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Jews and Power (Jewish Encounters) Hardcover – August 28, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This survey of Jewish history highlights the political aspect of Jewish experience, beginning with the observation that in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish power came through military heroics. By the time of the Roman conquest in A.D. 70, the Talmudic rabbis changed the narrative, blaming defeat on internal dissension, thus elevating the need for political discipline above military power. A Harvard professor of Yiddish and comparative literature, Wisse is keen to study how the politics of Jews occasions the politics of what she terms anti-Jews. For instance, she asserts that Allied leaders entered WWII not to save Europe's Jews but in order to defeat the Nazis, who were also anti-Jews. Similarly, the author says, President Bush was provoked to fight anti-Jewish terrorists by 9/11. Yet in both cases, isolationists accused the administration of caving in to Jewish demands that damaged American interests. Even the founding of Israel, she implies, has not normalized Jews' political position in the world. Palestinians, she says, have forged a national identity in obsessive opposition to Israel, and other nations have exploited Israel for their own political ends. Although her prose is sometimes opaque, Wisse is in fine form with well-reasoned, self-assured arguments bound to provoke heated debate among interested intellectuals. (Aug. 28)
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From Booklist

Wisse believes that Jews figure more prominently in the study of religion than they do in the study of government or political theory. To address this deficiency, she writes, this book highlights the political aspect of Jewish experience. In particular, Wisse says, she wants to "see how the politics of Jews occasions the politics of anti-Jews. The tendency of Jews to seek fault in themselves is part of the harmful pattern I hope to expose." This is a difficult thesis to examine, but Wisse gets her points across in a clear and convincing way. This is the eighth volume in the Jewish Encounters series, and 18 more titles are forthcoming. Wisse, the author of The Sehlemiel As Modern Hero (1984), The Well, and The Shtetl and Other Modern Yiddish Novellas (1986), is a professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. Cohen, George

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Product Details

  • Series: Jewish Encounters
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken; 1 edition (August 28, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805242244
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805242249
  • Product Dimensions: 4.7 x 0.2 x 7.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #661,219 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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59 of 66 people found the following review helpful By J. A Magill VINE VOICE on September 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
From King David, to the philosopher Spinoza, to boxer Barney Ross, the Jewish Encounter Series has been as varied as it has been excellent. Now, into this mix comes Ruth Wisse's thoughtful, provocative essay, "Jews and Power" polemical in the best sense of the word. Against a grain of modern scholarship that tends to run counterfactual in its effort to imagine Jews and the Jewish state as both ordinary and extraordinarily bad, Wisse produces a work which effectively demolishes both perspectives. Her relatively short book examines Jewish history from the period of the 2nd Commonwealth to the modern state of Israel in a manner both engaging and highly readable.

Wisse argues that the uniqueness of the Jewish community exists in a relentless self criticism going back at least to Roman times. Unlike other cultures which faced with powerlessness tended to blame the other, Jews through their first and second exile sought to affix the blame neither to their neighbors nor their stars, but to themselves. Moreover, Wisse shows no shyness about asking tough questions, such as those who imagine prefer being powerless and in danger to being strong. This will make some uncomfortable, but still she pulls no punches.

Another interesting topic covered is the contradiction in anti-Judaism, despising Jews for being both too weak (stateless, poor) and too strong (seizing control of the world, too smart, too rich, and though she gives it insufficient coverage, killing god). As it happens the same paradigm exists today.
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36 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Jill Malter on September 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Ruth Wisse begins this book by exploring some of the ways in which Jews have traditionally examined their own behavior. And that's an interesting point of view. Is it really true that the Arab-Israeli conflict is partially cultural, with Jews tending to blame themselves for much of what happens? Is Arab culture different in this respect? If so, that could explain a tendency of both sides to examine Jewish behavior far more than Arab behavior, and it might explain what I consider an exaggeration of Israel's importance by both sides in the conflict.

Wisse is quick to point out that while Jews had been confined to ghettos for centuries, emancipation led to a different type of problem: modern anti-Semitism. The accusations by anti-Semites were intended to show that Jews "were unworthy of the legal and social position conferred upon them." And even when anti-Semitism reached epidemic proportions, the carriers of this malady saw no reason to stop: it appeared to put them at no disadvantage. Meanwhile, the Jews themselves were powerless to stop it, as they were the prey.

As Wisse explains, while some anti-liberal political parties were not "originally or innately anti-Semitic," there were "no anti-Semitic parties that were not innately anti-liberal."

We then get to Zionism, and Wisse explains some of its origins. But, as Wisse tells us, Zionism lacked one ingredient, namely "the military planning force that every nation assumes it needs in order to regain, gain, or maintain its land." Although Wisse traces the start of Jewish defence forces back to 1920, I think that only after years of even more calamities, topped by the 1939 British White Paper, did the majority of Jews realize the need for an independent state, including armed forces.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Kleinbard on October 10, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Wisse presents a first-rate historical analysis of Jewish history in terms of the political influence they were able to exert in the context of their lives after the destruction of the 2nd temple, up to present times. Yes, the current analysis tends to be polemical, but justifiably so in laying out the situation as it is. Very well written and easy to read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Ellington Beavers on January 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Gave me an unexpected and refreshing perspective on the history of the Jewish people. They have much to be proud of, I learned, particularly in their need to excel without armies, national power, or centralized wealth and influence in the centuries before establishment of the present State of Israil. The perspective is especially interesting in considering the current conflict with Palestinians in the Middle East.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Gary Selikow on December 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the BEST books out there on the subject of anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews or the Jewish State).
She takes us on a discussion from the loss of Jewish sovereignty in 70 CE, when Roman emperor Titus crushed the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in Israel, burning the Temple in Jerusalem and sending many Jews into Exile, up until the failure of the doomed Oslo Accords leading to the war of terror against the Israeli people launched by Yasser Arafat in 2000,
On note of hope and courage she notes that to her the re-establishment of Israel only three years after the destruction of European Jewry is an even more hopeful augury than the dove's appearance before Noah with an olive leaf after the flood. She rightly pours scorn on modern day would be Hitler, Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
who branded Israel as ' a rotten dried tree that will eliminated by one storm', reminding us that Jews have lived to see the downfall of every Haman and Hitler.
In fact most likely Ahmadinejad is foretelling the fate of his own decayed society.
The basis of her essay is the dual discussion on Jewish survival and the realization that no other people developed a similar long-term culture of accommodation to defeat.

In response to Russian pogroms of 1881 one of the early modern Zionist thinkers Leon Pinkser issued a call for Jewish self-emancipation, arguing that exile had turned the Jews into a nation of zombies. Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik rebuked has fellow Jews for passively allowing themselves to be slaughtered urging self-liberation for Jews to determine their own future.
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