Not many people can say they are responsible for introducing an entire field of study at Harvard University.
Yet, in 1993, Dr. Ruth Wisse did just this.
She founded the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill University and was invited to join Harvard as a professor of literature, specializing in Yiddish. She earned numerous awards including the National Humanities Medal and the Itzik Manager Prize. Her writings on Yiddish literature and culture have appeared in magazines like Commentary, literary journals like Prooftexts, and newspapers like The Wall Street Journal. Her books on literature include The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (1971), A Little Love in Big Manhattan (1988), I.L.Peretz and the Making of Modern Yiddish Culture (1991), The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Literature and Culture (2003), Making Jewish Humor (2013) and several editions of poetry and prose.
She has also published two books on politics, If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews (1992) and Jews and Power (2007), and it is arguably this part of her life that has stirred the most controversy. Refusing to shy away from her neoconservative views, she has angered feminists by arguing in favor of traditional marriage and gender roles, condemned Jewish culpability for the crimes of Communism, and publicly combating the rising anti-Israel bias on university campuses and around the world.
Recently retired from her position as Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, Professor Wisse is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Tikvah Fund. But she started off as a young, immigrant girl from Czernowitz, a part of modern-day Ukraine. Her father ran a pre-war rubber factory in her home village and they narrowly escaped Nazi Germany to settle in Montreal, Canada. Although she had been tutored in German, her parents sent her to a Jewish school where she picked up both English and French; she conversed with her mother in Yiddish at home. She had a natural penchant for languages and eventually earned an M.A. from Columbia University in Yiddish Studies and then a Ph.D. in the subject from McGill in 1969.
Wisse credits her interest in modern Jewish politics specifically to her zeal for the Yiddish culture. “Yiddish forces you to think about Jewish politics,” she points out. “Consider the fact that, in 1939, there were 10 million people who spoke Yiddish and then, a short time later, this world of Yiddish was extinguished.” But she believes that the connection of Yiddish to politics is much deeper than that. Rather, the deeper you delve into the world of the great Yiddish poets and novelists, the more you come to realize that Yiddish is not just a language but a psychology. The language evolved while the Jews were living in the Diaspora and, therefore, is more than just words; it is a mindset of how to survive and thrive in Galus. For Wisse, the world of Yiddish culture contains the political and religious aspirations of the Jewish people dating all the way back to the very beginning.
Yet, it is her forceful support of Israel that has garnered the most attention and caused the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. to celebrate her as one of the greatest American contributiors to the U.S.-Israel relationship. As a proud member of the International Advisory Board of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem based right-wing and pro-Israel non-govermental organization, she helps with their stated goal of promoting “accountability, and advance a vigorous discussion on the reports and activities of humanitarian NGOs in the framework of the Arab–Israeli conflict.” She wants more transparency and honesty in the media’s reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and condemns the moral equivalence given to the hostile Arab nations. She has repeatedly argued that the reason the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will continue to stagnate is because, “…they [the Arab leadership] cannot accept the principle of coexistence.” This is why she has come out forcefully against her fellow Jews who claim that Israel or Jews must be at least partly responsible for the attacks against them.
Indeed, after former Harvard professor Marty Peretz wrote, “Muslim life is cheap, especially to other Muslims,” Harvard University succumbed to public pressure and canceled a speech he was scheduled to deliver at the university. Immediately, Dr. Wisse came to his aid in the Wall Street Journal by saying, “to wish that Muslims would condemn the violence in their midst is not bigotry but liberality.” Wisse often discusses the politics of anti-Israel and anti-Semitism and argues that the biased aggression that many political pundits express against Israel is a calculated strategy to deflect attention from the real issues at hand.
As we sat in her office in Manhattan, I was immediately struck by the gentleness of her comportment. Like the Biblical Ruth, she is a fearless pioneer in her field and I mistakenly expected a more brash and impatient demeanor. On the contrary, as she began talking with me, I could sense both a fierce discipline tempered with an open-minded receptiveness. “Wow, she’s like a Jewish Professor McGonagall!” Then I quietly pushed all Harry Potter references out of my mind as I began with the interview.
RLW: What is your goal for your book Jews and Power?
PRW: The book just came out in Hebrew and I consider it my private “miracle of the splitting of the sea”! This is a big deal as my goal is that these ideas be absorbed worldwide, and especially among those in Israel. My main point is that we Jews have a political dimension as a people that plays a tremendous part in the rest of the modern world. We have to stay aware of the forces against us. The war directed against the Jews of Europe led to the destruction of huge parts of Europe.We don’t want to repeat that. People say that focusing on the aggression against us is pessimistic. But I think this is necessary. If Israel is not willing to consecrate as much attention to its military protection as to its social and moral improvement, then it’ll be conquered. And the same goes for America.
RLW: Were you always a “neo-conservative”?
PRW: I began as a liberal, didn’t everyone? After witnessing Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the “JFK of Canada,” supporting communism in Poland, I switched my vote. For me, communism was just as dangerous as fascism. Actually, I considered it even more dangerous because I knew my friends could never be attracted to fascism, but could easily be swept into communism.
RLW: On college campuses today, there’s a boycott movement against Israel. What is your best argument against Israel being called an “apartheid state”?
PRW: Actually, the boycott movement against Israel isn’t new; it began in 1945. It’s one of the first actions the Arab League adopted after the founding of the State of Israel. The idea at the time was to weaken the Jewish state, to isolate it economically – not the West Bank, but all of Israel. The Arab boycott was part of that war from the beginning and those promoting boycott today are its continuation. Remember that.
