David Biale

Department of History, University of California, Davis

Paper for the UC/Utrecht Symposium on Jewish Politics and Political Behavior

12 October 2008


No single event has concentrated the attention of Jews on the question of power as the creation of the modern state of Israel.Just as the Holocaust has come to represent the powerlessness of Diaspora, so the return to political sovereignty symbolizes for many the negation of Diaspora the first real embodiment of Jewish power in two millennia.That the same generation experienced both the depths of powerlessness and the heights of power has had a profound effect on the way Jews view political sovereignty.

These ideas, which I shall argue are more myths than truths, have their origins even before the dramatic events of the 1940s.The debate between the early-twentieth-century Zionists and the autonomists found its reflection in the way historians from each of these parties depicted Jewish history: where for the Zionists, the Jews lacked all semblance of power in Galut, for an autonomist like Simon Dubnow, autonomous communities possessed some limited aspects of political sovereignty.But the terms of this debate were clearly too simplistic.Once Israel itself was established, it became possible to revisit the old controversies and forge a more nuanced narrative.Thus, the late Jonathan Frankel, Ezra Mendelsohn and Eli Lederhendler all showed how Zionism emerged out of the reawakening of Jewish politics in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, a reawakening that included a variety of other political movements.Other researchers, notably Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum, Noam Zohar, Daniel Elazar and the present writer, went further back and identified traditions of political thought and action throughout the Jewish Middle Ages.Lorberbaum, in particular, showed how a strand of thought, from Maimonides through Nissim of Gerona, fashioned a realm of secular law side-by-side with Torah law, thus anticipating modern secular politics.The state of Israel, in this account, has its dialectical roots in the Galut itself.

What I should like to do in this paper is examine two expressions of this historiography, one very recent and the other some twenty-two years old.The recent book is Ruth Wisse’s Jews and Power, but the older one is my own Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History.Although Wisse only refers to my book in passing (and, in general, she gives little credit to the substantial body of scholarship that has emerged on this subject), I would like to take the opportunity to compare the one with the other, since they share the same theme as well as certain historical assumptions, but come to strikingly opposite contemporary conclusions.What follows is therefore at once a book review of Wisse’s book and my own reflections two decades later about my work on the same subject.

Let me start with a methodological point which seems to me of great importance in the treatment of this subject.Since present-day questions of the use of Jewish power are highly fraught politically, it seems almost inevitable that no treatment of the past can be free of what historians call “presentism,” that is, the retrojection of contemporary questions and/or positions onto history.Here is where I should like to draw a sharp distinction between Wisse’s book and my own.In order to illustrate this, let us look at the one place where Wisse refers explicitly to Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History in her text.In the last pages of her book, she dismisses as “an effort to chasten modern Israel” my argument that, in antiquity, periods of full Jewish sovereignty (the Davidic-Solomonic kingdom, the rule of King Josiah and the Hasmonean kingdom) proved to be less stable and long-lasting than periods of partial sovereignty or local autonomy. Now, the thesis of my book is that power must be historicized: it means different things in different periods of history.Thus, power in antiquity revolved around great empires like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans.Although the modern world is also characterized by great powers, the modern principle of national sovereignty means that power is exercised in very different ways.The point of this argument is not to “chasten modern Israel” but to argue that the present Jewish state cannot be compared directly to its ancient ancestors, even if some of that history still reads as a cautionary tale of what happens to small countries that overreach their grasp.

Thus, whether the Jews possessed power in any given period must be analyzed not against a modern definition of power, but against what it meant in its own context.To take a different example, the corporate system of the Christian Middle Ages meant that power was diffused among different centers, the opposite of what we find in the age of absolutism or of the modern state.As Salo Baron showed more than half a century ago, Jews within the medieval context possessed relatively greater political autonomy than, say, peasants, but similar to that of other townspeople.Needless to say, this relative power could hardly immunize them against violent attacks or expulsions, especially when they lost the protection of bishops and kings.But the medieval power constellation was unique to that period of history and bears scant relevance to earlier or later periods.Of course, even this generalized statement about the Middle Ages needs to be nuanced with the differences between Spain, Germany, Italy and Poland, to take the most obvious examples.In short, contextualization disrupts presentist arguments since it shows them to be historically dubious.

Where presentism can play a useful role is in provoking certain questions.That we wish to know more about Jewish politics both before and during the modern age is no doubt a result of our present preoccupation with Jewish politics today.Aspects of the past that might not have come to light can do so as a result of this preoccupation.But this procedure only works if we realize that the past is a foreign country and the translation of present concepts into an historical language just as frequently results in mistranslation.

