Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Power and powerlessness in Jewish history

Chanukah is a holiday that can get one to thinking, about the Jews of antiquity, about Jewish survival - and about Jewish power or, for much of history, lack of it.

We haven't - still - gone far enough in analyzing the malignant mental disorder of antisemitism - how some Jews pick it up from antisemites; how it's not a mental illness in the strict sense, but a willful, obsessive irrationality; why Jews need political power, and why Jews have been so bad at it, to the point of often not being able to protect themselves.

The operational source of political antisemitism in the Western world today is the far left, which acts in part from its own destructive fantasies and in part as a conduit for radical Islamic ideas (repackaging them somewhat along the way). Mainstream liberals and the traditional Jewish organizations have been, first asleep, then confused, and finally, late in grasping the nature of these developments and responding to them. Some are still in a hypnotic semi-sleep. OTOH, things today are not as bad as in the 1930s: we have a state, allies, and a number of legitimate avenues of influence in democratic countries. It's also better understood, at least to an extent, how much of a danger political antisemitism poses to everyone else; so everyone else pays more attention.

Worship of powerlessness, the result of centuries of exile, is the key to understanding Jewish political weakness. Self-hatred is not the problem with most Jews; the problem is the embarrassment over having power, some power, any power. Many Jews consciously or unconsciously rationalize powerlessness as a higher morality, sharing with the ultraorthodox the belief that power is bad, at least for Jews. Among the religious, this tendency is wrapped up with messianic hope; among liberals and leftists, with utopianism and the belief that power is bad for everyone.

And all wrongly look within for the solution to the riddle of antisemitism, not realizing that antisemitism is really a gentile problem and not a Jewish problem at all. Antisemitism is a classic warning sign that something is wrong in the larger non-Jewish society, not the Jews. It is this hatred that is absorbed and transformed into self-hatred. In reluctantly and unwillingly modernizing societies, Jews are often targeted as symbols of modernity and forced into being the ultimate voodoo doll.

An essential antidote to this condition is Ruth Wisse's new Jews and Power. In it, she concisely puts down on paper the pathology and its solution. Her book is remarkable in its perspective, and short enough to read in one long sitting. Without so much as a by-your-leave, she turns Jewish history around - right-side up, so to speak - and takes having power as normal and powerlessness as abnormal. In Wisse's view, it was the Jews-as-tolerated-separated minority, the classical Old World Diaspora, that was the great experiment, not Zionism. It worked for a long time, but eventually failed: in one sense, with the rise of modern liberal political systems, liquidated peacefully; in another sense, destroyed, or murdered, really. Its success and eventual failure were closely bound up with the flourishing and ultimate fall of the great aristocratic-theocratic empires that controlled much of the Old World between antiquity and modern times.

Power is an expression of self-interest, which sometimes seems like a taboo concept in the Jewish world. Why is self-interest bad? Isn't it "right-wing," and doesn't it lead to war? Isn't it better if the Jews are always ready to sacrifice themselves? Not at all. Peace is certainly in one's interests - if it's real peace, not fake diplomatic-media nonsense. Even Israel's peace with Egypt and Jordan, limited as it is, is a good thing. Announcing to the world that one is always on call to sacrifice oneself makes war and conflict more, not less, likely.*

Once we get disentangled from the contortions of self-hatred and unearned guilt, we can keep clarity on the Israel issue by just remembering to keep it out of the colonialism box and keep it in the box marked, national self-determination, where it belongs. Power is essential for human and social life within civilization. But at the same time, power is limited and able to accomplish only certain things. In this vein, we should also stay clear of the neoconservative fallacy as well: having lacked power for so long, it was inevitable that some Jews, instead of viewing power as evil, would come to view it as magic.

POSTSCRIPT: If you don't think Jews need power any more, think again.
* The novelist Ayn Rand used to say, in connection with this, that "it's earlier than you think." When someone asked her, isn't everyone selfish, she replied, in effect, if only. Obviously, Rand's conception of self and selfishness differs greatly from the common use of these terms.

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