Part of the standard liturgy of Jewish prayer is the pronouncement that “we were exiled for our sins.”
The victories of the Babylonians and the Romans were not ascribed to the imperialist aggression of those predatory powers. Nor did our tradition assign blame for those defeats to the weakness of the Jewish forces, or even to the stupidity of both the strategic and tactical decisions made by Jewish leaders.
Instead, the focus has always been on factors that rendered the foes of ancient Israel mere ciphers in the hands of an angry Providence. Rather than rapacious militarized empires, they were merely the executioners carrying out the sentence handed down by the God of Israel.
For a defeated people struggling to maintain their separate existence in a world in which military defeat and exile meant extinction, this was a handy theory. As Harvard University scholar Ruth Wisse writes in her new book, Jews And Power: “The explanation of military defeat as a consequence not of the enemy’s prowess but of the Jews’ failure to please the Lord insulated Jews from some of the vagaries of war … by situating their politics within a scheme of transcendent judgment, they did not have to accept the verdict of the battlefield.”
Coming as it does at a moment in history when the ambivalence of many Jews to the exercise of power by the State of Israel is growing, Wisse’s history of the curious relationship between Jews and power is a timely reminder that the consequences of this debate are by no means insignificant for the future of the Jewish people.
This theory of history laid the foundation for survival in a world in which Jews lacked the ability to defend themselves. But since they were never in a position to exercise power on others – and thus face the difficult moral dilemmas that come with victory – the identification with the victim ceased being a rationalization and became a virtue in and of itself.
Wisse notes a poem by Yiddish writer H. Leivick on resilience in the face of calamity as being instructive of a curious attitude toward anti-Semitic atrocities. “I burn and I burn and I am not consumed,” wrote Leivick. “I pick myself up and stride onward.”
Rather than a positive assertion of indefatigability, Wisse sees this as indicative of a foolish acceptance of an intolerable situation.
Wisse makes the point that “the original Jewish obligation to become for God ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ called for the power to ensure human dignity. Jews may have lacked the military might to commit evil in ruling over others, but they were still obliged to uphold the good. What good could Jews do absent the power to act in history?”
Eventually, even the ability to endure endless indignity was not enough. The futility of passivity in the face of hate became apparent as emancipation in 19th-century Europe gave way to modern anti-Semitism and the rise of exterminationist ideologies.
The only sensible response to this dilemma was to recreate the power to defend themselves that Jews had supposedly foresworn after their exile. The Dreyfus affair, which precipitated Theodor Herzl’s founding of the modern Zionist movement was, in Wisse’s words, “European Jewry’s 9/11, the attack that could not be ignored.”
One Jewish response to Herzl’s political Zionism was from Ahad Ha’am (the pen name of philosopher Asher Ginsberg), who criticized the secular Herzl for his lack of sympathy with Jewish tradition, and his emphasis on politics and power.
But Wisse zeros in on what Ahad Ha’am didn’t understand, and Herzl and those who followed his path, like David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky did. The Jews were running out of time. What they needed was the power to resist the murderers, not an illusory moral high ground.
Israel’s birth in 1948 came too late to save a European Jewry whose existence had still depended on the mercy of non-Jews. But its principle failure was that, contrary to Herzl’s expectations, Zionism did not extinguish hatred of the Jews.
With much of the world unwilling to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, the battle for Jewish survival now depends on an ability to assume the responsibilities of exercising power. After 2,000 years of venerating powerlessness, it’s hardly surprising that many Jews have found this difficult. Wisse sees the Oslo accords, which she correctly dismisses as a “capitulation” to terror, as an example of Israel adopting a failed Diaspora strategy of accommodation.