Bigger Picture – Ruth Wisse and the War Against the Jews

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Big Picture (9 parts)

Unlike evil, ruthlessness is not some metaphysical abstraction we can ponder and dissect, but never fully understand.

For ruthlessness is concrete and, in its own self-centered way, completely rational.

After all, none of us would claim that we don’t want something from life (money, respect, love, authority), nor is it controversial to say that some people want more (sometimes much more) of these things than others.  And the notion that a subset of people will go to any length to get what they want is not speculation, but historical and observable fact.

In fact, behaving ruthlessly is more intuitive than acting in some of the “civilized” ways we now take for granted (think for a minute about that example I used previously of a society where the people with guns unquestionably follow the orders of those without them).

But because ruthlessness exists in all times and places, we run the risk of missing some of the particulars related to the current situation of the Jews and their state if we simply chalk the behavior of our foes up to such an all-encompassing phenomenon.

For there seems to be a special something that makes ruthless men (and women) organize their politics around opposition to “The Jews,” with various rationalizations only coming into play after the fact to justify this opposition (i.e., The Jews are too religious/the Jews are Godless, the Jews are clannish/the Jews are assimilated, the Jews are stateless/the Jews have a monstrous state).

It’s tempting to blame this behavior on plain old bigotry, similar to the racism that has driven murderous rampages between people for millennia (as well as injustices such as slavery, Apartheid and Jim Crow).  But all of these other forms of bigotry require the object of that bigotry (i.e., members of the despised minority) to actually exist.  Only Jew hatred seems to spring up and become an organizing force for politics and society whether or not any actual Jews are nearby to hate, murder or enslave.

You can see this in Eastern Europe where self-declared anti-Semitic political parties are re-emerging, regardless of the fact that Jews have all but disappeared in those lands.  And you see it throughout the Arab world which has become a Vesuvius of classic anti-Semitic words and imagery permeating the media, the school curricula, and the minds of a disturbing percentage of the population.

To understand why this might be, and why anti-Jewish politics is different from other forms of politicized racism, we must turn to another prophetic writer: Harvard University’s Ruth Wisse.

I promised myself to give the whole Left-Right thing a rest, but not before pointing out how much our tendency to evaluate every thinker along one of these axes impoverishes understanding.  For these two dimensions just don’t make room for genuine iconoclasts like Lee Harris (a gay, Democrat voting, Southerner who left his Baptist Church behind for Philosophy and now writes for conservative think tanks and publications).

Regarding Wisse (a truly original thinker who is also an outspoken conservative), the temptation is to just lump her in with every other Right-thinking person in order to unquestionably embrace or ignore her (depending on your own political persuasion).

But Wisse’s work (particularly her two books If I am not for Myself and Jews and Power) challenges us, regardless of where we might fall on any spectrum of political or religious belief.

Certainly the subtitle of If I am not for Myself (“The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews“) is a direct attack on liberal belief.  But her description of that liberal belief system (one which assumes the world and mankind is in the process of continuous improvement, that problems can and should be settled via reason and debate, and that conflict often arises from misunderstanding vs. malice) applies not just to those who might vote Democrat, but to anyone touched by Enlightenment values (which includes just about all of us).

According to Wisse, the Arab-Israeli conflict (or, as she more aptly terms it: “The Arab War Against the Jews”) challenges every part of this liberal belief system since it opens up the possibility that societies can devolve (not just improve), and that some problems cannot be solved through reasoned debate since they do not well up from misunderstanding but rather from deliberate malice (or what Lee Harris might call deliberate ruthless enmity).

Faced with the possibility that one group of people might hold a grudge for a century, and force their children and their children’s children to live in squalor for another century in order to have revenge over an enemy is more than many a good Enlightenment thinker can bear.

And so we draw back or avert our gaze (so that the world as it is does not interfere with what we would like it to be). Or (as we have seen again and again) we blame the Jews for the war waged against them in order to find some explanation that allows us to maintain our world view.

Wisse’s theory explains so many things I’ve encountered in the fight against BDS over the years, including my own political trajectory.  It explains the retreat of those tired of what seems to be a never-ending fight into communities where they might not have to deal with the whole ugly mess (a group I belonged to after my kids were born around 2000).  And it also explains the extreme hostility to forces (such as BDS) which try to drag the Middle East conflict into these supposed safe havens (which explains my behavior after BDS came knocking at my door in Somerville, MA in 2004).

Sadly, it also explains why so many people are desperate for an explanation of the Arab War Against the Jews that might make it seem rational, or at least within our ability to solve (such as believing it to be “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” which Israel could resolve if it wanted to).  And it explains why the ruthless actors waging this war will gladly offer to provide this alternative to reality to anyone ready to buy it.

But this theory, important as it is, does not explain the role “The Jews” play for Lee Harris’ ruthless actors.  To understand that, we need to look at another remarkable set of ideas in Wisse’s books, ideas that will be the subject of my next post.


Series Navigation<< Bigger Picture – The Enemy IdentifiedBigger Picture – The Big Ugly Defined >>

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5 Responses to Bigger Picture – Ruth Wisse and the War Against the Jews

  1. JayinPhiladelphia January 15, 2013 at 12:01 am #

    Although it’s much more diplomatic in certain spots than I would be, I greatly enjoyed reading this response to BDS from one of its targets.


