Ruth Wisse Transcript
Taped November 7, 2015
Table of Contents
I: What is Anti-Semitism? 0:15 – 34:28
II: The Politics of Anti-Semitism 34:28 – 45:50
III: Israel on Campus 45:50 – 56:04
IV: The University in Decline 56:04 – 1:12:43
V: On Yiddish Literature 1:12:43 – 1:47:53
KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to be joined today by Ruth Wisse, longtime professor of Yiddish comparative literature at Harvard University and master – mistress, maybe, of all things Jewish, Israeli, Yiddish, and American, too, actually. And Canadian, right, that’s your actual origin.
WISSE: And Canadian, yes, and not really my origin but, yes, almost my origin.
KRISTOL: Now I’m intrigued. So why is not really your origin? I’ve read you, growing up in Montreal.
WISSE: Oh, well, I was born – in Montreal, in fact, but I was born in Czernowitz which was then Romania, and it’s only when I immigrated to the United States that I discovered that I had been born after all in the Ukraine.
KRISTOL: Is that right?
WISSE: Yes because it’s now part of, the city is now part of Ukraine. So, international.
KRISTOL: That’s good. I like that. Well, speaking of international. We have so much to talk about and your incredibly important work on Yiddish literature and other topics. But you’ve been writing a lot recently about anti-Semitism, a topic that I suppose you might have hoped, I might have hoped that we could have left behind a long time ago. Why? What’s – are you very concerned and what’s happened and what’s new?
WISSE: Well, tremendously. I mean you know when I was growing up, I was pretty sure that the worst of history was behind us and it’s been a shock to realize that in fact anti-Semitism is something that not only did it not go away, but in my estimation, it is much more virulent today than it ever was. So I once wrote about it being the most successful ideology of the 20th century, but I fear that it may be the most successful ideology of the 21st as well.
And look it seems to me that there’s a double problem that one of the difficulties is the phenomenon itself, what Anti-Semitism is, how it spreads, why it is so successful as a political strategy, as a political instrument. But related to that is the fact that nobody seems to want to tackle it. Nobody thinks that it can be stopped, that anything can be done about it. And perhaps unwisely but what occurs to me because it is A.S., Anti-Semitism, so close to AIDS, AIDS, I can’t help making the comparison with that pandemic or that disease, that infection.
And the stunning difference about how people reacted to that, that when AIDS came on the scene, immediately, those who were affected by it needed to find a cure for it. Everyone else understood that this had to be stopped. And so you ask yourself what did they do? They didn’t set up a museum to AIDS. They did not write the history of AIDS. They did not even go around the world tracking where is AIDS? No. They went about it scientifically to figure out what are the variables, what causes it, how does it spread, why does it spread. And taking that attitude, something was actually done about it. I mean, you know, one has advanced in one’s understanding of the phenomenon.
KRISTOL: And in fighting it, stopping it, saving people from it.
WISSE: Well, absolutely. But you see it’s so different in the case of anti-Semitism. I find that when I even try to talk to intelligent people about it, nobody really wants to talk about it and the reason is I think they think it’s about the Jews, they think it’s about the Jews.
But anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Jews, really. It misdirects attention to the Jews. It points the finger at the Jews and says it’s the Jews, the Jews, the Jews. But the carriers of Anti-Semitism are anti-Semites. That – they are the problem. It is problematic for them because they really are infected by this disease but they don’t think they’re its casualties so they’re in no hurry to seek help.
KRISTOL: What’s so interesting about your analysis – I want to come back to the failure to fight it effectively or maybe the failure to even recognize that it has to be fought seriously – but I think what’s most original about your analysis, perhaps, is this notion that it’s a political strategy and tragically a successful one – it has been a successful one and maybe is again.
