"You Have to Make Demands!"

On Saturday afternoon during the just-finished Stern College Shabbaton, Dr. Ruth Wisse of Harvard gave a lecture in which she addressed the question of how it was that Jews have been so spectacularly successful in every field of endeavor in the modern world, except for maintaining their own sovereignty. I will try to summarize her points, though I will be doing them a disservice. Unfortunately, Dr. Wisse has not published these ideas herself yet, though she expects to finish a book on them soon.

It is amazing how successful Jews have been, not just in degree but in kind. Dr. Wisse being a literature specialist, she is especially impressed that Jews have won Literature Nobel Prizes for writings in (I think) seven different languages, including two seperate Jewish languages (Hebrew and Yiddish). It is incredibly uncommon for a people to become so proficient in the language of another people that they can produce masterpieces in that language; it is unheard-of for such a thing to happen several times.

Dr. Wisse's main thesis to explain this is as follows:

When the Jews were exiled, they effectively carried out a great experiment. It is generally assumed that to have a country, you had to have land, centralized leadership, and means for self-defense. The Jews had none of these things. Indeed, they were generally submerged within a much larger population that did not necessarily wish them well. In order to survive, the Jews had to become masters of adaptation.

The first step, naturally, was to learn the local languages. The Jews were unusual in that they saw no problems of cultural purity with respect to learning new languages, as the French do today, for example. Indeed, at the time of the expulsion Hebrew had already been elevated to High Speech status, and was replaced in the vernacular by Aramaic. Thus Jews had no problem with learning the local languages, sometimes even adapting them for internal use, for example Ladino or Yiddish or Judeo-Arabic. (Note: the present angst over the disappearance of Yiddish is apparently a unique occurance. Historically, the Jews transitioned from one language to another with no qualms.)

Second, since the Jews could not be self-supporting without land, to survive economically the Jews had to provide services that were in demand. This meant adapting themselves quickly to the outside economic structure and finding profitable niches. And indeed, the Jews prospered in every land which allowed them to.

This brings us to the third point, relations with the local rulers. Because the Jews could not defend themselves, they had to cultivate the goodwill of the rulers so that they could rely on royal protection. This required constant accomodation, compromise, and concern for the opinion of the ruler.

And here, unsurprisingly, is the weak link. For it does you no good to amass possessions and a community if you lack the means to protect them. And relying on princes will only take you so far, as the Tanach warns us. So if at any time the rulers decided to abuse their Jewish communities, the Jews were helpless. This was shown time and time again. Yet the Jewish strategy of accomodation continued, and was institutionalized within our collective memory and psyche.

Why? To us, history seems like an unending series of pogroms, expulsions, massacres and explotation. But to the Jewish communities of the time, accomodation seemed very successful indeed. Communities would go for hundreds of years in uninterrupted peace and tranquility. The Polish Jews knew only success for over five hundred years! And this was due entirely to their strategy of appeasing the nobles. Is it any wonder that such a strategy became our first instinct?

This instinct was so strong that the first pioneers in Israel had no idea that they would need any form of collective defense. They expected to buy the land, or earn it, or negotiate privileges with the local Arab populations, and be left in peace to found settlements. It took decades—decades!—of attacks before the Yishuv finally realized that it needed a defensive militia. And even then their tactics were utterly defensive. It took a concentrated effort by David Ben-Gurion to convince the Haganah to go on the offensive, even in the middle of open war.

The instinct of adaptation and accomodation has served us well in the era of modernity, which is marked by nothing so much as by endless, accelerating change. But this is true only in the cultural and economic sense, not the political sense. Such a political mindset was barely tolerable in a time of Diaspora, and even then it ultimately lead directly to the Holocaust. (Imagine what would have happened if every ten Jews of the six million had killed one German soldier; how long would the roundups have gone on?) In a time where we have our own state and sovereign soil, a mindset of accomodation is absolutely fatal.

And yet it continues today. Just think of the farce of the Oslo negotiations, where we traded physical power for mere words on paper, on the say-so of a murderer and the American president he bamboozled. It continues even now, with the disengagement fiasco. Dr. Wisse said that she approved of the actual steps being taken, but was horrified by the tone being struck by Israeli diplomats. A sovereign nation cannot be so cringing, so apologetic, she said in a tone approaching desperation: "You have to make demands!"

And this is exactly what must happen. We need to understand that the Diaspora is over. Galut may not be, but the Diaspora, and the specific political situation that implied, ended the moment that the State of Israel was born. We must shed the mindset of political appeasement, and have the audacity, the brazenness, to defend what is rightfully ours. This is part of why I believe all Jews must accustom themselves to firearms, as a way of training the mind.

In any event, we must be guided, as we should have been guided from the very beginning, by the threefold dictum of Hillel the Elder: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?"


Anonymous said...

This is very true. The Israeli government continues to bow to pressure from governments and diplomats and general populations who have no cause to wish them well and have a history of predjudice and evil deeds toward the Jews. However, even the early Fathers of Israel, such as Ben Gureon, were major appeasers of the British to the detriment of their own people.

Batya said...

Adaption is the problem, read: assimilation.
We survived for three reasons:
1- The other countries/societies didn't want us. (The Spanish churches kept records of the "conversos" converts, until well into the 20th century, and possibly until now, too.)
2- There were always Jews who wouldn't compromise/adapt.
3- G-d

During every time/era a large percentage of the Jews adapted/assimilated/merged into the dominent culture.

Mastiff said...

True; on the other hand, had we not adapted in some measure to the surrounding culture, we could not have survived economically. Consider that even in the observant Jewish community in America, almost everybody speaks English and is generally familiar with popular culture.

Assimilation is a huge concern, but there is no reason to immediately leap to a "Fortress: Judaism" mentality. That we are losing so many people is our own responsibility, not that of society. Our education system is pitiful at teaching the things that really matter.