Let me now turn directly to Wisse’s book.Although she refers only fleetingly to the work of some of the historians I mentioned earlier, she accepts the prevailing consensus that the Jews had a political existence in the almost two millennia since the destruction of their ancient Temple state.Subservient to Gentile rulers, they nevertheless cultivated a voluntaristic communal structure that, she claims, was highly democratic and also fostered a “supremely competitive people, competitive because everywhere they had to prove their worth and could never take their existence for granted.”Like Yuri Slezkine (whose book, The Jewish Century I suspect she would otherwise loathe), Wisse sees the medieval Jews as precociously modern in their anticipation of both democracy and capitalistic individualism.

Whatever the virtues of this internal self-government, however, the Jews remained largely powerless to shape their fate.When they lost their sovereignty in antiquity, she argues, they developed a unique and unprecedented response.Instead of blaming the superior force of their enemies, they turned the blame inwards: “for our sins we have been exiled from our land.”The true superior force was that of God, who punished his people with military and political defeat.If they suffered powerlessness in this world, it was because a power greater than that of any empire remained their ally in heaven.This theological stance led to a political strategy of accommodation with earthly powers.The Jews made themselves economically useful to Gentile rulers in exchange for protection.But this accommodationism also exposed them to the murderous hatred of Christians and Muslims: powerlessness was the midwife of antisemitism.In the modern period, the rise of democracy further endangered the Jews since they were no longer as indispensable to the ruling elites (this last argument is unintentionally close to that of Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism).In the Holocaust, the Jews heroically confronted the Nazis with an ethos of menshlichkayt, but their tradition of accommodation failed in the face of genocide.

Although the first half of her book is couched in historical terms, it is really a prologue to Wisse’s real interest, which is an unabashed neo-conservative brief for Zionism and the State of Israel.Zionism, for Wisse, is the answer to all accommodationist politics, medieval or modern.But the founders of Zionism, like Theodor Herzl, were themselves accommodationists, as Wisse argues in an analysis of Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland.She is particularly scornful of Herzl’s Arab character, Raschid Bey, who embraces the Zionists for bringing progress to the Middle East.Herzl did not understand that Zionism could only succeed by decisively defeating the Levantine enemies that awaited it.In fact, Wisse’s history of Zionism is essentially a replica of the Revisionist Party line: only Jabotinsky understood the necessity of force of arms, while the Labor Zionists were accommodationists, resembling much more the diaspora or galut mentality they claimed to “negate.”

A direct line connects her critique of Herzl with her critique of Israel for surrendering the Sinai to Anwar Sadat and of Yitzhak Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords.All concessions to the Arabs are dangerous since the Muslim world is inherently anti-Jewish and constitutionally unable to accept a Jewish state in its midst.Jews must finally learn how to wield power without the moral conscience instilled by centuries of Diaspora.Israel is the outpost of the democratic West in the Middle East and, as such, is on the front lines in the War on Terror.Only war, culminating in the utter defeat of her enemies, will secure Israel’s existence as well as that of the West.

I shall return to Wisse’s political claims in a moment, but since her book purports to derive these claims from a reading of history, it is necessary to examine just how accurate that historical reading is.Let us begin with her unhistorical argument that the medieval Jewish community was democratic.Apart from the total lack of democracy as we know it throughout the Middle Ages, whether among Jews or others, the reality was that most Jewish communities of the Middle Ages were run by autocracies of the wealthy, at times with rabbinical allies, and, at others, in opposition to the rabbis.To be sure, as Salo Baron already demonstrated in his three-volume The Jewish Community, communal leaders in most diaspora communities were elected either directly or indirectly.But even if householders had equal votes in certain communal self-governments, the property qualifications that defined such householders effectively disenfranchised most Jews.This is a complex story with variants throughout the Jewish world, but one thing it was not: a precursor to modern democracy.The sources for Jews’ embrace of liberal democracy as well as more radical politics must be sought in the particular conditions of nineteenth-century European liberalism and, in the Russian Empire, in the context of opposition to both Russian autocracy and rabbinical authority. Democracy as a Jewish value therefore owes as much, if not more, to opposition to traditional Jewish communities as to their influence.

