Jews probably could have endured in the Diaspora had theirs been the only type of political organization in the world. But their political system was not basically structured to defend itself against outside enemies seeking it annihilation.In fact, Jews and Judaism have survived in the Diaspora, and they are doing rather well at that. It is hard to see how a series like Nextbook, despite its occasional amaratzes, dilletantism, and rightwing slant, could have been produced in Israel (unless some rich American Jewish neocon donated money to the Shalem Center). Wisse should ask why no Israelis are writing Hebrew versions of "Jews and Power," and why there is no public in the Jewish state for such books. Or why nobody in Israel under the age of sixty writes the history of the Israel-Palestinian confilct the way she does, unless associated with the Shalem Center or Bar Ilan. But wait -- the story gets better. It turns out that the above quotation is an adaptation of Jean-François Revel's prediction in 1983 about the "imminent demise of democracy". Oh, boy, was that "Chicken-Little" wrong! Wisse has the honesty to admit that "the implosion of the Soviet Union proved his fears groundless in this instance" but this "by no means lessens the value of his insights." That's odd. I would have thought that historical facts have a direct bearing on the value of one's insights. They do for historians. But not, apparently, for professors of literature, where the perception and interpretation of facts are what matters.
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Tough Jewess -- Wisse's "Jews and Power"
Because of the well-orchestrated media hullabaloo, I went out and bought Ruth Wisse's new book on "Jews and Power." My expectations were low. A book that advances a grand theory of "Jewish power" by a literature professor who is neither trained in Jewish history, nor, judging from the bibliography, conversant with scholarly literature in any language besides Yiddish and English, in a series aimed for popular consumption, should be judged differently than a work of a specialist. Still, some of the previous books in the Nextbook series are useful as introductions to their topics, despite their flaws(I am thinking mainly of Nuland's Maimonides and Goldstein's Spinoza.) And the idea of a series of short, intellectually challenging books for the "educated layperson" sounds promising. Unfortunately, "Jews and Power" is a tendentious mix of personal biography, Zionist historiography, and cherry-picking of Jewish literature and history,in the grand tradition of Zionist polemics. Somewhere halfway through the book, Wisse completely loses the train of her argument about power and just provides a ZOA-approved guide to the establishment of the State of Israel through the Oslo accords, the sort of thing that Netanyahu, Dershowitz, and Bard could do in their sleep. Wisse repeats uncritically the narrative of "Exile and Return" that has been debunked time and time again by serious scholars; she manages to get around to David Biale's "beguilingly contrarian" thesis of Jewish power and powerlessness, which is a direct challenge to her book, on p. 174, ten pages before its conclusion. She does not give Biale's book any serious attention; on the contrary, she seems to think that his point is that Jews in the diaspora glorified powerlessness, whereas Biale showed that the Jewish experience in political power had not ended as good for the Jews as the Zionist historiography pretended. It is not just the tendentious of the material on Zionism -- Wisse completely omits mention of Zionists like Magnes, Buber, Scholem, etc., who don't fit into her master narrative, much less intellectual and liberal opponents of Zionism. (Cultural Zionist Ahad ha-Am get a nod, but is immediately criticized, of course, for failing to realize the need for Jewish power in a hurry.) It is not just the failure to cite, much less refute, any book on Israel-Palestine that does not fit into her mold (Has she even read Morris, Segev, Shlaim, and Kimmerling? As for Khalidi, she argues with a comparison he makes between Palestinians, Kurds, and Armenians, and then proceeds to ignore entirely the main argument of his book on Palestinian identity) She passes over Kimmerling and Migdal on Palestinian identity in silence, preferring to give her own arguments against their being a Palestinian people united by anything except "its antagonism to Israel and its usurpation of Jewish symbols, history or identity." To prove this last assertion, Wisse refers to the fact that "the Palestinians commemorate the birthday of Israel as their nakba, or catastrophe." But it is not the birthday of Israel that is their nakba -- it is the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, the destruction of their lives, and the thwarting of their political aspirations In any event, I could understand Wisse if she were upset at the Palestinians for whining over the loss of Palestine ("self-pity, self-punishment, and self-destruction at the hands of Israel," whatever that last phrase means) without standing up and resisting. As the advocate of people power, she should be the first to praise the PLO and Hamas for armed resistance, as she does the parallel Jewish organizations, the Haganah and the IZL ("functioning as a good boxer's two fists" (p. 126) -- fist that also killed innocents) No, it is the mind-numbing shallowness of the book -- as if a professor, any professor, can write a short book on Jewish power and powerlessness that takes in (I quote from the jacket) "everything from the Kingdom of David to the Oslo Accords." When Baer wrote his work on Galut, for all of its Zionist tendentiousness and superficiality, at least he had some grip on Jewish history. Most of the historical errors reveal the secular Zionist prism through which she views the data. Every Israeli knows where the city of Yavneh is located, but for Wisse it is "abroad" (p. 29), where Ben Zakkai took the first steps "to reconstitute Jewish religious and political authority outside the Land of Israel" (emphasis added.) Yavneh, no less than Jerusalem, is within the Land of Israel, and it became for a short time the center of the Jewish communities of the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. Of course, this mistake is telling: for the Zionists, the tragedy of 70 ce was the loss of political sovereignty and exile, to which the development of rabbinic Judaism was a response. But it was not the loss of sovereignty and exile that bothered the rabbis at Yavneh. Virtually none of the tannaim even mention "exile", and for good reason, they lived in Israel. Rather, it was the loss of the cult of the Temple, which stood at the center of Palestinian Judaism up until time. As I have written elsewhere, there was no exile following the destruction of the Temple or the Bar Kokhba revolt; there was, according to Baron, increasing voluntary emigration of Jews over centures because of the depressed economic state of the country. The Zionist narrative of exile, founded on Christian and Jewish myths, is like them -- a myth. This is not to say that later there was not a consciousness of living in exile, or a messianic hope for a restoration which waxed and waned. But to reduce Jewish history to: first, the Jews put their faith in Divine power, and then they decided, before it was too late, to bring about their own rededemption through their own power is Zionist poppycock. And what's worse; it is stale poppycock, the sort of propaganda that one finds emanating from Zionist circles a half a century ago. Will the State of Israel be good for the survival of the Jews? Only time will tell, although the initial results are worrying. Over the last half-century, many more Jews have found violent death in the Jewish state (one might say partly as a result of their being a Jewish state) than in the diaspora. Antisemitism waxes and wanes according to the rhythms of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and their lands, proving Brian Klug's wise observation that nowadays, most antisemitism is really disguised antizionism, and not vice versa. Still, as long as self-styled "liberal nationalists" like Ruth Wisse make their home in the diaspora, we can be assured that at least some Jews will survive. It is becoming harder and harder to find neocons of her ilk in Israel among the younger generation of Israelis -- they have to be imported from the diaspora like Michael Oren and Yoram Hazony. This is not a problem, since the growing Israeli diaspora in the US and Europe ensures the requisite level of guilt among the emigres to produce neocons among their offspring. And let us not forget the Russian aliyah... In a rather odd conclusion, Wisse writes as the thesis of her book: