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Jews and Power; Ruth R. Wisse; Nextbook/Schocken: 232 pp., $19.95

August 26, 2007|Ruth Andrew Ellenson | Ruth Andrew Ellenson received the National Jewish Book Award for her anthology "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt."

In Jerusalem this summer, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, the city's pale gold limestone walls are covered with banners depicting an abstract outline of the Old City and the number 40 displayed triumphantly by its side. In that war, Israel gained nearly all of the territory, including the West Bank and Gaza, that has been at the center of so much turmoil -- and also claimed the entirety of Jerusalem.

At night, the Old City's entrance at Jaffa Gate -- which leads to many of the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- is illuminated in lights showing the same logo. See it as triumph or tragedy, it is an indisputable declaration of Jewish power that glows like a flame over Jerusalem as darkness descends.

Questions and complexities of Jewish power -- in regard to Israel but also throughout history -- are explored in Harvard professor Ruth R. Wisse's challenging, erudite and penetrating book, "Jews and Power."

It is a book with a clear message. For Jews, morality without strength leads to disastrous consequences, and today that strength is based in Israel. This is a book, fiercely argued and compellingly written, with an agenda: to demonstrate why Israel is essential for Jewish survival and even for the survival of democracy. Wisse asserts that to believe otherwise is an act of naiveté. She argues that when Jews place pleasing others above their own well-being, they set themselves up to be history's whipping boy. Whatever good intentions might lie at the heart of such behavior, it is ultimately an act of self-sabotage.

Wisse's assertion is direct -- are questions of moral empathy and cultural survival more important than saving your children's lives?

As a perfect example of this quandary, Wisse opens with an anecdote about a small Jewish boy being harassed by Nazis. He is taken inside by his mother, who tells her child, bruised and beaten, not to fight back but to be a better man -- "za a mentsh" she tells her son in Yiddish, the language spoken by most Eastern European Jews for hundreds of years until it was all but wiped out in the Holocaust.

The boy's story was told in postwar intellectual circles with pride, as an example of how seriously Jews took "the injunction to be fully human" -- to place one's good behavior over one's strength. And in Judaism the idea of tikkun olam, the healing of the world, is a central tenet of faith. But Wisse sees folly in this philosophy, and does not mince words in her stern warning to those who believe otherwise.

"The obligation to be decent is complicated for Jews by the knowledge that other societies feel driven to eliminate them from the world," she asserts. "Those who aspire to be decent human beings would be morally obtuse to the point of wickedness were they to retell [this] story without considering its outcome. . . . That little boy in Warsaw could not have done his mother's bidding, because becoming fully human presupposed staying alive."

It's a bit of a jolt, but a refreshing one, to see an academic -- as a group, scholars often pride themselves on seeing every perspective as valid -- take such an emphatic stance. Wisse shows no fear in these pages in saying exactly what she thinks, and you can't help but be impressed with her chutzpah, even if you totally disagree with her.

While praising the bravery of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who signed the Camp David accords, she disputes the good will of his motives. "It was not out of regret for having killed too many Jews," she writes, "but with the realization that he could not kill enough to defeat them."

It is that perceived deep hatred of Jews that informs many of Wisse's arguments. She even sees the ramifications of this hatred in Jewish achievement. Of the 12 Jews who have received the Nobel Prize in literature, only two wrote in Jewish languages: S.Y. Agnon (Hebrew) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish). The others wrote in languages including English, French and Turkish. Until Israel was founded, Jews' chief power was in their resilience and adaptability in other countries -- not really a power at all -- and in the fervent hope that such achievements would make their worth irrefutable to the powers that be. Tell that to Paul Heyse, a German Jew who won that Nobel Prize in 1910.

"This pride in sheer survival demonstrates how the tolerance of political weakness could cross the moral line into veneration of political weakness," Wisse observes. And, she notes, the odds only get worse from there. "An estimated 13 million Jews worldwide, about 4.5 million fewer than in 1939, try to win tolerance from more than 250 million Arabs, who have ties to more than 1 billion Muslims."

According to Wisse, this is the crux of the debate among Jews over Israel. Whether to be "menschen" this time. Whether, upon being beaten up, to fight back. Herein lies the challenge of the book: What is the moral responsibility when those who have been victims gain power?

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