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.



Given how often the topic is brought up in the comments section of this blog, readers might be surprised to know that in the hundreds of articles and blog entries I’ve written over the years on the subject of BDS, I have yet to accuse those involved with the so-called Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment “movement” of being motivated by anti-Semitism.

Part of the reason for this is metaphysical. After all, to truly know the motivation of those I oppose politically would require the ability to look into someone else’s soul, a gift I have been denied along with the rest of humanity. How much easier it is to simply point out the dishonest, selfish and bullying actions of BDS practitioners and allow readers to draw their own conclusions (or, if they prefer, guess at the boycotter’s internal motivations).

Another reason is practical. For in the last few decades, the Israel-disliking community has developed and honed a narrative that says every criticism leveled against them (regardless of its content or accuracy) is really nothing more than direct or masked accusations of anti-Semitism, designed to shut them up and smear their noble cause. The fact that this is simply another projection (since BDSers routinely accuse their opponent of bigotry at the tiniest provocation, such as using the word “Arab” in a sentence) does not change the fact that accusing BDSers of anti-Semitism (in addition to being un-provable) runs the risk of triggering this well-rehearsed martyrdom defense.

But the biggest reason I avoid such accusations is philosophical and to describe it I must again draw from that unending font of wisdom on this and other subjects, Harvard’s Ruth Wisse.

In Wisse’s groundbreaking work “If I am not for Myself” (the controversy around its subtitle subject: “The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews” put aside for purposes of this discussion), Wisse posits two different phenomenon traveling under the name of “anti-Semitism.”

The first is a garden variety personal hatred of Jews, comparable to other forms of bigotry directed at blacks or similar minorities, a loathing (like all bigotries) formed of ignorance and insecurity, either at an individual or cultural level.

But “anti-Semitism,” according to Wisse, also describes a fully-formed ideology, comparable not to other types of racism, but to the nastiest ideologies of the past, notably the Twentieth Century’s totalitarian movements such as Fascism and Communism.

Like these movements, ideological anti-Semitism provides its adherents with a full-fledged world view, one in which all of history can be boiled down to a struggle between those in whom all virtue is held (normally the groups adhering to anti-Semitic ideology) and the shadowy evil – the Jews – standing behind everything wrong on the planet.

As an ideology, anti-Semitism is a call to action, not simply a paranoid delusion. And this action involves organizing, empowering and (frequently) arming oneself to fight this hideous evil that threatens all mankind.

While cultural factors clearly play a role in this dynamic, a much more critical motivation behind anti-Semitic ideology is the huge gap between the power of the mystical Jews in the anti-Semites imagination and the actual highly limited power of real Jews. This disparity allows the anti-Semite to arm him or herself for a struggle against a foe whose actual power to resist is highly limited in real-world (vs. imaginary) terms. And thus, anti-Semitic ideology allows the anti-Semite to play the hero, while actually living as a bully. And once forces have been gathered far in excess of what is needed to keep down real-world (vs. fictional) Jews, it’s a simple matter of using that force to seize wider, even ultimate, power.

This is why the last century’s totalitarian movements, whether Nazi or Marxist, were either born or died steeped in anti-Semitic word and deed. And this is why this century’s remnants of those movements (in the form of Arab dictatorships struggling for survival over the last month) and the Islamist totalitarians who hope to unseat them all compete with one another as to who can brand their opponents as tools of the all-powerful Jews.

The classical Jew-hating vitriol spewing from the Middle East like a modern day Vesuvius (including widespread publication and belief of classic anti-Semitic text such as Mein Kampf and the Protocols of Zion) is not simply a throwback to 20th century or even Medieval hatreds. Rather, they are practical means of uniting people in opposition to (and arming against) “The Jew,” then turning those gathered weapons against any and all opponents who (as it always turns out) are secretly in league with Hebraic evil.

As I join the rest of you watching the melt-down in the Middle East, bewildered by what might come next, the most critical metric to watch is whether the parties that come to power do so based on a platform of opposition to Zionism (the latest metaphor for Jewish wickedness). For this will truly dictate whether the millions who dwell in the Middle East are on a pathway towards positive change, or another violent and bloody Dark Age.

Given this profound reality, one more reason to avoid accusing BDSers of anti-Semitism is that they are such small beer in a much more profound struggle. That being the case, why give these self-centered losers credit for ideology that may very well be beyond their ability to comprehend?