It’s usually taken I think more as a – I don’t know – a sickness or a psychological ill or something people go to, you know, out of desperation or historic prejudice or whatever. Some people think it’s caused by the Jews. Most people think, no, the Jews are the, I guess, the victims. But I think there’s a real insight there that this is – that’s a reductionist way to think about it, that it’s really – so talk a little bit about it. Where does it come from as a strategy historically and why, and why is it so successful?
WISSE: Yeah, well, let’s pick up on what you’re saying because I think that one of the first things to do is to try to clarify to people that they should not collapse everything into one great big mess. Anti-Semitism is discrimination and it’s – my great teacher, Salo Baron, called it the dislike of the unlike.
You know, well, I don’t accept that because, for example, people who say, “Oh, yes, there was anti-Semitism at Harvard and at Yale and all these universities when they had quotas.” Well, they didn’t let in African Americans, they didn’t let in blacks at that time. They weren’t crazy about letting in Asians. So it was discrimination of a kind but I don’t call that anti-Semitism, that’s prejudice.
KRISTOL: Because it wasn’t – it was just general prejudice against other groups?
WISSE: General, exactly. Immigrant groups, you thought that you had to protect what Americanism as and so forth. But anti-Semitism began quite precisely in the 1870s and it began in Germany and it began as a self-defined movement.
And I think it’s important to look at what the founders of anti-Semitism were about. They were quite clear in their purpose. They distinguished themselves from the Judaeophobia of the Church. They said, we’re not involved in that. And, okay, they may have used all the negative associations that had been created through Christian anti-Semitism, or Christian anti-Judaism. But in fact, they defined themselves politically.
And it’s extremely important to understand that they said that Jews were taking over Germany from within, that Jews did not have to come with a sword to conquer you. They were conquering the country from within.
The way I see that is that it was a response to liberal democracy, that it was a response to emancipation. There were all kinds of things about the new freedoms that they did not like because they saw it as competition, as pulling down the old regime. And so instead of saying that they were against these new freedoms, very hard to say, look, I’m against freedom for the individual – individual initiative.
Much more work of genius, of political genius, to put a face on it and that was the Jewish face. And since Jews could profit so much from this liberalization, from these new freedoms, from the idea of citizenship, they would say, you see, this is just a plot on the part of the Jews to take over the country from within. So I think –
KRISTOL: So their agenda was less, wasn’t simply – did they believe what they were saying? I guess is my question or –
WISSE: Well, that’s a good question. I mean I’m sure that some were more cynical about it than others, but politicians began to run on that platform and be elected on that platform because it gave an explanation.
People got nervous – why is everything going wrong? Well, if you say the Jews, and it seems plausible because there they were profiting from all this novelty, right, and innovation. So, yes, you could say it’s the Rothschilds, you could say it’s the Jewish storekeepers, you could say it’s the Jewish musicians, you could say it’s the Jewish lawyers who were now taking over.
So I really think it’s important to see this as a political tool, as a political phenomenon that organizes politics against the Jews. That’s how I would define anti-Semitism. The organization of politics against the Jews.
And then you know the story goes on painfully because there were Jews who realized more or less what was happening and they thought that this was being directed against them because they had no country of their own, because they seemed to be cosmopolitan, because they seemed to be everywhere. Nobody could define them. “Ah!” they thought. “If we normalize our situation and we become a state like all these others” – Italy was now becoming consolidated, Germany consolidating itself, Ireland. You know, the fight for national self-definition and self-liberation was, you know, a phenomenon of the times. Why don’t the Jews do this as well?
And it seemed perfectly logical and it seemed really – I mean I think that one would have – I would have accepted it at the time. Ah, yes, if we return to our sovereignty, reclaim our national homeland in the land of Israel and become a nation like all others, there will be no cause for anti-Semitism.
KRISTOL: So, Zionism would be the solution to anti-Semitism?
WISSE: Exactly, and that’s not the only reason for Zionism but they saw it as a solution to anti-Semitism. And also by the way, I think in the case of someone like Herzl, they saw it as saving liberalism as well because they saw that something was happening in Europe which shouldn’t be happening.
