The Fanaticism of Ruth Wisse

November 6, 2007

Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish at Harvard, first got on my radar screen with her 1982 Commentary article “The Delegitimation of Israel," described by historian Mark Gerson as “perhaps the best expression” of the neoconservative view that Israel “was a just, democratic state constantly threatened by vicious and aggressive neighbors.” I commented as follows:

The article stands out for its cartoonish view that the history of anti-Jewish attitudes can be explained with broad generalizations according to which the behavior and attitudes of Jews are completely irrelevant for understanding the history of anti-Semitism. The message of the article is that Jews as innocent victims of the irrational hatred of Europeans have a claim for “a respite” from history that Arabs are bound to honor by allowing the dispossession of the Palestinians. The article is also a testimony to the sea change among American Jews in their support for the Likud Party and its expansionist policies in Israel. Since Wisse’s article appeared…, the positive attitudes toward the Likud Party characteristic of the neoconservatives have become the mainstream view of the organized American Jewish community, and the liberal Jewish critics attacked by Wisse have been relegated to the fringe of the American Jewish community.

Things haven’t changed at all for Wisse. In a Washington Post op-ed promoting her recent book, Jews are again portrayed as history’s powerless victims. Wisse summarizes the history of Jewish economic behavior as altruistically providing goods and services to non-Jews at the price of being politically vulnerable. Such a view ignores competition between Jews and non-Jews over the middleman economic niche, and it ignores the common role of Jews in traditional societies as willing agents of oppressive alien elites. It also ignores the emergence of Jews as a hostile elite in European societies and in America beginning in the late 19th century: Yuri Slezkine’s aptly named The Jewish Century could not possibly be remotely factual if Jews were nothing more than politically vulnerable victims. Indeed, an increasingly important theme in my thinking about Jews, and particularly the Ostjuden (Jews deriving Eastern Europe), has been aggressiveness. (See also The SY's and the Ostjuden.)

Wisse’s view of Jews as altruistic middlemen even applies to Israel: “Israel still lived by strategies of accommodation, trying to supply its neighborhood with useful services and goods such as medical, agricultural and technological know-how.”

This is a grotesque gloss on the reality of Israeli aggression against the Palestinians and against its neighbors since the founding of Israel. Since Mearsheimer and Walt are bêtes noires for Wisse,  it is worth pointing to some of the examples they provide: Israel is an expansionist state whose leaders were not satisfied with the original partition of 1948—a time when Jews comprised 35% of the population of Palestine and controlled 7% of the land. Israelis “continued to impose terrible violence and discrimination against the Palestinians for decades” after the founding of the state, including ethnic cleansing after the 1967 war and, according to Israeli historian Benny Morris, an occupation based on “brute force, repression and fear, collaboration and treachery, beatings and torture chambers, and daily intimidation, humiliation, and manipulation” (p. 100). Mearsheimer and Walt also point out the horrors of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the wanton destruction of the bombing of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. They also show how Israel has aggressively promoted regime change throughout the region, using the power of the United States harnessed by the Israel lobby.

Wisse not only sees Israel as too timid, she argues that the Israel lobby in America is also weak. Her basis for this is that Edward Said, a Palestinian critic of Israel, held a position at Columbia University, and his right to speak out on Middle East issues was supported by some Jewish academics. Apparently for Wisse, the existence of even a few marginalized, powerless critics  is a sign of the weakness of the lobby — never mind its stranglehold over Congress and presidents.

Despite bewailing the impotence of the lobby, she does see hope because of the intersection of Jewish and American interests: “The Arab war against Israel and radical Islam's war against the United States are in almost perfect alignment, which means that resistance to one supports resistance to the other.” That seems reasonable — except for the fact that, as Mearsheimer and Walt note, “the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it has long been so supportive of Israel” (p. 64).

Wisse concludes as follows:

It is seductive to hope that by accommodating our enemies, we will be allowed to live in peace. But the strategy of accommodation that historically turned Jews into a no-fail target is the course least likely to stop ongoing acts of aggression against them. Indeed, anti-Jewish politics will end only when those who practice it accept the democratic values of religious pluralism and political choice — or are forced to pay a high enough price for flouting them.

What is most poisonous about this is that Wisse is completely blind to Jewish aggression, both on the part of Israel and on the part of the lobby. (Harnessing the power of the United States to effect regime change of governments that Israel doesn’t like is nothing if not aggressive — even recklessly so give the long history of charges of Jewish disloyalty.) In her view, Jews are surrounded by enemies who desire their destruction simply because of the morally superior qualities of Jews: Jews “function as a lodestar of religious and political freedom: The Jews' attackers oppose such liberties, and their defenders promote them.”  She sees Jews as altruistic martyrs throughout history who will once again suffer martyrdom unless they eschew their altruism and become aggressive. Accommodation simply leads to more martyrdom, and this rationalizes even more aggression toward their enemies.

If there is anything beyond ethnocentric delusion in all of this, I think that behind Wisse’s aggressive stance is the belief that they can win, where winning is defined as removing the Palestinians from most of the West Bank, enclosing the Palestinians in walled-off Bantustans where conditions are so horrible that many will eventually emigrate, and establishing hegemony in the entire area.

It is hardly ridiculous for Israelis and their American supporters to think this way. After all, Israel is by far the preeminent military power in the region and can easily act to preempt the development of WMD by its enemies, including Iran. And as a nuclear power, it could inflict huge costs on any enemy who even contemplated destroying it. It also has the world’s one remaining military superpower completely at its bidding, so that it’s difficult to envision a worst case scenario in which Israel is decisively defeated.

Why should the Israelis give up anything when victory is in sight? And why give up anything given that the water has been so poisoned by 60 years of aggression and hostility that any concession at all, much less an impossible return to the 1967 borders, will be seen, as Wisse notes, as little more than weakness. 

 Of course, continuing its aggressive, expansionist policies means that Israel will remain an international pariah. But Israel is quite accustomed to that role, and the lobby has a long and successful track record in dealing with the fallout from charges such as “Zionism is racism,” at least in the West (which is all that really matters).

Unfortunately, the fanaticism and moral blinders of Wisse are not at all atypical among the more extreme elements of Israeli opinion and among their supporters in the lobby. The extremists are in charge and have been so at least since the 1967 war. Any attempt to make a meaningful withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem and to allow a viable Palestinian state would produce a civil war among Israelis and likely provoke a strong response by the lobby on the side of the non-accommodationists like Wisse. The fate of the Oslo peace process, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the support by the lobby of the most radical elements within Israel certainly argue that there is little chance of a successful move in this direction. People like Wisse may not be entirely representative of the Jewish community either in Israel or in America. But their numbers are large, and they have created facts on the ground that make any kind of reasonable settlement impossible.