Harvard professor assails ‘kill-the-Jews flotilla’

Jerusalem Post   July 4. 2011
By Mordechai I. Twersky

In audio interview, scholar Ruth Wisse says flotilla aims to “give Hamas a free hand amassing weapons,” calls Yale’s closure of YIISA “a scandal.”

Photo by: Matt Craig/Harvard News Office

Harvard University Professor Ruth Wisse has sharply condemned ongoing attempts by international activists to set sail for Gaza on what she called a “kill-the-Jews flotilla.”

“The purpose of the flotilla is to discredit the Israeli attempt to protect itself and to give Hamas a free hand amassing weapons to use against Israeli civilians,” said Wisse, who is visiting Israel, in a wide-ranging, 30-minute audio interview with Inside Israel’s Mordechai I. Twersky. “It should be called what it is: a ‘kill-the-Jews flotilla. If it is called by its proper name, then it will be recognized for what it is.”

Wisse, author of “Jews and Power” and “If I am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews,” took issue with an article about the flotilla situation in Sunday’s New York Times titled, “Spin on All Sides.” “This is another way of trying to suggest that there is some kind of even-handedness here in the situation between Hamas and Israel, between Arab leadership on one side and Israeli leadership on the other,” said Wisse, who stressed the importance of what she called “nomenclature and clarity.”

“The spin in this case is all on the part of those who buy into the spin,” said Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard who earned a National Humanities Medal in 2007.

“The only way Israel has been able to protect itself is by placing certain restrictions on the people of Gaza,” Wisse continued. “Israel had no intention of doing this. When it withdrew from Gaza it left behind an infrastructure for the people there to use to their advantage. What it came to be used for is a launching pad against Sderot and the communities of Israel.”

A frequent contributor to Commentary Magazine who received Bar Ilan University’s Guardian of Zion Award in 2003, Wisse said Israel is the “fighting front line of what we used to call Western civilization, of the democratic free world.” She was also critical of Yale University’s recent closure of its Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism and its replacement with a new program and director.

“The person who has been appointed director may be one of the finest scholars in the world. But he is a scholar of French literature and of anti-Semitism in the French context in World War II. This is not what the exigency of anti-Semitism is about. The main force of anti-Semitism today is coming from the Arab and Muslim communities and leaders. They are the ones who are using this most actively, spreading it through the world in whatever form possible for their own political purposes.”

Wisse called the closing of the center a “great scandal.” According to Wisse the new center is not mandated to analyze current anti-Semitism. She drew a distinction between centers probing the history of anti-Semitism and tracking where it is manifest today.

“But it is not the same as trying to understand the instrumentality of anti-Semitism,” Wisse said. “It’s not at all the same as actually bearing down on the problem with the hope of understanding it to the point of being able to do something about it.”

Wisse said Yale’s closure of the center “points up not just the failure of Yale, but the failure of the American academy as a whole to deal with this subject.” She noted the irony that the same University that was praised for establishing the groundbreaking center was now being roundly criticized for closing it.

In discussing the Arab spring, Wisse said recognition of Israel was an important barometer.

“If there’s one factor that I would keep my eye on in trying to assess whether the Arab world is moving forward toward democracy, toward internal reformation – or moving backward into greater repression – that one factor would be whether Arab leaders are able to accept the State of Israel without condition and without concern,” said Wisse. “As long as the Arab world uses Israel as a convenient excuse for not looking inward, for not undergoing its own reformation, for not undertaking its own improvements, those countries cannot improve.”

“Anti-Semitism is one of the most misunderstood, misdiagnosed features of modern politics,” Wisse continued. She called the “Arab-Israel conflict” a “mistaken paradigm.”

“Nothing can be farther from the truth,” said Wisse. “This is not a war between two entities over a piece of land, as it’s sometimes cast, and it’s not a normal war in terms of two parties who are actually clashing against one another with competing interests. This is a completely unilateral assault – and a very lop-sided assault. I don’t think there has ever been as lop-sided a war in human history as the war currently being waged currently – meaning the last 60-odd years by the Arab world against Israel.”

Wisse said this was not a conflict that can be resolved through conflict resolution as long as only one side is “prosecuting the conflict.” Wisse, who is writing what she calls a “different” book about Yiddish humor “in order to warn about its “excess,” rejected claims that she is a pessimist.

“People think it’s pessimistic to expect the Arab world to change for the better,” Wisse said. “They would think that it is more optimistic to hold Israel responsible. We all think that it’s easy to persuade the Jews of anything. If I really insist that the problem begins in this unilateral aspect of the conflict and that it’s the Arabs who have to decide that they will give up this instrument of their politics, it seems pessimistic because it’s going to take a long time for the Arab world to change in that respect. But I would say that I’m the optimist because I really do expect the Arab world to change.”


Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University.

Wisse was born in Czernowitz in what is today Ukraine, but was then part of Romania. She grew up in Montreal, Canada and earned her PhD from McGill University in 1969. As a professor, Wisse has previously taught at McGill, Stanford, New York, Hebrew and Tel Aviv universities. While teaching at McGill, she developed a “pioneering” graduate program in Jewish studies.”

She received one of the 2007 National Humanities Medals. The award cited her for “scholarship and teaching that have illuminated Jewish literary traditions. Her insightful writings have enriched our understanding of Yiddish literature and Jewish culture in the modern world.”

She is a member of the Editorial Board of the Jewish Review of Books and a frequent contributor to Commentary. She dedicated her last book, Jews and Power, to the editor, Neal Kozodoy.

Following protests and Harvard University’s decision to cancel Marty Peretz‘s speech after Peretz wrote “Muslim life is cheap, especially to other Muslims”,Wisse condemned “Groupthink” at Harvard and defended Peretz, saying that “to wish that Muslims would condemn the violence in their midst is not bigotry but liberality

Ruth Wisse undertook the study of literature because it seemed to offer more information and experience than any other branch of knowledge. She moved from English into Yiddish and Comparative Literature for similar reasons. Yiddish might appear to be a minor literature, written as it is in the vernacular of a small people, the Jews, in only one of their several languages, and only since about the sixteenth century. Yet because Yiddish literature registers the personal and collective experience of much of European Jewry, and given that European Jews have been all too much at the center of modern history, Yiddish literature turns out to be exceptionally revealing, dramatic, original, and important. Its study has led Professor Wisse from an initial interest in The Shlemiel as A Modern Hero to a revised investigation of “the liberal betrayal of the Jews,” which is the subtitle of her latest book If I Am Not for Myself. In between she wrote A Little Love in Big Manhattan about two Yiddish poets in America, and edited a number of anthologies of Yiddish prose and poetry in translation.


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