How could we save France? And they thought, well, if you take the Jews out of the equation and let people not worry about them, not point the finger at them, well, then France will be safe, Germany will be saved from itself, from these impulses.
KRISTOL: So they thought the actual presence of the Jews was really – not to blame the Jews – but it was stimulating this prejudice, which if they were – if they left and had a state of their own, the prejudice might go away.
WISSE: Exactly. And then you couldn’t blame the Jews for corrupting from within or using, you know, liberal democracy to, you know, actually, as a way of taking over the world because then it became really a question of the Jews, you know, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” actually inflated and said the Jews are not just trying to take over Germany, they’re trying to take over the world. It kept growing.
So I mean to me the most tragic element here is that they were both right and yet totally wrong because they did not understand the variables of anti-Semitism. You could organize the politics against the Jews who were in their own state as easily as you could organize it around you know Jews were spread everywhere.
And I think that that’s what the Arabs did in 1945. Even before the state was created, they saw their opportunity in this ideology above all others – not Communism, not fascism, not democracy, but, ah, here was a way of scapegoating, here was a way of creating unity among countries which were totally at odds with one another. I mean, you see what the reality of the Arab world is. These are not people who get along easily among themselves. But the one thing that you could unify them around was common opposition to the rise of the State of Israel and then to the presence of the State of Israel and you never let that go.
KRISTOL: So it was a self-conscious political strategy of parties or rulers or ambitious politicians.
WISSE: Absolutely, and not everybody bought into it because, you know, that the King of Jordan at the time was ready to make a peace agreement with Israel, or so it seems, but could not hold out against everyone else and –
KRISTOL: It is stunning that, I mean, right after World War II and after seeing the price of, to the world, of a regime based on anti-Semitism or at least using anti-Semitism as its path to power and then obviously killing 6 million Jews while in power.
It didn’t take long – it’s not like anti-Semitism went away for 20 or 30 or 40 years. I think that’s sort of the conventional history almost, which is very Western-oriented, is that somehow, well, you know, that’s finished.
WISSE: Well, you can see why because they were 25 years of grace between 1948 and 1973, I would say that was a period you thought –
KRISTOL: In the West.
WISSE: In the West, yes, in the West, one thought that it had gone away and I think that there was a reason to think that. I think that in those years, one thought that the Arabs would eventually lay off.
I really think that the Jews of Israel thought that the war would be winnable if they only bought this, if they fought this battle and won it, okay, if they won this war, if they won the next war. And everyone else thought so, too, that the Arabs would become reasonable, that they would accept the State of Israel, that they would make their peace with it.
They did not understand how essential the organization of politics against Israel had become to the Arab world, what a unifier it was, what a key political instrument it was. And unless you realized that, you kept talking about these nonsensical ideas of peace, you give up this, you give up that, what can we do, how can we appease, how can we accommodate? Not understanding that they would have to become politically self-reliant, they would have to change from blaming others to really beginning that process, that really difficult process, of self-accountability, of not looking elsewhere.
And so the most important thing to be done is to refuse ever to allow Israel to be the subject. I mean, when any Arab antagonist begins to talk about Israel, the last thing to do, it seems to me, is to say, “Oh, but how can you say that? The Israelis do this, they’re so good, they’re so wonderful.” It’s absurd. It’s absurd.
KRISTOL: Because that’s not really what it’s about.
WISSE: It’s not at all what it’s about. And technically if you cast yourself in the role of the defendant, you are the defendant. It doesn’t matter whether you’re found guilty or innocent. You have agreed to play the part of the defendant.
