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:
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-Fran├žois 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.


Unknown said...

Kol hakavod l'cha, Jerry. The woman deserves the skewer. I've found her tendentious politics deeply objectionable for decades when mixed in what is otherwise supposed to be scholarly work. I'm not saying a scholar should not be politically engaged. But they at least should be engaged w. ALL the relevant texts and not give short shrift to those that are inconvenient to their thesis.

I really think highly of David Biale as a person & scholar & knew him when I was a Jewish studies grad student.

Anonymous said...

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

They started the WAR!!!! 1% of israel's population was killed!!!!

And Israel is not the cause of antisemetism. Antisemites are the cause. Theres a genocide going on in darfur and people are more "concerned" about the palestinians whose leaders are shooting rockets into Sderot every day!

Jerry Haber said...

The question of when the war started depends on your perspective. You are referring to the declaration of war by the Arab states after the declaration of independence in May 1948.

But *before* the Arab states declared war, between quarter of a million and 350,000 Palestinians had already been made refugees. That is because a civil war between the communities had begun at the end of 1947. The Palestinians, aided by by Arab Leagues' ALA fought the Jews and were beaten badly -- all this before May 1948.

The declaration of war by the Arab states, and the invasion by the Arab armies was a war between the State of Israel and the Arab states, not between Jews and Palestinians. Both the Arabs and Israelis were held responsible for the war by the UN, and the UN security council called upon all parties to cease violence. There was no condemnation in either the Security Council or the General Assembly of one side vs. the other. The unilateral declaration of the State of Israel was arguably a just casus beli; Netanyahu warned Arafat about the consequences (invasion) of the Palestinian's declaring a state.

But as I have said before -- if the Palestinians had a right to a state before 1947 -- and the Partition plan admitted as much, then they didn't lose that right because they lost a war.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Jerry!

Literary-psychoanalytical forays into questions of Jewish power are currently all the rage, as Jacqueline Rose's _The Question of Zion_ attests. I am waiting for Wisse's book in the mail, and am already quite familiar with David Biale's _Power, Powerlessness, and Jewish Hstory_ and its more nuanced critique. In Israel, I was at the Rothberg School in 200-1, and participated in the Shalem Center's graduate seminar. I am currently a Comp Lit grad student at an Ivy. I think we could have a Statist Zionism without bromides, but I am not myself willing to force it on anyone from the Diaspora--which means that, functionally, my Zionism (pace your swipe at "knee-jerk Zionism") means donations to Meir Panim, Yad Sarah, MDA and the PRCS. Most of my contact here has been with anti-Zionists, Ta'ayushniks, and mainstream Jewish Studies. The fact is, there has been a turn towards interrogation of Jewish-Arab intersections in the US (Shohat, Khazzoom, Hochberg, Alkalay) as well as in Israel (Shenhav, Chetrit) that bears watching and I think this year's crop of books on literature and Jewish identity (by Gil Hochberg, by Risa Domb, even Aamir Mufti if you want a South Asian twist) are more indicative of where things are going in the sphere of Jewish studies by literature profs than Wisse's work.

Jerry Haber said...

Thanks for this comment. Who will tell us old fogeys where things are headed to intellectually if not grad students?
I didn't mention Jacqueline Rose. I have read some of the reviews but not the book. I probably would agree with much of it, but not with the psychological theoretical overlay. Still, I should give it a chance.
My own neck of the words is more political/philosophical the justification of the morality of Zionism and the institutions and practices of the Jewish state. Here I can tell you that an important book will be published by Oxford next year called The Justice of Zionism. The author, Chaim Gans, a professor at Tel Aviv University, considers himself on the extreme-left, but he gives a liberal defence of political Zionism in this book that will make no mainstream Zionist happy, and he does it through extensive knowledge of other conflicts, human rights law, etc. He is a tad to my right, but definitely on the side of the angels.

Jerry Haber said...

Eurosabra, if you feel comfortable, you can contact me off list. I didn't mean to take a swipe at supporting people-to-people relief initiatives, such as the ones you mention. On the contrary, since the conflict is intractable (terminal?), the best we sometimes do is to relieve the suffering of the patient. So yishar kokhekha for that

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I find discussions of Jewish powerlessness in galut rather pointless.

Rather like mirror-images of the anti-Semite take of Jewish hyperpowerfullness.

Perhaps if more Jews took the nature of the last two thousand years - minority status as a trading community - as a starting point, then compared it with similar trading communities world-wide, we might get some better analysis. (Similar trading minorities - eg, the Overseas Chinese in South-East Asia, the Indians in Britain, etc ... there's a lot of them, and a whole lot of stuff written about them. But precious little on a "general theory" of such communities. What a waste! ;)

Joachim Martillo said...

I assumed that Jews and Power is a sort of reply to (or preemptive strike against) The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. The reader is supposed to map Jews to The Israel Lobby and Power to US Foreign Policy.

Wisse was not actually working from Walt and Mearsheimer's book. Only the paper on the Harvard website and the LROB abridgement were available, but the lack of the complete thesis was not really an issue because she has no interest in engaging any of the points that W&M raise.

The book seems more an attempt to immunize the Zionist consciousness of Jewish readers so that W&M's arguments will not be able to stir up any deviant thinking among American Jewish reflexive Zionists.