But, more to the point of Wisse’s argument, were the Jews always and everywhere “accommodationists?”No doubt any minority community has to balance its need for self-assertion with the demands of the majority.But accommodation did not necessarily preclude the resort to force or violence.Thus The Hebrew chronicles of the First Crusade are replete with examples of the Rhineland Jews using weapons to defend themselves, only turning them on themselves as a last resort.Allow me to quote a few examples:

In Worms, some of the Jews took refuge in the residence of the bishop for about two weeks after their brethren had been slaughtered:

It came to pass on the twenty-fifth of Iyyar that the Crusaders and burghers said: “Behold those who remain in the courtyard of the bishop and in his chambers.Let us take vengeance on them as well.”They gathered from all the villages in the vicinity, along with Crusaders and burghers; they besieged [the Jews] and they did battle against them.There took place a very great battle, one side against the other, until they seized the chambers in which the children of the sacred covenant were.When they saw the battle raging to and fro, the decree of the King of kings, then they accepted divine judgment and expressed faith in their Creator and offered true sacrifices.They took their children and slaughtered them unreservedly for the unity of the revered and awesome Name.

Even after most of the community had committed suicide or killed its children,a certain Simha son of Isaac was captured and rather than be baptized, assaulted and killed a nephew of the bishop, who presumably was an ally of the Crusaders.In another context: “They found in the chamber a Crusader and they all – men and women – arose and stoned him and he died.”Just as women are said to curse the Crusaders, so they join with the men in physically attacking them. The text scarcely glorifies passivity in the face of the Crusaders.If violence directed outwards failed, it was only then followed by violence directed inwards.The powerful desire of these Ashkenazi Jews for revenge on their Christian enemies bespeaks a very different ethos from the pacifistic edelkayt celebrated by some modern Jewish writers.

Beyond the unique and unprecedented example of the Rhineland, there are myriad instances of Jews participating in the defense of their cities, from walled-cities in Spain to the defense of Polish towns against Ukrainian insurgents.Accommodation did not necessarily mean passivity or pacifism.The ways the Jews accommodated themselves to their minority status must therefore be contextualized.It was hardly the same in all places and in all times.

Since Wisse understands accommodationism in a singularly one-dimensional way, it is not surprising that her history of modern Israel is equally tendentious.She does a particular disservice to the Labor Zionists, starting with Ben Gurion, who used diplomacy in addition to force in order to achieve a state.To argue that this approach was akin to diaspora accommodationism is a gross distortion of both, but certainly fails to appreciate the complexity of Ben-Gurion’s politics.

Given her tendency to reduce Israeli security policy to Labor Zionist accommodationism versus Revisionist militancy, Wisse has only contempt for Israeli peace making in more recent years.For example, her account of Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and the subsequent negotiations leading to Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai blames Israel for surrendering to every Egyptian diktat.But while Israel did concede the whole Sinai peninsula, it won an enormous concession from Sadat who accepted a very vague promise to give autonomy to the Palestinians at some future point.In a footnote, Wisse deprecates Sadat’s Nobel Prize “for agreeing or pretending to agree to peace with Israel” (she does this in the context of boasting about how many Jews versus Muslims have won Nobel Prizes).But what she does not say is that as a result of the peace treaty with Egypt, for which Sadat paid with his life, Israel has not had a military conflict with the largest Arab country on its borders for thirty years.

One can certainly agree with Wisse that the main goal of the Oslo Accords – peace between Israelis and Palestinians – has not been realized.But she fails to note that Oslo resulted in the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan.Here is not the place to rehearse the events of the last decade and a half that have led to the continuation of the bitter conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.But Wisse’s argument does not allow for the possibility that Israel herself has played some role in the failure of the peace process.One need not exculpate the Palestinian leadership in order to recognize that Israel’s settlements and checkpoints, among other actions, have contributed to the cycle of violence.A complex dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians, in which Israel is hardly a passive partner, has produced the present impasse.

In Wisse’s failure to even engage with this argument we see the real problem with her book.She writes as if the date in Israel is 1939 and not 2007, as if the state did not exist and the Holocaust is just around the corner. In one place she even implies that the situation today is worse than 1939: “Whereas Hitler had to function as his own impresario in organizing mass rallies, parades, and ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations, Arab rulers use weapons of mass communication.”With similar genocidal intent, the Arabs somehow have tools that even Hitler lacked.

The State of Israel in her account has not altered diaspora Jewish politics: “Far from exposing Jews to the temptations of might, the creation of Israel had inadvertently reproduced in the Middle East a political imbalance almost identical to the one that Jews had experienced in the Diaspora.”In response to this imbalance, she says, most American Jews and many Israelis have reverted to a diaspora mentality of accommodation.