And the problem with Jewish politics, if one gets into that, is that Jews have no incentive to be the prosecutor; they’re always looking for acceptance from precisely the people who are against them. So what the Jews would have had to do in 1948 is to demand, you know, from the Arabs what was due to them. “What do you mean you don’t accept us? I mean, you are part of the United Nations, it’s in the charter of the United Nations. If you want to remain a member of the United Nations or members of the United Nations, you must accept the legitimacy of this country. How can you dare not to accept the legitimacy or to call it into question?”
But you see, it’s not in the – it’s not in the Jewish political DNA to do any such thing because for thousands of years, Jews have been seeing how can we be useful, how can we fit in, how can we accommodate. And it’s made them you know very adaptable but it has not made it possible for them to really play the role of the prosecutor when justice is required on their behalf.
KRISTOL: I’m very intrigued by this notion of anti-Semitism as a sort of self-conscious ideology taken up by politicians or groups to, I guess, get power or keep power or rally citizens to their side or unite countries or whatever as a matter of foreign policy, too, I suppose, because I do think it kind of cuts through all these debates, which I’ve had the instinct but I haven’t really thought it through, don’t really work.
You know, how much is Christianity responsible for modern anti-Semitism? Well, of course, there’s historic prejudice against Jews in Christianity. But then how come it’s so strong in the Islamic world? Well, Islam has had problems with Jews, obviously. But then if it’s so – but Nazi Germany had nothing to do presumably with the Islamic faith. I mean I think that – I do think this is a much more elegant but I think maybe simpler but also deeper, I think, view of where it really comes from because it really gives the priority to the politics, not to the kind of psychology or the prehistory or whatever.
WISSE: Well, exactly. But that’s why I’m so desperate to have it taken up by people who would study it in this way. And the most difficult thing is that political science, political studies are not interested in the subject, again, I think because they think it’s parochial. And how they could think it’s parochial is beyond me.
So the only people who really pay attention to this are Jewish organizations and they do pay a great deal of attention to tracking it and seeing it. But Jews are the last people who can actually solve this because Jews have no impulse to be anti-Semitic in that way. They become reactively so, a small percentage of Jews do become anti-Semites in the same way – “if only the Jews did this, if only the Jews did that.” But that’s reactive. And there are reactive, there’s a reactive anti-Semitism. I compare it to second-hand smoke. Okay it’s sort of there. But –
KRISTOL: But I guess a lot of the Jewish organizations, I think you had argued then in explaining Jews don’t deserve this calumny or Israel doesn’t deserve to be criticized on this ground – it’s sort of missing the point. I mean, this is not a factual question of proving your innocence.
And in fact, once you, as you say, take the position of a defendant, you’re almost – you’re – well, you’re encouraging in a sense people to make this their political agenda. “Gee, it seems to be working, look, they’re on the defense, you know.”
WISSE: Exactly. Exactly so and it’s one of the reasons that in courses on Jewish literature I have repeatedly gone back to Franz Kafka’s text, The Trial. It’s such an important book for this understanding.
KRISTOL: Okay, well, let’s talk about that because I like Kafka but it’s been a long time since I’ve read it and I probably didn’t understand it when I did. So talk about that.
WISSE: Well, I’m not sure that this is only way. I mean it’s explained and analyzed by so many people in so many ways. But this is really the key to it.
K wakes up – Joseph K wakes up in the morning and he finds himself under arrest. And if he’s under arrest in the first page, we don’t know whether he’s committed any crime. We never find out who’s arresting him exactly, what the court is, what constitutes the court. But he becomes the defendant and so he is killed like a dog at the end. And that is the plot.
If you agree in any way to play the defendant in a court which does not define itself, then you’re doomed. And this is why when students sometimes come and they say, “What will we do about this anti-Israel rally and what will we do about this?” I say, “Whatever you do, don’t defend.” Never defend. You have to ask, “Who is asking this question, what right do you have to put Israel on the block here? Who are you? What are your standards?”
First you have to prove who you are. Do you, are you in a position to judge and if you’re not in a position to judge, first prove your clean hands, prove what you are. But just never find yourself saying “Oh, you know, Israel it allows homosexuals into the army long before the United States did, and look how liberal it is and look how wonderful it is to women.”
