Ruth Wisse’s Jewish Power Is on Display in New Edition of Her Groundbreaking Book
“Is this the prophet Ruth Wisse?” I ask over the phone to the professor emerita of Yiddish literature at Harvard.
I mean it, only half-joking, in the sense of being able to foretell the future. How else to explain Wisse’s uncanny ability to have written a book observing, “Israel invites its visiting foreign dignitaries to tour its Holocaust memorial, as if to say, All we want is to be spared this fate.” A book observing, “The Passover Haggaddah reassures those who gather every year to reenact the Exodus from Egypt, ‘In every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One saves us from their hand.’” How else to explain — other than that she is a prophet — that this book of hers, Jews and Power, was not written after the events of this past month, but rather was published originally in 2007.
Well, I guess there are other possible explanations. Perhaps she’s just smarter than the rest of us, or more clear-eyed. For sure, she has had some brilliant editors; the book is dedicated to Neal Kozodoy and is part of the Jewish Encounters series brought out by Nextbook and Schocken under the leadership of Jonathan Rosen, who was my colleague at The Forward in the 1990s. Perhaps Wisse is particularly suited to have crafted such a book by virtue of her own life story, having been born in 1936 in Czernowitz, in what is now Ukraine, and having escaped the Soviets and the Nazis in 1940 via Athens, Lisbon, New York, and finally Montreal.
Whatever the explanation, it’s impossible to miss that Wisse’s 2007 book is newly if somewhat unfortunately relevant again in 2020, to the point where her publisher is bringing it out again this February in a new edition with a new introduction by Wisse. The introduction observes, “I wish the book and its message had become obsolete over the past thirteen years, but instead they have gained urgency, including where least expected.”
That is spectacularly, dead-on true in so many ways that I find myself returning again to the “prophet” label. Wisse writes, for example, that at the Communist International Congress of 1935, “the Arab delegate from Palestine characterized Zionism as a bourgeois movement. … Zionist capital … directly oppresses the Arab working masses.” Meanwhile, this week in Ramallah, reporter Samuel Sokol finds a shopkeeper claiming that President Trump’s peace plan “was made to satisfy ‘rich Jews’ in New York ahead of elections. ‘Are you a rich Jew,’ he asked me. ‘I’m not rich,’ I replied. He answered he has no problems with Jews. Only with ‘greedy’ Zionists.” And here in the US, boycott-Israel advocates such as Linda Sarsour, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib coalesce behind the campaign of socialist Bernie Sanders.
“These ideas are very attractive,” Wisse tells me over the phone when I comment on the parallels. “They always speak in terms of equality, fairness, progress, and peace. Particularly peace. It’s extraordinarily insidious.”
As for Wisse’s ideas, they have won her recognition and respect but they have also been met with a degree of resistance. “Nobody wants to understand this,” Wisse says, exaggerating only slightly.
“No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” is the way the Christian Bible frames this, though neither Wisse nor I mention that in the phone call; myself, in retrospect, probably out of some well-justified reluctance to impose a Christological framework on, of all people, Ruth Wisse.
“Understanding the issue is psychologically very difficult,” she says by way of explanation. “You have to take responsibility for yourself and for your own protection, and you can’t hold yourself responsible for the hostility against you.”
Those looking for policy prescriptions in Wisse’s book risk disappointment. “My book is not intended to supply the answers,” she says. “You have to look at the problem. What do you avoid?” She says she is hoping “to get people thinking about how Jews function politically.”
One hopes that today’s readers will be more receptive. One prays too that if another edition of this book is necessary again in 2033, Wisse will still be in a position to grant interviews to help promote it. If Jews read this book more frequently than every 13 years, we’d be in a stronger position.
In its discussion of the historical and religious context, Jews and Power reminds us that traditional Jews read the Haggadah and the book of Esther annually, and Psalms daily: “No daily reader of the Psalms could underestimate the might of God, whose indignation blazed like fire, who avenged the spilled blood of His servants the Jews and would pay back their enemies sevenfold. The glorification of powerlessness was as antithetical to Judaism as belief in the son of God.”
She goes on to write that modern Jews, with less faith in God’s intervention, “could not claim to be moral unless they themselves intended to supply the missing dimension of power.” Ruth Wisse has supplied far more than her share of that with the power of her words and ideas; she can blaze with indignation, erudition, and perspicacity pretty well herself.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.