To put the matter bluntly, Wisse does not believe in Zionism in the sense that she does not recognize the difference between a diaspora minority community and a sovereign state.Zionism, contrary to her thinking, did give Jews political agency, which means responsibility for the consequences of using power.Jews do have the power now to influence the behavior of their enemies far more than merely reacting to them.Put differently, the creation of a Jewish state means that the conflicts between the Jews and their enemies are not only mythic – as was the case for religious anti-Judaism and racial antisemitism – but also real.They are conflicts over land and water and borders.Soldiers who die for the Jewish state die for raisons d’êtat – and not as religious martyrs.This is the historic change that Jewish sovereignty has wrought and even if many of Israel’s enemies harbor genocidal fantasies towards the Jews, the context in which they act out those fantasies is political.

In the final analysis, once she has decried those Israelis still ostensibly infected with diaspora defeatism, it is not clear just what are Wisse’s prescriptions for the use of Jewish power.Is it to unleash the Israeli Army on the Palestinians without any restraints?Is it to bomb Iran back to the Stone Age?She doesn’t say because she is ultimately unwilling to take responsibility for the consequences of such actions.But Israel’s political and military leaders do not have this luxury since most them know full well that their security problems cannot be solved by the use of military force alone.The Six Day War demonstrated beyond question that military victories are Pyrrhic without a political horizon.

In the conclusion to her book, Wisse resorts to a remarkably diasporic argument of her own as she pleads for Israel’s importance to the West’s struggle against Islam and for democracy.The Jews now have substantial assets to offer in the form of intelligence and military prowess, but ultimately they remain a small people desperate to prove their utility to those with real power.It thus appearsthat, in the end, she, too, is an accommodationist.Somehow lost in this account is the Zionist urge to create a normal nation.

Just as it is necessary to contextualize power, so it is necessary to contextualize books about power.Thus, my own book, written in the 1980s in the wake of the First Lebanon War and, somewhat more distantly, the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, may be seen as part of the discourse of questioning the extent of Israel’s power.More than either Israel’s War of Independence or the Sinai Campaign, the Six Day War seemed to suggest the possibility that decisive military victories could solve political problems.Yet, the subsequent Yom Kippur and Lebanon Wars cut deeply into this belief.Indeed, they produced paradoxes in which a perceived partial victory by the Egyptians set the stage for the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979.A new consciousness on the limits of military power seemed to demand a more nuanced view of Jewish politics in both the present and the past.

Wisse’s book, by contrast, is a product of the Oslo Period and its demise.In preparing this paper, I discovered in a copy of my book, a lecture that I gave in 1995, reflecting on the dramatic changes in the decade since my book was published.I noted in particular Yitzhak Rabin’s inaugural address in 1992 in which he said that it was time for Israel – and the Jewish people -- to wean themselves of the view that “the whole world is against us.”Rabin seemed to intuitively understand that the nightmares of powerlessness that had haunted the Jews since the Holocaust were counterproductive for a sovereign state.

The failure of the Oslo process and the Second Intifada seemed, however, to confirm the older view.The reemergence of anti-Zionism, which at times seemed to veer into antisemitism, affirmed for those like Wisse that peace with Israel’s enemies had always been an illusion.Of course, one could offer a different interpretation of these events, but Wisse’s book appears more credible than if it had been published during the 1990s, when it would have seemed much more sectarian.

I would also argue that Wisse’s book is itself the product of a disapora – specifically American – context.Although there may be those in Israel who harbor similar views, it would be hard to imagine a book produced there with the same mixture of bellicosity and fear, self-assertion and anxiety.It is this paradoxical combination that brings me now to my own book and especially to its last chapter, on power and the American Jewish community.I have already indicated the outlines of my argument with respect to antiquity and the Middle Ages.The argument seeks to show how Zionism – and other forms of modern Jewish politics – arose in response to the absolutist state, which decisively destroyed the semi-autonomous communities of the Middle Ages.The Holocaust, in this account, was less the culmination of two thousand years of political impotence and passivity, than it was a uniquely modern event.And Zionism itself, although undoubtedly a modern phenomenon with no precise precedent, also resurrected in new, sovereign form, Jewish self-government as it had existed since antiquity.