And look how – I mean it’s – you know, this is as you say, it’s irrelevant. And in some way, it’s not fair to the other side, it’s not fair to the anti-Semites. I think there’s a kind of contempt as well in not asking people to rise to your level of ethics and your level of understanding.
KRISTOL: And taking their – taking them seriously in a certain way as having a political agenda as opposed to well, they just don’t understand that things are nice in Israel, they’re ill-informed.
WISSE: That’s right. Right. And not – not giving them the credit that they have organized their politics in this way because it serves them in some way and unless you take seriously the way in which it suits them and why they use it and how they use it, you’re not doing them a favor in the long run. You’re really just you know helping them along.
KRISTOL: Yeah I want to come back to that in one second. But I’m just curious about Kafka. (Well, no, that was very interesting.
And how much did Kafka think – I mean, he somehow thought this was about the human condition generally, presumably, and politics, generally. But did he think it was about the Jewish situation as well?
WISSE: Well, in some ways, he absolutely thought it was about the Jewish condition because he published some of his stories in that time in a publication which was called The Jew. It was a Zionist publication. He was studying Hebrew soon after that.
You know, he was part of a Zionist circle, and he was concerned with that. However, he was also he had internalized many of these instincts. In his own body, he had problems with his own self in relation to his father, in relation to his family; so the psychology of it did come into play. Of course, you can read this on a human level because Joseph K is never defined as a Jew or anything else.
KRISTOL: There’s nothing Jewish explicitly in the story.
WISSE: No, no. But there’s nothing Czech explicitly either and everybody can recognize the terrain. So, no, he made very sure that this was – I think that he was giving a picture of the deracinated modern individual, really, and particularly, perhaps, the deracinated Jew, but others as well.
But you do see in this the larger truth that the problem with Joseph K, I mean, you can see this in a philosophical way and even in a transcendental way, you know, how the individual stands before God and whom he doesn’t understand and whose authority you know is in question. But I think that it’s a very instructive political text.
KRISTOL: That’s terrific. And so in terms of fighting back. Let’s just develop that a little more. You sort of implied that the Jewish tradition isn’t the best perhaps in informing Israel or Jews in the West as to how to fight back against anti-Semitism.
WISSE: I think that Jews – you know I tried to write this book, Jews and Power, but it could have been called – thank you – it could have been called Jews and Politics because the real point there is that everyone thought Jews – non-Jews, philosophic thinkers, historians, people who looked at the situation – actually said that they thought Jews had been out of politics for 2,000 years, that they left politics when Rome conquered Jerusalem and then the rebellion of Bar-Kochba was defeated in 135 and that was the end of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. That was the end of Jews in politics. And then Jews reclaimed their political sovereignty with the Zionist movement in the late 19th and 20th century.
Again this is preposterous, absolutely preposterous, because Jews were consummately political. What does it mean that they were out of politics? They had to negotiate a political reality with every ruler, with every polity in which they found themselves. But they developed a politics which was dramatically different and, I would say, really opposite to the politics of many of the people among whom they lived.
They did not seek to conquer anyone. They were just interested in, if you will, self-conquest. They had to prove themselves to God. That was the ultimate judge and authority. And if they would ultimately prove themselves excellent to God, God would protect them and God would intervene somehow in history and make it possible for them to eventually reclaim their sovereignty.
But in the meantime, they developed a politics of accommodation in the best sense. Some Jewish writers later talking about the myofas Jew. Myofas is a song that the Polish landowners would somehow ask the Jews to sing. “Dance for us and sing the myofas song.” So they would caricature the Jews being this, you know – yet cringing person who always came to request and so forth. I mean, I think that’s a horrible caricature. I think Jews were creative. They found out what was necessary wherever they were. But they always tried to fit in and became quite good at it, time and time again, so that they acquired possessions, they acquired wealth in many cases, they even acquired some political power.
