web analytics
April 21, 2015 / 2 Iyar, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post


Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

A Very Dangerous Tradition


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.

About the Author: Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com, where this first appeared. He can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@commentarymagazine.com.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “A Very Dangerous Tradition”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein
My Encounter with Rav Lichtenstein
Latest Indepth Stories
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

What was supposed to have been a 15 minute interview, turned into an intense learning session and intellectual battle, the likes of which I had never experienced in my entire life.

Rabbi Lichtenstein (z"l).

Rav Lichtenstein did not learn Tanaim, Amoraim, Rishonim and Achronim, rather he learned with them

Israel Supreme Court at Night

How can NIF claim they don’t support BDS when they try to repeal laws forbidding boycotts of Israel?

Rabbi Lichtenstein (z"l).

“Rav Lichtenstein’s vision and inspiration served to guide the development of Tzohar.”

As Holocaust survivors decline rapidly attacks on the veracity of the Holocaust rapidly escalates

The Constitution created history’s most powerful legislature & inherent foreign policy power battle

The S-300 poses a major problem; Israel will have to get creative as to if, when & where it strikes

“The resentment towards us (Jews/Israelis) was really intense. They clearly hate Zionism & Zionists”

Egypt has been more effective against Gazan smuggling tunnels than Israel’s military operations

She had many names and was many things to many people, but to me she was just Babineni.

Is ISIS in Gaza? “No, but there are ISIS loyalists here..we pray to God they unite under ISIS’ flag”

Rabbi Portal was that great “inspirer,” changing people for the better, enriching the lives of all

Iran knows Obama, Putin, and the Europeans don’t have a Red Line beyond which they will go to war

There is no way to explain the Holocaust. I know survivors who are not on speaking terms with G-d. I know many who are the opposite. I have no right to go there…

When a whole side of your family perishes, friends become the extended family you do not have.

“We stand with Israel because of its values and its greatness and because its such a wonderful ally”

More Articles from Jonathan S. Tobin
Tobin-012315

The abuse following publication proved a cautionary tale: no one followed in Peters’s footsteps

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Jerusalem at the President's Residence, February 2014 (archive)

Anti-Semitism has returned to the mainstream of European society and Israel has become its focus.

One of the key talking points by apologists for Hamas in the current conflict is that it isn’t fair that Israelis under fire have bomb shelters while Palestinians in Gaza don’t have any. Among other factors, the lack of shelters accounts in part for the differences in casualty figures between the two peoples. But somehow […]

How will all this end? Hamas seems to think it will be Netanyahu who will blink first.

Nothing short of a stroke that will decapitate the leadership of this group will convince the Arabs that Hamas has made a mistake.

Z STREET will have the ability to compel IRS officials to testify as to their practices and produce all records.

“Death of Klinghoffer” opera frames the issue as Israel’s existence being the real crime.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/a-very-dangerous-tradition/2007/09/25/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: