The Imperative of Reading Ruth

More than anything else, Ruth Wisse’s memoir, Free as a Jew, is a necessary book. In her person, Wisse holds two realities that some Jews have difficulty reconciling – pre and post-Holocaust reality. Born in 1936 in Romania, Wisse relates how as a German-speaking four year old, she helped her family escape Europe to find refuge in Canada. The detail about her being Romanian-born but German-speaking is a subtle note to those who possess familiarity with Central and Eastern European Jewish history. German was the language of the elites throughout the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, of which Czernowitz had been a part, which is why many Jews in places like Budapest and Prague spoke it. The point, however, is more profound. Despite being fluent in the language, those who believed German their own forcibly exiled or murdered Jews whose mother tongue was the same as theirs.

Despite the Holocaust backdrop, Wisse first came to my attention precisely because of her intriguing views on Holocaust remembrance. These gain mention in her memoir. She objects to the “universal redemptive story” that frames Holocaust discussion. Rather than the particularity of the mass murder of Jews, the universal abstract horror that humankind afflicts upon itself through prejudice gains ascendance. This deemphasis of the particular is one reason why in spite of the existence of Holocaust museums across the world, a regime exists on earth that not only denies that the event ever took place, but paradoxically seeks to imitate it through development of nuclear weapons. The genocidal threat of a nuclear Iran is never discussed in Free as a Jew, but everything that Wisse relates speaks to that great contemporary danger that is rising up before us.

Wisse’s memoir is unique among memoirs because while it focuses on bildungsroman and family relations, it subordinates these to the larger goal of documenting – witnessing – the decline of the university and concomitantly the precarious position in which Western civilization finds itself. In previous books such as The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews and Jews and Power, Wisse employs her command of Yiddish literature to present a picture of the Jewish predicament. She doesn’t quote Sholem Aleichem; rather, she gathers up the collective wisdom of a civilization as expressed through its literature to expose the frailties in Jewish political analysis.

She makes her mark in two areas. First, her analysis of the phenomenon of Jews-against-their-own is second to none. Second, she successfully explains how the habit of accommodation, cultivated through millennia of exile, shapes the decision-making of our failed Jewish leadership. She writes of what was behind her writing of The Liberal Betrayal, “I needed the framework of love and loyalty because I was writing about the most depressing feature of Jewish life: the capitulation and betrayal by Jews who prided themselves on their goodness and therefore had to hold other Jews responsible for the enmity that Jews aroused.” Succinctly, she captures the phenomena of Haaretz, Peter Beinart, Judith Butler, and Noam Chomsky.

Wisse’s description of her friendships forms a great portion of the narrative. She relates anecdotes about Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Chaim Grade, Abraham Sutzkever, Leonard Cohen, and Larry Summers – to name only a few. Even for those whose interest does not lie in the political battles of which Wisse has been at the center, Wisse offers an extraordinary overview of Montreal Jewry in the 1950s and 1960s, the development of Jewish studies, and the state of Yiddish literature in a post-Holocaust world.

Nevertheless, the most salacious material does detail her battles in the political arena. One of the most captivating sections is her account of Larry Summers’ presidency at Harvard University, where Weiss taught for more than twenty years. The account is part of a larger argument about the dissoluteness of academia. Summers famously named – most, but not all – anti-Israel criticism antisemitism in a 2001 speech delivered just as the Second Intifada had gotten underway. For this act of courage, Summers’ reward was a relentless campaign to discredit his leadership by a powerful faction of the faculty. Summers inevitably resigned, but only after he came into another controversy – this time about the role of biology in the differences we observe between the presence of men and women in the fields of math and science.

The anti-Israel venom that motivated some Harvard faculty to defame Summers eventually came to attack Wisse herself. She and Alan Dershowitz were effectively coerced into a kind of show trial before the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) for the ways they purportedly strangled discourse about Israel in academia. Wisse would characterize this as a strategy of inversion, which has been highly effective in spreading antisemitism within the university.

Although the story of Wisse’s departure from Harvard is sorrowful to read, what is remarkable is how the author maintains a strong sense of self-worth, dignity, and integrity in the face of her tenure’s conclusion. Grounded in the experience of growing up in her mother’s home, which featured Yiddish writers and poets – thus keeping alive some of what was almost utterly destroyed between 1939-1945 – Wisse never considered Harvard – or the university in general – as the barometer for her self-worth. This is unique in a society in which craving for the status the Ivy League bestows is as strong as ever.

Wisse skillfully and subtly employs the account of what transpired with her, Larry Summers, and Alan Dershowitz at Harvard to make another point about the predicament of the Jews. She cites one of her teachers, the scholar of Yiddish Max Weinrich, who “meticulously documented the role of serious scholars in developing Aryan theories about the Jew as demon and justification for their elimination…Hitler’s men rose not from the gutter but from the university.” This truth is still hard for American Jews to accommodate themselves to in that education and intelligence serves a double function in the story we tell ourselves about our life in the Diaspora. The first is that our intelligence is the savior that ensures our survival in a society that values our usefulness. The second is that the more educated a person is, the less prejudiced and intolerant she is. One can hardly read the account of Harvard – and the university’s  – descent into a post-colonial and antisemitic morass with the same eyes once one has adopted Weinrich – and also Wisse’s – frame. To be sure, this is a frightening prospect, but unless we acknowledge these uncomfortable truths, we leave ourselves vulnerable to attack in all the forms it has taken since the May Gaza war in American society.

To be sure, given the controversy that Wisse has courted throughout her career as a public intellectual, one can anticipate that many will respond unfavorably to Wisse’s account. Whether they will decide to ignore Free as a Jew or take on the challenge of engaging it according to its ideas is another matter. What is certain is that in the face of this modern day Deborah, they will likely end up as did Sisera.

About the Author
Matt Abelson is a Conservative Rabbi living in Somerville, MA.