Losing the War of the Words

Prof. Ruth Wisse of Harvard University believes the cowardliness and self-accusatory talk of Israelis will bring about the collapse of the state

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

Prof. Ruth Wisse fears for the fate, for the very existence, of the State of Israel. And not only because of the waves of Arab hatred and terror, which she describes as worse than that of the Nazis, "because they come after the Nazis, when all of us already know exactly what anti-Semitism can lead to. Aside from that, as historian Michael Oren (a senior researcher at the Shalem Center) has said: "One thing that cannot be said about the Nazis, even when they slaughtered the Jews in the concentration camps, they did not plaster pictures of the murderers on the walls and make them into symbols." Wisse's main fear concerns the weakness of Israelis, first and foremost the weakness of the Israeli intellectuals and the sense of self-accusation that characterizes them.

She calls it "hypocrisy in reverse." "A hypocritical person acts differently than to what he preaches. Israelis actually behave correctly, but are unable to ground this behavior in the suitable intellectual explanations: On the one hand, people are willing to risk their lives in a war, but on the other hand they are such cowards in the one battle that really matters - the battle of words and ideas. I see very talented and intelligent Israelis coming to Harvard and Yale, but they can't explain the Israeli position. The aim of intellectuals is to win the battle of ideas. But not only don't they fight this battle, they have really betrayed the concept of truth."

She most certainly understands the source of this weakness: "Self-accusation makes you feel better, because it creates the illusion that everything depends on us. If only we move out of Nablus, or vote for Mitzna, it will solve all the problems. We only have to convince each other, and then everything will be okay."

As a college professor whose field of expertise is Yiddish literature, she attests that her specialty helps her to understand what she calls the "Jewish pathology." "Everything that I read from the left in Israel is already familiar to me from the Yiddish literature in Europe before the Holocaust. There, as well, everyone thought that if only the Jews could be persuaded to shift from capitalism to socialism, the hatred for Jews would vanish."

Wisse, an American Jew, began teaching Yiddish literature at Harvard 10 years ago. Previously, she taught at McGill University in Montreal, where she had lived ever since her family fled occupied Europe in 1940, when she was four years old. At Harvard, she is the only instructor of this subject (another faculty member teaches Yiddish language), in the Jewish Studies department.

She could not be considered the sort who might cloister herself in the ivory tower: Wisse states her at times prickly opinions and positions in essays and articles that she has been publishing with great frequency for decades; especially in Commentary, the American Jewish periodical, which under editor Norman Podhoretz has become the bible of neoconservatism in the United States.

Wisse, who speaks fluent Hebrew, has spent the past few months living in Israel. This week, she was the recipient of the Guardian of Zion award. The prize (which comes with a cash award of $35,000) is the initiative of the family of American Jewish millionaire Ira Rennert. It is awarded by the Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University to an individual who, through his or her actions and beliefs, "has dedicated their lives to the perpetuation and strengthening of Jerusalem." In its seven years of existence, the award had been bestowed on such figures as writers Elie Wiesel and Herman Wouk, historian Martin Gilbert, and newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer.

A second Holocaust

Wisse's concerns for Israel's fate has found its way into the intellectual dispute that has troubled several Jewish-American thinkers over the past year. The proximity of the waves of suicide bombers in Israel and the wave of terrorism in the U.S. prompted some of these thinkers to speak earnestly about their fear of a new Jewish Holocaust, especially in Israel. Ron Rosenbaum, a columnist in the New York Observer, wrote last April (shortly before the start of Operation Defensive Shield): " ... there is likely to be a second Holocaust. Not because the Israelis are acting without restraint, but because they are, so far, still acting with restraint despite the massacres making their country uninhabitable."

George Will, one of the conservative wing's leading political journalists, enthusiastically quoted Rosenbaum in a column entitled "Final Solution, Phase 2." At a rally in support of Israel that took place in Washington after the massacre in the Park Hotel in Netanya in April 2002, one of the speakers, William Bennett, referred to the nearby Holocaust Museum, saying: "What we are seeing today, what Israel is feeling today, was not supposed to happen again."

Headlines and columns in the Jewish press compared the Park Hotel massacre to Kristallnacht. "As I've said before, if a loudspeaker goes off and a voice says, `All Jews gather in Times Square,' it could never surprise me," Nat Hentoff, a Jewish columnist in the Village Voice, told New York magazine.

These sort of statements infuriated Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the weekly New Republic, and one of the most prominent spokesmen of the liberal Jewish wing. In an article in the New Republic entitled "Hitler is Dead," Wieseltier ridiculed the sowers of panic: "The savagery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the virulent anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the Arab world, the rise in anti-Jewish words and deeds in Europe: All this has left many Jews speculating morbidly about being the last Jews. And the Jews of the United States significantly exceed the Jews of Israel in this morbidity."

He reserved special scorn for the fears of a new Holocaust in the U.S.: "The Jews that I see gathered in Times Square are howling at Nazis in Mel Brooks's kick lines. Hentoff's fantasy is grotesque: There is nothing, nothing, in the politics, the society, or the culture of the United States that can support such a ghastly premonition." As for those who prophesy a Holocaust in Israel: "The murder of 28 Jews in Netanya was a crime that fully warranted the Israeli destruction of the terrorist base in the refugee camp at Jenin, but it was not in any deep way like Kristallnacht."