As for countering the anti-Israel movement on campus, I was once speaking on this topic at Stanford University at an event hosted by Chabad Rabbi Dov Greenberg. About a dozen Arab students came and sat as a group along the wall. At the start of the question period one of them asked, “Why didn’t you tell us about apartheid?” I asked him, “Why did you kill your grandmother?” He repeated the question as though I hadn’t heard him, but I said to the audience, “Can he prove to us that he didn’t kill his grandmother? Can he produce her? Convince us of his innocence?” In other words, I’m not going to defend against an accusation that is completely absurd and just another tactic intended to obliterate the basic right of any part of Israel to even exist! My mantra to students is “Never defend Israel against its accusers.”
RLW: Never defend Israel? Isn’t a pro-Israel student supposed to be defending Israel?
PRW: Yes, but the tactics depend on who is attacking. Provide information to those who are merely curious, who may be sincerely confused by anti-Israel propaganda. But never take a defensive position against those who are attacking Israel on illegitimate grounds. That includes whole sections of the Left that don’t believe in nation states and think that Israel is the easiest nation state to destroy. Lovers of Yiddish are sometimes in this camp. For some of them Yiddish is the language of perpetual diaspora, an alternative to having to defend one’s country, an alternative to being a sovereign people. It was from that kind of anti-Zionist argument long before the creation of Israel that I learned how important it is to resist illegitimate attack.
RLW: So you never criticize Israel?
PRW: Of course, I criticize all the time. But there’s a major distinction between criticism and blame. Criticism is a desire to transform. As a democratic society, we’re taught to be self-critical in order to become better. But anyone who holds Israel accountable for the misery of the Palestinians is not practicing healthy criticism, they’re practicing anti-Semitism. Jews are not responsible for the misery of the Palestinians any more than they were responsible for the misery of the Germans, Russians, the French, the Poles, and the list goes on. On the contrary, the Arabs are responsible for expelling Jews from their countries and for waging against them the longest and most lopsided war in modern history.
I would add that the reason not to “defend” Israel against illegitimate attack is because you are helping the attacker deflect attention from the real problem. Those who accuse Israel, who blame Israel, want to make Israel the subject in order to deflect attention from all that is going wrong in the surrounding countries, which are becoming more and more dysfunctional, and for one major reason… because they cannot coexist with the Jewish state. The spotlight on Israel keeps attention away from its dysfunctional neighbors. Israel is already self-critical. Democratic culture is self-critical. Israel’s defenders have to do a better job at redirecting blame.
RLW: What advice would you give to millennials who want to engage in this debate?
PRW: First, you have to realize that you’re engaging in a political battle, so you have to have a team, a group, a gang. It can be small or large, but it is best done with a chevrah. Secondly, once you are confident in your arguments and tactics, you can look for others who are on the same side of the political spectrum. Whether it’s certain Christian Asians or Evangelicals or Republicans, I would recommend thinking through the political affinities between those who care about Israel and those who care about other important democratic values. Even if you don’t form working coalitions, think of why you could. Ask questions like “What do we have in common?” “What is it about Israel that is so American and important to our American way of life?”
RLW: Final question, what is the number one quality that has helped you succeed?
PRW: I don’t think of myself like this. But I think one quality is feeling gratitude. I know Jews who don’t share my love of being a “member of the tribe” and who don’t appreciate Jewish history as I do. I find Judaism to be such an amazing sustaining force: it brings me great joy. We have such a fascinating civilization and we should feel lucky we can share our language, our values and our culture with the world. I wasn’t raised religious, but my mother did teach me the “Modeh ani” prayer which Jews are enjoined to say each morning to show gratitude just for being alive another day. I think finding what you’re grateful for and focusing on that will open all the other doors to success.
As I left her office and exited the Tikvah Fund building to the blaring welcome of the streets of Manhattan, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the chance to interview Dr. Ruth Wisse. I have known many academics who would never have taken the risks she had, alienated the colleagues she has or spoken “truth to power” the way she has. As one of her former students, Josh Lambert, wrote, “Professor Wisse’s most resonant achievement, splendidly exhibited by this festschrift, is that she has done more than any contemporary scholar to ensure that the conversation will continue.”
I squeezed into a subway car home and felt multiple elbows hitting my sides, I jostled for a spot in the commuter stampede and then paused as a section from Dr. Wisse’s memoirs popped into my mind. It was a memory she shared regarding one of her first experiences in Israel:
“…the cast of this chapter betrays how deficient I am in spirituality. In truth, after a brief bout of devotion in my early teens, I realized I had no talent for faith, and felt very fortunate as a woman not to be called on to pray before the congregation, which would have required more conviction than I could muster. Instead, I involved myself in aspects of Jewish national life that did not require pretending to more than I could honestly feel.
“Yet, on one of our first Sabbaths in Jerusalem, I did suddenly know how desperately, during the many centuries His people were in exile, God had longed to return to His city. We had gone out for a walk, and at some point, I experienced the Sabbath quiet from God’s point of view, not my own. Since then I have recovered this same impression on subsequent trips to Israel, but only as an idea, not as a sensation. That certain knowledge came to me only the one time, which was shortly before I traveled with Rochman back to his beloved. Would that God henceforth follows His example…”
When interviewing accomplished people, I often convince myself that their motivations and machinations must be complex and dizzyingly beyond my scope of reference. Yet, quite often the truth is much simpler than all that. As the lights of the passing subway car crisscrossed across my face, I smiled softly. “I think she does all she does because she just loves the essence of literature which is really the essence of stimulating conversation – the freedom words give to see the other side, to see into the other person. Would that we all follow her example.”