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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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.