    Also, this is yet another fascinating piece, Jon. Keep it up!

    But now allow me to swing in a different direction for a moment, as I am wont to do. 🙂

    As a life-long liberal, and a Democrat, I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with admitting (or pointing out) that today’s version of ‘mainstreamed’ antisemitism is largely a phenomenon which derives from my end of the political spectrum.

    However, your usage of “Democrat voting” sticks out to me like a sore thumb. Not to be too nit-picky and all, but I think we all here agree that language matters, and I’d just note that denying us our chosen appellation (Democratic) doesn’t ultimately help these matters in any way.

    Apologies if that phrase was totally innocent, but this is indeed a specific sore spot for many of us on the left (who are, of course, often right on the front lines of battling BDS bigotry)…

    • Mike Lumish January 17, 2013 at 6:24 am #


      I suspect that the stealing of the “ic” in “Democratic” was entirely innocent in this case.

      There was a time, not all that long ago, really, when I too was opposed to the Republican robbery of the Democratic “ic.”

      Someone like Sarah Palin would refer to the “Democrat” Party and we all knew that it was a petty and intentional besmirchment.

      My solution at the time was to give the Republicans the damn “ic” if they wanted it so badly so that they could be the “Republicican” party!


      Oh, shit, was there ever a time when politics was actually kind of fun??

      {I seem to recall there was.}

  2. Brian Goldfarb January 15, 2013 at 12:11 am #

    Your comment that Ruth Wisse’s “description of that liberal belief system…applies not just to those who might vote Democrat, but to anyone touched by Enlightenment values…” is a bit unfair (which is, to me, a low point in an excellent article). While we are all aware of the antisemitism and racism of the far right, it is true that some parts of the Left are also prone to antisemitism (but never, in their own eyes, to racism). However, by no means all of the Left are so inclined, and shouldn’t, even by implication, be so labelled.

    I recently gave a talk in Cambridge (UK) on this topic, arguing that parts of the left have fallen, in essence, for a new version of the “noble savage” myth to justify their opposition to Israel – and every so often falling into the antisemitic trap of conflating Jews with Israelis. Those who take this position are generally “relativists”: those who take the stance that human rights are, or can be, different in different parts of the world.

    They have to do this to allow themselves to dub Israel as a worst breacher of other’s human rights than, for example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Zimbabwe, Sudan in South Sudan before the division of Sudan, Syria, etc, etc…

    Nick Cohen, in his book “What’s Left?”, illustrated this superbly, as one would expect. There was, he argued, a case for invading Iraq, but it was based on the fact that Saddam Hussein was a fascist dictator who was murdering his people, not that he was part of some sort of “Axis of Evil”, which he was not. On that basis, as Cohen saw it, the Stop the War coalition had got it wrong. But then, so had Bush and Blair.

    Just some random thoughts, late at night from this side of the Atlantic!

  3. Stop BDS Park Slope January 17, 2013 at 3:30 am #

    This is a fascinating series. I am anxious to see where it is going. But I am still trying to get a sense how people without a dog in the fight are latching on to the whole anti-Israel, BDS thing and believing that they are doing for the cause of human rights.

    During the Pillar of Defense Operation, Yaacov Lozowick posted on his old blog Three Ways to be Against Israel . The first type is the ruthless Jew-hater. The latter two are naifs. One denies the historical reality and sees only the Jew as the guilty party. One has the fantasy that everyone just wants to get along, if only we could give peace a chance.

    One is evil, one chooses to believe only the Jews are evil, one denies the existence of evil.

    The first guy I understand where he comes from. It is either power or he is nurtured to hate. My question is where do the latter two come from? What is it that makes them discount anything that might contradict their point of view?


  4. Mike Lumish January 17, 2013 at 6:08 am #

    Wisse is terrific.

    Here is a link to a recent video that I have also posted on the Israel Thrives sidebar.

    One of her major points is that political anti-Semitism draws people together who might otherwise be at one another’s throats. She points to late 19th and early 20th century Germany as an example and at the current Arab-Muslim world as another example. In a sense that’s the point.

    She also makes what I think is an exceedingly apt point in a metaphor. She says that people will often say, “Look. I’m just criticizing Israel. There is no country on the planet that should be free from criticism.”

    Sounds fair to me. Who could disagree with that?

    Criticism is criticism. If you did not do a good job of taking care of your lawn and a neighbor complained, is it really their fault?

    BUT what if all the other neighbors felt that you had no right to live among them and were constantly throwing garbage and rocks through your windows and threatening the lives of your children?

    Would this other neighbor’s complaint about your lawn merely be just a complaint or would he be joining with people who want to see you dead?

    It makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it?

    In any case, I actually came up with “the long Arab war against the Jews” independently. Or, at least, I thought that I did!

    This makes me wonder if I did not come across it earlier at some point in some essay by Wisse.

    Well, good for her because she’s absolutely right.

    It is the long Arab war against the Jews and depending how you look at it, it’s been ongoing since either the 1920s or since Muhammed himself.

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