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Ruth Wisse on “Conversations with Bill Kristol”

December 9, 2014 | By: Ruth Wisse

The latest episode of “Conversations with Bill Kristol” features Ruth Wisse, the dean of the study of Jewish literature and distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. As it so happens, Professor Wisse is teaching the advanced institute “Jews and Power” at Tikvah’s New York office this week while her interviewer, William Kristol, is the instructor for this week’s Tikvah advanced institute in Jerusalem, “The Case for Nationalism.” The conversation between Kristol and Wisse was produced by the Foundation for Constitutional Government at Harvard. Prompted by Kristol, Wisse analyzes the intellectual and cultural core of anti-Semitism, the inadequacy of the usual Jewish response to it, and what that tells us about the oft-deluded relationship Jews have to power and to politics. But the conversation doesn’t stop there. Kristol and Wisse discuss just what ails the campus: not only anti-Semitism or a lack of American patriotism, but a lack of simple curiosity. During the last half hour Wisse turns somewhat autobiographical and explains the magnetism of and the universal insights flowing through the Yiddish canon. 

Below are some excerpts of the conversation–reflections and declarations from this great woman of letters.

On the nature of anti-Semitism:

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.
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.


On Jews and politics: 

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.


On what ails the campuses: 

The primary focus for me is the one thing that I tried to say at a couple of faculty meetings was that liberal democracy is not biologically transmitted. I really don’t think that the schools understand that. Either they are the enemies of liberal democracy and really have no confidence in what America is, no appreciation for it – which is true of some people but it’s certainly not true of the majority – or they are so careless that they just think that it perpetuates itself through the ether. But this is not true.


On how she came to study Yiddish literature: 

[T]his Yiddish poet, Abraham Sutzkever, was a great, really a great poet, came to Montreal and I was – I arranged his speeches, his talks. And once he said to me, “What are you going to be studying? Surely you’re going to continue with your education.” I said, “Oh, yes. I think I’m going to go on and get an advanced degree in English literature.” And he said, “Why don’t you study Yiddish literature?” And I laughed. And this was – I laughed and I said to him, “And what would I do, teach Sholem Aleichem?” And as I spoke these words, I was absolutely horrified. He, of course, was terribly insulted but I couldn’t understand where did this, where did my reaction come from?
You know, thinking about, it’s easy to see where it came from. I had been to a university where the word Jew was not mentioned. You read Jewish authors, you studied about the Rothschilds in a class on economics and so forth. But Jew was, you didn’t mention Jew. And I was there in the 50s, right. This was see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It was sort of. And so it never occurred to me. I just didn’t have the imagination to think that one could actually study Yiddish literature at an advanced level and teach Sholem Aleichem.
So but no sooner had I made this horrible error than the next day, I called Columbia, which was the one place in the country where you could actually study Yiddish linguistics, anyway, and combine it with a degree in Comparative Literature. And I asked to be – you know, I asked if I could come. And things then were much more fluid than they are today. And the next thing I knew, I was at Columbia getting an advanced degree in Yiddish literature.


On what we can learn from Yiddish literature: 

If you really if you want to introduce people to one text of what was East European Jewish civilization, I would always recommend [Aleichem’s Tevye Stories], because the way we meet Tevye the first time, he has been hauling logs for a living. He’s just hauling logs through the forest. He is a villager. He lives out in the country. He supports his wife and these seven daughters. But he’s bitterly poor and he’s coming back at night.
And this is all in the form of a kind of monologue. He’s coming back at night. He’s telling this to Sholem Aleichem, to Mr. Sholem Aleichem, the writer. Coming back in the evening after a day’s work with almost nothing to bring to his family. And suddenly it’s time to say the evening prayers. And so at just that moment, the horse starts to run off. So he’s running after the horse reciting his prayers. Now these are prayers that everyone would know. These are the basic, you know, 18 benedictions that part of every, every prayer. And how does he pray? He prays dialectically, you know, sort of, “Thou hast chosen us from among the nations. Why did you have to pick on the Jews? God provides. If only he would provide until he provides. You have raised us from this. You better raise me now because I’m six feet under already and so forth.” You know just.
So this is kind of—and this is all drawn from Yiddish humor that was already folk humor. Sholem Aleichem consolidated something. Of course, he added a lot to it. But a lot of the joking, a lot of this irony, of quoting in Hebrew and then taking it down into Yiddish, the Hebrew being the affirmation, the Yiddish being the skepticism, the dig, the self-doubt, the doubt you know. I mean, this is just – I mean, I think it’s the way many of us live, right. It’s the way many of us truly live. We will never give up that, you know, that higher level, and we never want to give it up. 

More about: America, Israel, and the Middle East  • Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism  • Jewish Education  • Jewish Political Thought  • Zionism  

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