But they never had the ability to defend what it is that they acquired or created. And this made them a no-fail target, that it was always profitable to go against them, whether to kill them or to expropriate them or to drive them out, always profitable at a certain moment in time. And there was never any political price to be paid for doing that because the Jews were not going to take revenge, right.
So if you become that way, a convenient target again and again and again, and the news gets around, you know eventually even before our period of you know faster communication, you develop this reputation above all others, that you are a very convenient political target.
So it is political. From the start, it was political. And Jewish politics are not – I mean it’s always a mistake to say for example the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I mean, that seems to suggest you know two parallel entities like the German-French conflict, right. It’s not that at all.
It’s a complementary, which Jews created. How could they fit in to the political requirements of others? And this became a Jewish talent. I’m not – I would never sell it short. In itself, it’s a wonderful thing. I mean, you know, talk about change, talk about adaptability, all the things which we admire in entrepreneurism, you see. That’s fine. But if you don’t have the ability to defend commensurate with what you can create, then you have set yourself up politically. And then anti-Semitism kicks in when it becomes an ideological movement as well as this practical way of just simply, you know, taking over what the Jews have created for us.
KRISTOL: And did any of the, in your opinion, early Zionists or late 19th and early, mid-20th century, Zionist or Jewish thinkers for that matter sort of grasp this? I mean, it’s interesting.
WISSE: Well, I’m hardly – they grasped different parts of it. But, you know, I think maybe you couldn’t grasp everything until it played itself out that way because as I said, if you looked at things from the point-of-view of the end of the 19th century and the 20th century, I think I would have been one of those people who might have hypothesized that “Yes, it’s probably because we are everywhere and nowhere that we are hit upon in this particular way.”
And you know so within the European situation, which was really the major context that we’re talking about here, I think that – I think that it would have been perfectly reasonable to suppose that. And Zionism was in a way, of course, the answer to one side of the problem because Zionism did make it possible for Jews finally to defend themselves. So, that’s a big gain.
But for many Jews, that’s not enough and I can see their point, too, what – are we going to defend ourselves into eternity? We want to remain just a small people. I mean, you notice Israel is not intent on conquering Jordan; it’s not intent on getting to Damascus or to Cairo or to anything else – all it wants is to be accepted. This makes it so vulnerable.
KRISTOL: And what do you say to the people who say well we want to be accepted and your picture is just a kind of endless conflict and having to fight back and not persuade their neighbors of anything or –
WISSE: Well, if you don’t mind a bit of a jump, I would say to them the same thing that I would now say to Americans. Americans have that same desire, right, and they have a lot to learn from the Israelis in this and from the Jewish experience in this.
I think that the two polities are very much alike, even though America is so phenomenally large and looks like, unconquerable, in some way. But you can see the same thing. No appetite for aggression. No reason to aggress against any others. That’s wonderful. No appetite for war. That’s a wonderful quality, except that if you are not prepared to defend what you have created, you are going to be taken over, you are going to be. And the more you create, the more vulnerable you become.
So in what one sees in America, at least in the second decade of the 21st century and beginning a little bit earlier, is almost what one sees to some extent in parts of Jewish experience that is encapsulated in the saying, “He who lies on the ground cannot fall.”
So isn’t it wonderful to just be the loser? If you cast yourself as the loser, you know, you become a banana republic. Okay, nobody is going to want to conquer you. So the impulse becomes not to become stronger, not to become wealthier, not to become better in some sense, but, no, to become shrinking. And you shrink and you shrink and you shrink and you think if you shrink yourself into nothingness, no one is going to want to take you over. So I would say –
KRISTOL: If you give less offense, then people won’t be offended but it doesn’t quite work that way, I suppose.
WISSE: No and I would say that the Jewish example is worth studying for what it tells you about – it’s the opposite.
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