Nation & World

Wisse explores mutations of Jewish power

5 min read

Scholar suggests that the uses of adversity bring mixed blessings

In August 70 A.D., a Roman soldier — part of an army storming the last redoubt of Jewish rebels — threw a burning stick onto the roof of the Second Temple. The sacred structure burned to the ground, bringing the uprising to an end.

That day also marked the first defeat in a series of Jewish rebellions against the Roman Empire that finally ended in 135 A.D., prompting a Jewish Diaspora that lasted nearly 2,000 years.

The fight to protect the temple and Jerusalem was famous for its brutality and for its democracy of anger: Jews of both sexes took up arms. By the time the temple burned at the end of a four-year siege, the city was surrounded by the bodies of 10,000 crucified Jews. (The name of the rebels survives in our common argot: zealots.)

If the Jewish rebellion led to a diaspora that lasted millennia, it also prompted a sea change in the nature of Judaism, said Ruth R. Wisse, Harvard College Professor and Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature.

An energetic commentator on Jewish culture, Wisse delivered a Humanities Center lecture this week (March 17) summarizing her new book, “Jews and Power” (Nextbook/Schoken, 2007).

About 100 listeners were on hand at the Barker Center’s Thompson Room for the talk, and for the spirited debate that followed — about Zionism, moral authority, the limits of liberalism, and the limits of self-defense (if any) among nations in an age of terror.

Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., Wisse said, Jews were martial, rebellious, and eager for statehood. Afterwards, they were a scattered people — devoid of power, she said, ambivalent about power, perpetually vulnerable, and (to survive) habitually accommodating to whatever governments they lived within.

The gap in attitudes that opened in 70 A.D. “cuts like a chasm between the before and after,” said Wisse.

The Jewish Diaspora turned Jewish culture inward, linking “its potency to moral strength” and not to the strength derived from nationhood: land, an army, and institutions of central authority.

Remnants of the martial spirit survived, said Wisse. The Seder, after all, concludes with an anachronistically defiant phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem.” But over the centuries Jewish culture became largely a model of tolerance, self-discipline, literacy, and accomplishment.

Wisse points out that almost a quarter of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish, and that Jewish ideals of liberal decency anticipated the democratic ideals that emerged in the 18th century.

Through the ages, Jews mastered skills and trades that made them valuable — “productive, helpful middlemen, supplying what others needed,” she said, “to compensate for political weakness with economic strength.”

Wisse said of centuries of scattered Jews, “They proved adept at living outside” the Holy Land.

Jews even adapted linguistically, Wisse pointed out, transforming Spanish, Italian, and other languages into rich Judeo-variants — linguistic proof of adaptation and accommodation. (Yiddish, written in Hebrew characters and spoken by 10 million Eastern European Jews by the early 20th century, is an amalgam of medieval German dialects.)

But the isolation and powerlessness occasioned by the Jewish Diaspora, posited Wisse, also developed in Jews a habit of submissiveness — even a veneration of weakness — that led them helplessly from one tragedy to another.

Any destabilizing political event, especially a popular uprising, could suddenly strip Jews of their local political protections, exposing them “to resentment and danger,” said Wisse. “They were very easy prey.”

After the Enlightenment, Jews also came to embody the uncomfortable realities of change — urbanization, secularism, and industrialization. By the 1870s, German pamphleteer Wilhelm Marr — who coined the term “anti-Semitism” — was darkly hinting that assimilation into German culture was “a Jewish plot.”

Hitler’s racial brand of anti-Semitism added “the eliminationist element,” said Wisse. (She and her family fled what is present-day Ukraine in 1940, just ahead of the invading Nazis.)

The Zionist movement to reformulate the Jewish state bore fruit in 1948 with the creation of modern Israel. But instead of the dream — to become a kind of Switzerland of the Middle East, said Wisse — Israel to this day is besieged.

From within, she said, Israel is besieged by self-doubt and moralistic introspection that sometimes makes the rigors of self-defense difficult.

From without, Israel is the target of the same “instrumentality of anti-Semitism” that developed in tandem with the Jewish Diaspora, said Wisse — and that has been “the cementing glue of pan-Arab politics since the 1940s.”

The backdrop to her lecture was a map of the Middle East. “It should be indelibly imprinted on the mind,” she asserted — proof that 22 Arab nations have 640 times more land than Israel, yet continue to blame the Jewish nation for the region’s poverty, unrest, and dysfunction.

“Peace will come to the Middle East,” said Wisse, “when Arab rulers accept responsibility for modernizing.”

As for peace for the Jews, she said, “I wish that had happened in Roman times.”