The Magazine

Beyond Betar

How the Jews have adapted to history.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Jews and Power

by Ruth Wisse

Schocken, 256 pp., $19.95

This is a study in compression. In less than 200 pages Ruth Wisse chronicles the Jewish nation from antiquity to the struggles of today's Israeli state (or "the Zionist entity," as it is affectionately known around the neighborhood). She tells her story with authority and restrained passion. But her narrative is merely a foundation for the series of related theses that stand forth like pinnacles on a medieval castle, banners flying.

When Rome drove the Jews out of Israel after the defeat (at Betar in 135) of the last Zionist liberation movement until modern times, the newly homeless nation developed a novel national strategy. Although the strategy was inspired by and intertwined with the Jewish religion, it was (says Wisse) a political strategy--a method of organizing Jewish communities internally and of managing their "foreign relations" with the local Gentile powers. Its characteristics were a simple but serviceable participatory democracy within the community, and a defense policy based on brains instead of arms. In fact, argues Wisse, Jews dismissed from their culture the whole idea of military power: "The Jewish Diaspora," she writes, "is one of history's boldest political experiments, an experiment as novel as the idea of monotheism itself."

A big claim.

Jewish communities played the man and not the ball, adjusting their tactics frequently to the whims of local and national authorities. Sometimes they had no sense, but their sensibility was finely tuned. Their matchless capacity to read their Gentile neighbors, together with their fixed resolve to survive as a nation, brought the Jews (if only just barely) through 2,000 years of brutal persecution and made them what they are today: the senior nation of the Western world.

Wisse calls this a strategy of accommodation, and describes two tragic consequences that must be set against its (relative) success.

As European nations gradually liberated their Jewish communities from the segregationist laws that shut them out of Gentile society, the strategy of accommodation shot Jews straight to the top. Sensitive antennae and advanced survival skills allowed Jews to excel in commerce, finance, and virtually every other field they entered. But Jewish success merely created a new and deadlier form of Jew-hatred. The Roman Catholic Church used to hate the Jewish religion, but the new anti-Semites who crawled out of the cracks in late 19th-century Europe hated the Jews themselves, and schemed to use Jew-hatred as a battering ram to demolish the liberal order with which Jewish liberation was associated.

Wisse adds an important truth to the history of modern anti-Semitism: Not all anti-liberal political parties were anti-Semitic, "but there were no anti-Semitic parties that were not innately anti-liberal [her italics]."

The accommodationist state of mind also had catastrophic results for Zionism. Jewish emigrants to Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries foresaw a benevolent new society living peacefully with its Arab neighbors, raising Arab and Jewish living standards simultaneously. Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, envisioned just this kind of society in the utopian novel that appeared in English translation as "Hill of Spring," Tel Aviv. Only with stunned and belated bewilderment did Jews returning to Zion come to realize that their Arab brothers wanted them gone and, preferably, dead. The 1929 slaughter of unarmed Jews at Hebron and at Safed finally induced Jewish Palestine to begin (in defiance of the British authorities) to organize seriously for armed self-defense.

Jewish accommodationism, Wisse convincingly argues, remains to this day a disaster for Zionism, and continues to feed the Jewish delusion that their Arab enemies merely want peace and fair play, like the Jews themselves. This willful delusion was the basis of the Oslo agreements between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and terrorist-in-chief Yasser Arafat of the PLO. In fact, "Oslo triggered an immediate escalation of terror not only against Israel but against the West," Wisse notes. And she quotes a journalist in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz who wrote, in 2006, that Israelis "deserved" the bloodbath triggered by Oslo: "We earned it honestly as a nation of gullible fools."

Wisse's discussion of Stalin's direct involvement in the origins of anti-Zionism is a powerful part of her argument; so, too, are the connections she traces between the Nazi and Soviet governments and the growth of Arab violence against Jews. These facts are no secret; but the Western world (not excluding the American Jewish community) is blissfully ignorant and needs frequent reminding.

Some will argue with Wisse's thesis, at least in part. Jews in the Diaspora continued to remember their military heritage (classical Rome regarded the Jews as "ferocious") with at least guarded respect. The three greatest heroes of the Hebrew Bible--Abraham, Moses, and King David--are all described as military leaders; David, the greatest soldier of all, was and is the most beloved of all. Rabbi Akiba, the most important thinker of the Talmud, was a dedicated supporter of Bar Kokhba's rebellion (which led to the final defeat at Betar). Of course, David is beloved above all as the psalmist, Israel's greatest (and Western history's most influential) poet. Judaism honors David's combination of military and poetic genius: One of its most frequently repeated prayers expresses the hope that God will bless Israel with "oz v'shalom," power and peace.

Wisse's book will occasion other arguments, too. Does accommodationism account for post-liberation Jewish brilliance in art, science, and scholarship, or only in commerce? Do Arabs hate Jews because their leaders stand to gain (just as the Nazis did) by giving the masses a license to hate, steal, and kill? And because the Jews seemed like European colonialists, whom the Arabs hated already?

Clearly both explanations are valid, but there's a third possibility as well: By offering help to the indigenous Arabs instead of requesting help, the Zionists offended a proud people. A character in Henry James explains to a friend why he might succeed where she had failed in getting acquainted with some difficult old maids: "There's all the difference: I went to confer a favour and you'll go to ask one. If they're proud you'll be on the right side." The Arabs who first encountered the modern Zionists were immensely proud; after all, pride was all they had.

If Jews and Power is arguable at some points, Wisse's authority, passion, and dignity make it compelling throughout. When she refers now and then to incidents in her own life, the effect is powerful, like an actor coming suddenly downstage to address the audience out of character and from the heart: "Having fled with my family to North America as a stateless refugee (the ship that brought us from Lisbon to New York in 1940 was torpedoed on its return voyage), I know the brunt of involuntary displacement." Often her writing is eloquent in its plain-spokenness. (Among the great monotheistic religions, "Judaism is unique in allowing anyone to become a Jew without insisting that everyone should become a Jew.")

To encompass in under 200 pages the long history of the Jewish nation, along with an eloquent and novel commentary, sounds like an impossible Houdini-act. But Wisse has pulled it off.

David Gelernter, contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion.