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The Brilliant Failure of Jewish Foreign Policy

By Ruth R. Wisse

For two millennia, Jews developed a method of survival in exile--which may also have led to their downfall.


One winter after an unusually heavy run of funerals, the rabbi of our Montreal synagogue reminded the congregation that in traditional Judaism, dying was only a minhag (custom); it was not a mitzva. I would like to extend this excellent observation to political catastrophe, which is likewise not a Jewish obligation. Like many other Jews I know, I am troubled by the unhappy political record of the Jewish people, and would like to understand it better in the hope of effecting some improvement. This inquiry into Jewish political strategy is devoted to that end.

In the early part of this century the prevailing view among Jewish historians was that exilic Judaism stood outside politics: The Jewish people in the diaspora had become a basically non-political entity, demonstrating, in the words of the historian Salo Baron, “the independence of the essential ethnic and religious factors from the political principle.”1 This view was shared by influential thinkers who were otherwise deeply divided over the nature of Judaism and the proper course for its future development. Hermann Cohen, the main spokesman for liberal Judaism in the early years of the twentieth century, maintained that with the destruction of the Jewish state in 70 C.E. and the elimination of the political center of gravity in Jewish history, “the development of Jewish religion alone has to be presented as the driving cultural force.”2 The consequences, as he explained, were far-reaching:

Religion must become politics insofar as it ought to educate the citizens in the duty of love of humanity. Likewise, politics must become religion insofar as every national-political community must revolve around two poles, one of which is the individual, the other, however, the entirety of humanity. The opposition between politics and religion is canceled by messianism, which is both the acme and the root of monotheism.3

Cohen believed that Jews had been freed of the burdens of a state. Since the universal messianic ideal rather than a political state had become the binding force of their nationhood, Jews could practice their religion as German citizens—or citizens of other countries—with the sense that their ethical national identity had been purified of the dross of politics. The translation of politics into social ethics seemed to Cohen a giant step forward in human development.

The same progressive assumption about human development was shared by the Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who was otherwise Cohen’s ideological opposite. Though Dubnow considered the Jews a nation rather than a religion and championed the evolution of secular Jewish communities throughout the diaspora, he too thought that the Jewish nation had reached its high level of maturity thanks to being removed for almost two millennia from national politics. Dubnow saw history as a ladder of progression moving from the territorial, political nations at the bottom to the spiritual, cultural nations at the top:

When a people loses not only its political independence but also its land, when the storm of history uproots it and removes it far from its natural homeland and it becomes dispersed and scattered in alien lands, and in addition loses its unifying language; if, despite the fact that the external national bonds have been destroyed, such a nation still maintains itself for many years, creates an independent existence, reveals a stubborn determination to carry on its autonomous development—such a people has reached the highest stage of cultural-historical individuality and may be said to be indestructible, if only it cling forcefully to its national will.4

Dubnow extolled the advantages that accrued to the Jews as a result of having lost their political independence, forcing them to develop a hardier spiritual autonomy than nations which relied on their military prowess. Like Cohen, he thought the Jews could claim preeminence in the modern world not in spite of, but on account of their lack of political power: “A nationality which lacks a defensive protection of state or territory develops, instead, forces of inner defense and employs its national energy to strengthen the social and spiritual factors for unity.”5 Dubnow admired the Jews for having transcended the merely “egotistical” dimension of power, and believed they could sustain their national unity through institutions of culture.

At the same time, there were Zionists who believed that the loss of political sovereignty had been a national disaster, and saw its increasingly deleterious consequences for the survival of the Jews. One much-quoted Zionist source is Haim Hazaz’s still riveting story “The Sermon” (1942), in which the kibbutz philosopher Yudka takes a most unfavorable view of the kind of uniqueness that was cultivated in the diaspora: “We didn’t make our own history, the goyim made it for us.”6 Struggling to find the right words for his concepts, Yudka exposes the corruption, as he sees it, of a passive political existence that turns suffering into a virtue:

Jewish history is dull, uninteresting. It has no glory or action, no heroes and conquerors, no rulers and masters of their fate, just a collection of wounded, hunted, groaning and wailing wretches, always begging for mercy.... I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors’ shame?7

Yudka offers the most negative view of the Jewish diaspora, but one which agrees with Dubnow and Cohen that it was apolitical. All three maintain that with the loss of their independence and their removal from the land of Israel, the Jews ceased to function as a political entity; they differ only on the moral value of having stepped out of political history.

In the 1970s, however, a different view of Jewish political history came to the fore. The concept of politics, which had been applied previously only to that which concerns the state and its institutions, was now widened to include other manifestations of power. Scholars in Israel and the United States, including many who had come to Israel from America, began to focus on the political dimension of Jewish history in the diaspora, examining the record of internal self-government and “foreign” relations with other peoples from biblical to modern times. Daniel Elazar pioneered this revision through his Jewish Political Studies Review, basing his approach on the assumption that the Jewish people was a corporate entity by definition and always functioned as a polity irrespective of its circumstances; that the analysis of the Jewish polity could be undertaken with the tools of political science; and that Jews not only continued to function politically throughout their history, but constituted the oldest extant polity in the Western world.8 (Its closest rival, the Catholic Church, was 1,500 years younger at least.) From these assumptions, Elazar tried to articulate a Jewish political tradition centered on the covenant, the brit, and to analyze the contemporary Jewish body politic as a seamless continuance of the past.

Coming from another discipline and perspective, the historian Ismar Schorsch objected passionately to Raul Hilberg’s characterization of the Jewish victims in the Holocaust as the end result of two millennia of Jewish “passivity” in Europe. Schorsch objected equally to Hazaz’s indictment of the inert exile, arguing that political history was defined not by the absence of land, but by “legal status and group cohesiveness.”9 He suggested, for example, that the apparent passivity of Jewish communities in the Middle Ages was in reality a calculated policy of “political quietism,” of cooperation with established authorities on the basis of utility,10 and that such diaspora models of self-government had provided the pattern for many of the institutions conceived by the modern Zionists.11 Jewish history in the diaspora was, in this view, “a vast repository of political experience and wisdom acquired under the most divergent and adverse conditions.”12

During this same period, Jewish political thought also came into its own as an independent subject of academic study. At the HebrewUniversity, Ezra Mendelsohn, Jonathan Frankel and Eli Lederhendler were writing a new kind of Jewish political history, concentrating not on one or another of its ideological movements, but on the general patterns and problems of Jewish political behavior.13 Various scholars began examining halachic literature to tease out the Jewish political tradition embedded in the Jewish sources. Inevitably, the lessons drawn from diaspora politics were applied to the question of how the modern Jewish state should be governed. Thus, in his foreword to a new, four-volume anthology, The Jewish Political Tradition, David Hartman summed up the premise upon which that anthology is based:

Because of national renewal and empowerment, Jews are no longer living metaphors for the “other,” the “stranger,” the eternal victim. They now wield power in a sovereign state, and so they cannot conceal their moral failures by blaming others. The rebirth of Israel provides the Jewish people with a public arena where they themselves must take charge, drawing on the strength of their tradition to give a direction to political life and a content to popular aspiration. Now Jewish values must come to grips with Jewish power.14



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