Ruth Wisse responded to the article in her home court - Commentary - with a vehement attack on Wieseltier (both articles appeared in Hebrew in Eretz Acheret, an Israeli periodical). She charged that his soothing words were themselves meant to serve a political purpose, that of invalidating concerns regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. "During the 1930s, in the pages of the New Republic and elsewhere, a few Jewish intellectuals did track the danger to Jews in Europe and in Palestine, warning, in Ludwig Lewisohn's words, of `the pathological bloodthirstiness of the Nazi anti-Semitic campaign.' But Lewisohn's was a minority voice. Most intellectuals urbanely mocked such apocalyptic scenarios."

Fault of the intellectuals

This week, Wisse told Haaretz that she herself does not accept the description of a "second Holocaust," although she most certainly fears an Israeli collapse due to loss of self-confidence. Wisse describes a close link between the terrorism war in Israel and the September 11 terrorist attacks, or as she puts it: "Anti-Americanism is an expansion of anti-Semitism." In her mind, there is a great deal in common between the two cultures, the American and the Jewish: "We, the Jews, are a democratic and competitive society, like Americans, but it's much easier to be an anti-Semite than to be anti-modern. Because anti-modernism is something abstract. To be against the Jews is much more real." The mutual competitiveness also reminds her of her abhorrence of philosophies that focus on concern for "the other," such as Emmanuel Levinas: "The Jews has one `other': God in Heaven."

On at least one matter, however, she nevertheless sees a big difference between Israel and America: "The Americans don't blame themselves. After 9/11 they didn't stop even for a minute to ask themselves what we did wrong that brought on this terror. If Israel would act like that, people would admire it. Israel should demand from the Arabs, and not apologize in front of them." She also assigns partial responsibility for the terrorist attacks against the U.S. to the Israeli intellectuals, arguing that if they had done their jobs, they would have been able to warn America in time about Muslim savagery - "Because of them, America was attacked. They could have prepared us for what happened."

She pins the problem of Israeli intellectuals, among other things, on the absence of a tradition of Jewish political thought. "We have a very poor political tradition. In political thought, we are primitive. Because of that I feel the need to bring some ideas from America to Israel."

She says her concerns for Israel's fate began at the time of the UN resolution in 1975 that compared Zionism with racism. It isn't hard to imagine that in her eyes, the Oslo Accords are the source of all evil, an event that spiked her fear for Israel to apocalyptic levels. "When I heard about the accords, I felt it was the worst moment in my life. I truly thought it was the end of the state. It was the most foolish decision ever made in human history. This is the first state in human history that armed its enemies, in the expectation of gaining security. It only shows the depth of the pathology."

Although she considers Sharon and Bush more sophisticated than Rabin and Clinton, she is nevertheless disappointed with the processes of the past few weeks. "Sharon should have said to Bush: `You are certainly important to us, but you should understand that we are also very important to you. The weaker you make us appear in their eyes, the more they will rise again. It will not be only against us, but also against you. You will prepare your next 9/11.' From Bush, I would expect him to say to the Arabs: `Before you hear us giving a "hurray" to the Palestinian state, we want to hear you saying "hurray" to the Jewish state."

For the same reason, she does not think Israel should make the Palestinians any offer of any kind, notwithstanding the looming demographic problem. "The demographic problem was created only because of the Arabs' wish to destroy Israel. Otherwise there would be no problematic significance to the numbers. Therefore, this is what must change: They must understand that they will never get this land, and only when they recognize that fact will it be possible to find a solution to practical problem." And by this she means all of the territory of the Land of Israel.

Freedom means problems

She is aware that the first criticism with which she will be assailed has to do with the fact that she voices these statements from the warm embrace of Harvard University in Boston. "I accept that every Israeli is permitted to ask every Jew to come and live in Israel. I also accept that every Israeli living here has more of a right to relate to the issue than I do. You can say that I'm a hypocrite, but I also claim that these days, those who fight the war of words are no less important than they who fight in combat, and the war of words can also be there."

Wisse was born in Romania into a family that had moved from Lithuania. As a child in Canada, she attended a Jewish school. She describes herself as not fully Orthodox, something akin to the religious practice of the Sephardi Jews in Israel. As a young woman she wrote for newspapers, in parallel with her academic career. As opposed to many neoconservatives, who were once ardent liberals but changed their political skin in the `70s and `80s, she says she has never changed her point of view - only the world around her has changed.

Her concerns about the changes in her environment already began during the revolutionary 1960s, primarily due to the advent of the feminist movement. "I think the women's movement did much more damage to America than socialism did to Russia," Wisse says. And anyone who understands the depth of her and her peers' hatred for communism can fathom the full significance of the comparison. She cites the divorce rates, and the fact that "So many children are born into a dead end, and female unhappiness has only grown much stronger."

The sharp feminist criticism of the relationship between the sexes, says Wisse, actually began in an era in which women had equality of opportunities and status they never had beforehand. "The main change in our time is that a woman's life became much easier than it was before: the infant mortality rate was much lower; it became much easier to raise children. The question the women's movement should ask is what should we do with this freedom, because as we know from the Exodus [from Egypt], more freedom is more problems."

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