The American Jewish community in this context looks at least as unprecedented and new as does the state of Israel and it is to that community that I now wish to address my retrospective remarks.If Jews were a kind of paradigmatic minority in Christian Europe and one such minority in medieval Islamic states, it is fair to say that in America they no longer this kind of status.They are one religion and one immigrant group among many and hardly the most significant.It is the politics of race that dominate in America and, whatever color the Jews may have been considered as immigrants, they are no undeniably white.Thus, to quote from another book of which I was a co-editor, they are at once insiders and outsiders.As such, they have acquired collective power and influence far beyond that exercised by any other diaspora community.

In Power and Powerlessness, I argued that American Jewry has acquired political power not only because of the Jews’ economic and professional status in America, but as much as a result of Israel.The centrality of Israel to geopolitics during the Cold War opened access for Jews to the highest levels of government in a way that it wouldn’t have if, say, the Zionists had chosen Uganda.One doesn’t have to follow Walt and Mersheimer in exaggerating the influence of the Israel lobby on American foreign policy to acknowledge the very real power that Jews and their allies do exercise, especially in the Congress, around Israel.This remains as true – perhaps even more true – today as it did twenty-two years ago.

What remains equally true is the discrepancy between actual Jewish power and perceptions of powerlessness, or, at least, vulnerability, a contradictory mixture that I have already pointed out in Wisse’s book.The reaction – indeed, over-reaction -- to the Walt-Mersheimer book is a case in point.The very considerable influence of the Israel lobby was brought to bear in order to prove the point that --- the lobby is not as powerful as Walt and Mersheimer argued.The result of was a demonstration that even if the lobby was not central to the decision to invade Iraq – and I don’t believe that it was – that it has the power to silence its critics, exactly the argument that Walt and Mersheimer advanced.It is hard to imagine, say, the NRA – to take another single-issue lobby as an example – would object if an academic study argued that it possessed extraordinary power.

I should like to close with an observation about the trajectories of Jewish power in Israel and America and especially about the way those trajectories may converge.One might argue that Jews adopted three strategies for survival at the beginning of the twentieth century:Israel, America (and other diasporic communities outside of Europe) and revolutionary solutions within Europe.The Holocaust and Stalinism caused the failure of the last of these strategies, although it would be too soon to declare that Jewish life in Europe is at an end.The first two solutions resulted in an ethno-nationalist state, on the one hand, and integration into a multiethnic, multicultural state on the other.Both these solution have succeeded beyond what anyone might have predicted one hundred years ago.But what the founders of Israel would never have anticipated is a state in which more than a quarter of the population is not Jewish.In addition to the twenty percent of Israelis whose ethnicity is Arab, the 1990s brought some 300,000 non-Jewish Russians and an equal number of foreign workers.Thus, a Jewish state has to contend with the same questions of multiculturalism that have become the hallmark of American democracy.Whether or not one adopts the post-Zionist program, for Israel to remain a democracy means sharing power with non-Jewish minorities.

In this light, one may return to Jewish history with a new set of questions.For example, did the Jews ever have a pure ethno-nationalist state in antiquity?Didn’t they always share the land, whether in the First or Second Temple periods, with Canaanites, Hittites, Greeks and so forth?And we might also ask in which Diaspora contexts – such as Alexandria or the Ottoman Empire – did the Jews succeed in functioning as a minority within multiethnic states?Since I would argue that this is the future of Jewish power, to be shared rather than monopolized, we may discover more continuities with the past than we had hitherto thought imaginable.

Jonathan Frankel, Politics and Prophecy: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1981); Ezra Mendelsohn, On Modern Jewish Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Eli Lederhendler, The Road to Modern Jewish Politics: Political Tradition and Political Reconstruction in the Jewish Community of Tsarist Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)

Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum, and Noam Zohar, The Jewish Political Tradition, vols. 1-2 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000-2003); Menachem Lorberbaum, Politics and the Limits of Law: Secularizing the Political in Medieval Jewish Thought (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001); Daniel Elazar, Kinship and Consent: The Jewish Political Tradition and its Contemporary Uses (Philadelphia: Turtledove Press, 1981)

Ruth R. Wisse, Jews and Power (New York: Schocken Books, 2007) and David Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History (New York: Schocken Books, 1986).Some of the material in this essay was part of a review that I wrote of Wisse’s book in Jewish History (forthcoming).

Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)

Ibid, 229-230

Ibid, 260

See Israel Jacob Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. Barbara Harshav and Jonathan Chipman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).



#1 Guest 2010-04-15 06:29
Excellent review and analysis. It is still necessary, however, to distinguish between power and influence -- a distinction which, I suggest, is relevant to the comparison between Israel and American Jewry.