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Rahel
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Jews and Power: Questions for the Author

Dear Ruth,
I thought I'd start us off with an experience that I just had, which will lead me to my question. I was rereading Jews and Power on the subway in preparation for our conversation, and I have to confess that I feel somewhat self-conscious holding a book with the title "Jews and Power" for all to see. So my opening question is, how did you come to write this book on a subject that often makes Jews (even politically active Zionists like myself) uncomfortable, and how did you decide on the title?
Thanks
Rahel
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Ruth_Wisse
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Re: Jews and Power: Questions for the Author

I imagine that what brought me to this subject is the same question that has disturbed many Jews for generations: why are the Jews such an attractive target for aggression? Or, to put it otherwise, why are Jews so marvelously successful in so many other areas of life--culture, finance, enterpreneurship, science, etc.--and so poor at politics, at securing their own little land and the basic security of their people? I started out as a student of literature, and I still find literature a most satisfying source of experience. But the study of Yiddish literature also led me inexorably to these questions. How come there were about ten million users of Yiddish in 1939 and mere thousands today? What was it about Jewish civilization that allowed for its so rapid extinction in Europe? 
Perhaps your mild discomfort in the subway is also part of my subject. After all, "Black Power" was a popular movement in the United States not so long ago. My book is not called, "Jewish Power"--nothing of the kind. Merely, Jews and Power, yet it inspires a little self-doubt. Hopefully, my book helps explain why you felt as you do.


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Rahel
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Re: Jews and Power: Questions for the Author

Dear Ruth,
I'm still fascinated by your section on "The Features of the "Democratic" Jewish Polity" (pages 32-38). Central to this discussion is the idea that Jews voluntarily submitted to the authority of their internal communal leaders. My question is -- was that submission truly voluntary? Could a Jew in, say, the 10th century Babylonian Jewish community have chosen to live outside his community's authority (I intentionally say "his," because it seems even more unlikely that a woman could leave the community, although perhaps by intermarriage)? And further, how were the community's leaders chosen? I agree that the Jewish emphasis on learning (I love the story about the Jewish wagon-drivers in Warsaw) has something of an equalizing effect, but it still seems like there was a hierarchy within many Jewish communities wherein the leadership came from among several learned and often wealthy families. How much of a say did the average Jew have in choosing those leaders?
Thanks
Rahel
Rahel
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Ruth_Wisse
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Re: Jews and Power: Questions for the Author

Dear Rahel, 

What fascinates me--including about your latest question--is the tendency of Jews to try to draw all discussion inward rather than focussing on the clear and present danger. What a relief it would be to follow your lead in addressing the internal workings of the Jewish community, its inclusiveness or otherwise, its powers of coercion, questions of representation, etc. I will resist this temptation because to do otherwise would be to betray the whole purpose of my book, which is to get Jews out of their solipsistic way of thinking about politics and to begin to see what makes them an attractive political target to others. In the first part of my book I do describe the internal workings of the Jewish community, but only to highlight those aspects of self-governance that made them exceptionally competitive with others.  I don't want to duck your question, but neither do I want to divert attention from the main thrust of my book which was to show how Jewish politics inadvertently encouraged the emergence of anti-Jewish politics.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. I've been speaking about the book in New York and elsewhere, and in keeping with its structure, I follow a three-part plan. First I try to show how Jewish politics developed (the part your question refers to); next, I trace the emergence of anti-Semitism as a modern political ideology, political strategy, and political movement; finally, I show how anti-Zionism not only extends anti-Semitism, but goes far beyond it in its international scope, and in use of weapons of mass communication. The question is how can Jews change their political modes of behavior so as to discourage rather than encourage the aggression against them.

What usually happens after the lecture is this: someone will get up and say, but what about what Israel has done wrong? Don't you think that Israel's actions in the "occupied territories" have led to the aggression against them? That's one reason I try to have a map of the Middle East in full view whenever I talk on the subject, so that people can actually see that Arabs havbe 640 times more land than the Jews. But facts are irrelevant. The lop sided nature of Arab aggression is irrelevant. I think that the point of such questions is the  attempt to turn the discussion inward, toward something less frightening. If these questioners can hold their fellow Jews responsible for the aggression against them, that's much easier to deal with than facing the leaders of the Arab world.   

So please excuse me, Rahel, if I refer you to such works as Salo Baron's The Jewish Community and to discussions that we may have at some future date about the nature of what I call democratic features of  Jewish constitutional culture. Right now, I'd like to try to see what it is about Jewish politics that makes anti-Jewish politics so attractive.   

 Yours gratefully, Ruth

 

 


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Rahel
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Re: Jews and Power: Questions for the Author


Ruth_Wisse wrote:

Dear Rahel,

What fascinates me--including about your latest question--is the tendency of Jews to try to draw all discussion inward rather than focussing on the clear and present danger. What a relief it would be to follow your lead in addressing the internal workings of the Jewish community, its inclusiveness or otherwise, its powers of coercion, questions of representation, etc. I will resist this temptation because to do otherwise would be to betray the whole purpose of my book, which is to get Jews out of their solipsistic way of thinking about politics and to begin to see what makes them an attractive political target to others. In the first part of my book I do describe the internal workings of the Jewish community, but only to highlight those aspects of self-governance that made them exceptionally competitive with others. I don't want to duck your question, but neither do I want to divert attention from the main thrust of my book which was to show how Jewish politics inadvertently encouraged the emergence of anti-Jewish politics.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. I've been speaking about the book in New York and elsewhere, and in keeping with its structure, I follow a three-part plan. First I try to show how Jewish politics developed (the part your question refers to); next, I trace the emergence of anti-Semitism as a modern political ideology, political strategy, and political movement; finally, I show how anti-Zionism not only extends anti-Semitism, but goes far beyond it in its international scope, and in use of weapons of mass communication. The question is how can Jews change their political modes of behavior so as to discourage rather than encourage the aggression against them.

What usually happens after the lecture is this: someone will get up and say, but what about what Israel has done wrong? Don't you think that Israel's actions in the "occupied territories" have led to the aggression against them? That's one reason I try to have a map of the Middle East in full view whenever I talk on the subject, so that people can actually see that Arabs havbe 640 times more land than the Jews. But facts are irrelevant. The lop sided nature of Arab aggression is irrelevant. I think that the point of such questions is the attempt to turn the discussion inward, toward something less frightening. If these questioners can hold their fellow Jews responsible for the aggression against them, that's much easier to deal with than facing the leaders of the Arab world.






Touché. Between my feeling of discomfort when showing the book title on the subway (although I've been conquering that fear!) and my greater level of comfort discussing issues within the Jewish community, I do seem to show signs of some of the problems you identify. Time for me to leave my within-the-community comfort zone and face the harder issues of relations outside it.
Thanks for pushing me to do so!
Rahel
Rahel
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Rahel
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Emancipation

Dear Ruth,
I may be misrepresenting your point here, but in reading the beginning of the Emancipation section of your book, it seems like you are suggesting that in many ways Jews were less protected after emancipation than they had been while under authoritarian rule. I find this rejection of the orthodoxy a little shocking, having been taught that Emancipation was a huge step forward for Jews. And yet I see your point that such rulers at least protected Jews when it was in their interest to do so, while liberal governments felt less of a responsibility to protect one small group of their citizens from the aggression of much larger portions of their citizenship. But isn't is possible that as liberal democracy has become more established, and the place of Jews within it, we are increasingly protected just as any other citizens are protected? Or do I just want to think so?
Worried,
Rahel
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