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Ruth Wisse to discuss treating the disease of anti-Semitism

First identify its purposes, says Harvard professor

 
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Looking at the findings of the many groups that track anti-Semitism, one might be forgiven for concluding that it is an irresistible force.

Indeed, wrote author/scholar Ruth Wisse in her book “Jews and Power,” anti-Semitism may well be “the most successful ideology of modern times.”

Still, Wisse told The Jewish Standard in an interview this week, despairing does no good. Rather than tracing, exposing, opposing, and decrying this phenomenon, we must “determine to understand it properly and see how and why it works.” Only then can we “set ourselves the goal of eradicating it.”

The Harvard professor — who will speak at Teaneck’s Cong. Bnai Yeshurun on Nov. 27 on the topic “Anti-Semitism: Can It Be Stopped?” — acknowledged the prevalence of discouraging data coming, for example, from the Pew Research Institute, college campuses, and The Middle East Media Research Institute.

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Ruth Wisse links politics, anti-Semitism. File Photo

“It sometimes seems that this is a force so irresistible and protean, it takes so many different forms, that people may throw up their hands,” she said.

But none of these groups work with an investigative approach, she said. None sets itself the task of treating this as “science goes about treating a problem, asking when and how it starts, who uses it, and what purposes it serves.”

According to Wisse, the success of anti-Semitism is best explained politically.

Indeed, she wrote in a recent Commentary article, “it arose … not to address the realities of the Jewish situation but to meet the political needs of others and to satisfy the political ends of others.”

While the creation of the modern State of Israel was both a marvel and a step in the right direction, “[t]he error lay not in the confidence placed by Jews in their capacity to establish a homeland but in the expectation that doing so would mitigate or put an end to the hostility directed against them.”

Anti-Semitism, she says “cannot be arrested by any remedial action of the Jews.” Adopting a “defensive reaction of negotiation, accommodation, and no small amount of self-blame” will not only fail but will have increasingly dire consequences.

Questioning the wisdom of the 1993 Oslo Accords, for example, she suggests that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin should have pointed out to the Arab world that while Israel was choosing to make concessions “because we feel it is in our national interest to do so,” it was also clear that “the lopsidedness of the war against us means that only its initiators can halt their incitement against us.” Rather than calling on the international community to help Israel enforce penalties against those who might violate the agreement, “Israel walked open-eyed into the peace trap.”

“Politically, anti-Semitism succeeds by working through misdirection,” she said, noting that Israel is blamed for the aggression directed against it and that many people, Jews included, buy into this characterization.

What Israel must do, she holds, is to “reject vigorously the role of defendant at the bar of world opinion and to instigate political, diplomatic, moral, and intellectual countersuits on every front.”

“It’s troubling to people to really hear this spelled out,” Wisse told the Standard. “People respond emotionally.”

Still, she added, she’s not a historian of anti-Semitism but “just working as someone trying to figure this out. I don’t see people bearing down on this problem,” she said. “It requires on the part of Jews and Jewish leadership and all of us a very difficult process of self-transformation.”

While Jews hoped that Zionism and the creation of the Jewish state would be the answer — which it would have been, she said, in a perfect world — instead “it triggered a return to the situation in which Jews always found themselves, looking at themselves as a powerless, disenfranchised little minority having to answer charges.”

Wisse said we should not overlook the importance of Zionism, not only as “a step in the right direction but a fulfillment of what Jews had been preparing for throughout their history.”

“There’s no phenomenon to compare with a people who in the same decade see one-third of its members annihilated in a process so spectacular that the word genocide is created to define it, and in the same decade reclaim its political place in the world after a hiatus of 2,000 years,” she said. “That’s the story we should be telling.”

The story is not the Holocaust, she said, “but the rise of the State of Israel,” with the Jews accepting responsibility for power and self-defense.

Wisse said “there are probably more voices, strong — and in some cases brilliant and insightful — speaking for Israel and the Jews today than at any time in Jewish history.”

At the same time, however, “The forces against Israel, the usefulness of the organization of politics against the Jews, [are] also so great and growing that it is a struggle between the destroyers and the builders.”

The destroyers, she said, always work to destroy liberal democracy, “so the enemies of the Jews are going to be enemies of America as well. There’s not an accidental connection but [rather] an essential connection” between those who oppose Israel and those who would destroy the free world.

 
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