never had and could never have had, was military skill. The protection of the Jews had been outsourced to local political and religious leaders in Part One. By Part Three, the returning Jews were still seeking outside protection – from the British, from local Ottoman officials, from local Arabs. The thought that an army might be necessary was not mainstream.
Wisse’s description of the inability or unwillingness of the Jews to accept the need for self-defense is extraordinary.
Jewish memory lingered on the last military hero, Bar Kochba, whose defeat by the Romans at the last mountain stronghold of Betar in 135 CE seemed to eliminate the option of Jewish armed might… The aberrant nature of Jewish political life became horribly manifest during World War I when an estimated half million Jews fought in the uniforms of the vying armies of Europe with no one to prevent the violence directed at them.
In his book Jerusalem: The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore explains the leaders of the Zionist movement were committed to winning the Arabs to their vision of the Jewish return making the land better for everyone:
Herzl dreamed that “if Jerusalem is ever ours, I’d clear up everything not sacred, tear down the filthy ratholes,” preserving the Old City as a heritage site like Lourdes or Mecca. “I’d build an airy comfortable properly sewered, brand new city around the Holy Places.” Herzl later decided that Jerusalem should be shared: “We shall extra-territorialize Jerusalem so that it will belong to nobody and everybody, its Holy Places the joint possession of all Believers.”
Ben Gurion believed, like most of his fellow Zionists at this time, that a socialist Jewish state would be created without violence and without dominating or displacing the Palestinian Arabs; rather it would exist alongside them. He was sure the Jewish and Arab working classes would cooperate… it did not occur to the Zionists that most of these Arabs had no wish for the benefits of their settlement.”
Clearly, looking back on the chalutzim from here, the creation and evolution of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is an even greater feat than we normally credit. Wisse gives pioneers Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor their due. The Holocaust and repeated (failed) Arab invasions are also credited.
The Conclusion returns us to the beginning – the modern relationship between Jews and power, both political and military, and between Jews and anti-Semites. Jews and Power is not proscriptive, it will not tell you how to deal with the haters or protect the Jews. But for Jews and non-Jews alike, it offers a cogent description of the development of the Jewish people and their unique institutions across time and space.
It is an education well worth the investment of time and intellectual energy.
Shoshana Bryen is the editor of inFOCUS Quarterly and Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.