“If I Am Not for Myself . . .: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews.” By the brilliant retired Harvard Professor Ruth R. Wisse

From  archives of brilliant retired Harvard Professor Ruth R. Wisse

And …. more pertinent than ever

October 18, 1992

The New York Times Archives Book Review

“If I Am Not for Myself . . .: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews.”

By Ruth R. Wisse.  225 pp. New York: The Free Press. $22.95.

“WE fell victim to our faith in mankind, our belief that humanity had set limits to the degradation and persecution of one’s fellow men.” So wrote Alexander Donat, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka and the author of “The Holocaust Kingdom,” a book about the Jews of Europe at the time when the Nazis and their collaborators began herding them into cattle cars.

Mr. Donat’s words capture the thrust of Ruth Wisse’s new book, “If I Am Not for Myself . . .: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews.” It is her contention that liberalism, the very political ideology that would seem to provide shelter and promise for the Jews, was their undoing in the 1930’s and 40’s — and is in our day as well.

By liberalism, Ms. Wisse, who teaches English and Yiddish literature at McGill University in Montreal, means a belief in progress, rationality, freedom, cultural pluralism and the rule of law. “Liberals trust that all human problems are amenable to negotiated solutions, that all people are united in a spirit of brotherhood,” she writes.

“They detest the use of force, not only for the damage it causes but because in admitting the limits of reason it throws humankind back to a more primitive stage of civilization. The pure liberal spirit precludes the possibility of intractable hatred or intransigent political will.”

For this reason, she says, liberalism could not protect Jews from the Nazis. By necessity, she continues, liberals had to be unsympathetic to the fate of the Jews, “not because of any personal antipathy but because the national fate of the Jews contradicted their view of the world and called into question their deepest assumptions.” Because of the Jews’ political vulnerability, they had no allies in Europe, “not even in such opponents of anti-Semitism as the Marxists.”

In our day, Ms. Wisse writes, the Arabs, recognizing the remarkable political durability of repudiating the Jewish people and their religion, have joined the campaign. The Arab success in the world arena actually increased, she contends, when they “exchanged the language of the right for the language of the left, presenting Israel as the bloodthirsty exploiter of impoverished innocent Arab masses.”

“Since democratic society does not want to perceive itself as heartless or collaborationist,” she continues, “those who court favor with the Arabs have to deny the war against the Jewish state or else justify their betrayal of the Jews in a language of moral convenience. The tilt toward the Arabs has the code name of evenhandedness.”

According to Ms. Wisse, as long as Israel brought Jews outside Israel “the dowry of international good will,” the relationship was untroubled. But when those Jews were faced with Arab propaganda against Israel, they grew nervous, their insecurities blossomed and, as avowed liberals, they turned their backs on the Jewish homeland.

There are large holes in her argument. “In contending with so relentless an assault [ as the campaign mounted by the Arabs ] ,” she writes, “many Jews grow weary, and the very mention of anti-Semitism draws a yawn.”

This is an astonishing claim to make. The majority of Jewish institutions in America successfully continue to appeal to Jews for funds through no other issue than the threat of anti-Semitism.

Ms. Wisse also creates something of a straw man to bolster her thesis. She speaks of the nervous Jew “who feels his Jewishness to be a burden or knows very little about it, or who in marrying a non-Jewish wife and moving into higher business or banking circles gradually left his Jewishness behind, like an old skin.” 

 “It must be stressed that [ the ] split in the Israeli population is not between secular and religious Jews,” she writes, “since some of the most idealistic recruits for the defense forces come from the ranks of the modern Orthodox yeshivas.”

 “Despite the unparalleled success of anti-Semitism, few university departments of political science, sociology, history or philosophy bother to analyze the single European political ideal of the past century that nearly realized its ends.”

This book should be read not only for its potent indictment of liberalism’s failings. The work also stands as a warning to all Jews of a clear and ever-present danger.

Ruth R. Wisse is the retired Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. She is the sister of David Roskies, professor of Yiddish and Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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