Ruth R. Wisse’s new autobiography, Free as a Jew, is a powerful warning against the loss of freedom—not only that of Jews, in Israel and in the diaspora, but that of all civilized humanity. A self-described conservative devoted to classical liberalism, she rejects the leftism of her fellow academics and most of her co-religionists. Yet the stunning success of her teaching over five decades proves that merit can still trump partisanship. Her books are consistently erudite, yet with a light touch; heartfelt, but without a tinge of sentimentality; effortlessly wise in their uncommon common sense. Her criticism, though unvarnished, is reasoned, and never ad hominem. Her bestsellers include the prescient If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews first published in 1992 and reissued in 2020; the sympathetic critique of the conflicted relationship between Jews and Power (2007); and the delightfully profound No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).
Amazingly, her new memoir manages to surpass them all. Norman Podhoretz’s description of the book as “extraordinary” is hardly an exaggeration. He adds that it definitively establishes Ruth Wisse as “the most powerful champion in our time of the Jewish people—its history, its culture, and its unique position at the heart of Western civilization.” At once intimate and philosophical, Free as a Jew is subtitled A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, reflecting the unity in her own life of family and profession, heart and reason, faith and political values. Thus her own self-liberation, the only kind that ultimately matters, could only have been national. “A creature of my own time and place,” Wisse says of herself.
Aristocracy of the Spirit
Wisse was born in Czernowitz (now in Ukraine, then in Romania) in 1936. Four years later, sensing imminent apocalypse, her clear-headed parents would miraculously succeed in whisking the family away to join relatives in Montreal. Helpless against the annihilation that would nearly obliterate East-European Jewry, Wisse’s well-educated mother was desperate to save as much of her beloved culture as possible and almost immediately began promoting the work of local Yiddish authors and artists. She also made sure Ruth attended a good Jewish school. Its location in a distinctly less prosperous neighborhood fit perfectly with her mother’s pride in the genius of this mongrel language with its unique blend of sarcasm and compassion, tragedy and hope. For to her, as later for Ruth, “to be born a Jew was a rare honor that required moral confidence—aristocracy of the spirit.”
Though principally concerned “to endow Yiddish with dignity,” Wisse believed the language was ideally suited for a much more universal message. To be born as a human being as such, Jew or gentile, required moral confidence: for no other aristocracy matters besides that of the spirit. And that necessitates cherishing and honoring those you love, their tradition and experience, their lives and dreams. She thus came to realize that saving Yiddish was not only a personal or even a national but a spiritual imperative.
It wasn’t long before she realized that danger followed her in the New World: she had landed “at the heart of world events after all.” Moving to the United States to teach Yiddish literature in 1993 sealed her fate as “a combatant in the war over the future of America.” Her national identity tripartite, she understood that Jewish culture, Israel’s survival, and America’s founding principles were intimately interrelated, all predicated on the inviolability of individual freedom. For while all tyrannies are not necessarily anti-Semitic, “all anti-Jewish ideologies are antiliberal.” Thus “free as a Jew” is not synonymous with “as free as a Jew.” For throughout their tortured, long history, Jews have been denied political, economic, and almost every other sort of freedom, in every sense up to and including life itself.
By contrast, in America one is free being a Jew. For not only are our rights constitutionally enshrined, but the nation is also the principal defender of democratic liberalism in general and of Israel in particular. Speaking primarily as an American, she observes that the Jewish state represents “the Maginot Line against the enemies of our freedom and as coalitions of grievance gained intersectional force in the media, the academy, and in the streets,” adding with alarm and sorrow: “I saw that line buckling before my eyes.”
The danger is to freedom itself. During the last several decades, warns Wisse, “the regional Arab war against Israel morphed into the ideology of Jew blame that soon penetrated North America, undermining our liberal democracy, which is the actual target of anti-Jewish politics.” Norman Podhoretz, himself one of the most influential American Jewish public intellectuals of the past half-century, had made a similar observation in 1979, in Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir, to which her own book is in many ways a sequel. There he identified a “’wave’ that was to sweep past the universities and other intellectual enclaves…[that s]oon would engulf even the city of Washington, . . . and [politicians] would begin betting their political fortunes on this new power in the land: what they called the ‘young.’”
Unlike Podhoretz, however, Wisse had never been tempted by leftism, having benefitted from the example of her father’s steadfast aversion to communism, however “tempered by loyalty to the boyhood friends who had devoted and sacrificed their lives to the Soviet experiment.” But while “hating the ideology, he felt obliged to honor those martyred in its cause.” So too, Wisse understood the complicated, often enormously painful, subsequent recanting by formerly committed socialists who had witnessed the terror of tsarism, and whose families had been exterminated by Nazis and other antisemites.
Many brilliant Yiddish writers were filled with compassion for the struggles of penniless immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side. Unfortunately, Yiddish had become ideological. A small but vocal minority had made it “the repository of their Marxist ‘proletarian’ culture. Yiddish was their substitute for religion and the vehicle of anticapitalism.” Wisse recoiled against this, as her mother. So too I. B. Singer, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature. But matters only grew worse: the Jews she met in college in the mid-1950s “served their competing religion with priestly devotion: the USSR was their Zion, the Comintern their rabbinic authority, Yiddish their proletarian culture, and loyalty what they owed to the Soviet people. Their class enemies were Jews like me whose family owned a factory, and college was where they trolled for us ‘undeserving’ rich.” They had been duped by the Soviets who “had always used American Jewish party members to propagandize and recruited some of them for espionage when that was deemed useful.”
A decade later, the USSR’s campaign against Jews escalated. Yet the United States, alongside its Western allies, only shrugged. Wisse was horrified by the international indifference to the massive, unprovoked military attack on Israel in June 1967, that nearly erased the tiny Jewish state off the map. But Israel’s stunningly rapid and complete victory turned it from David into Goliath almost overnight. However, Israel’s isolation only intensified afterwards. The USSR seized the opportunity to set its political warfare apparatus in full gear, culminating with the passage of UN Resolution 3379 in 1975, which defined Zionism as a form of racism. Then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it a day that “will live in infamy;” so too, Wisse deems it “a turning point from anti-Semitism that targets Jews in dispersion into anti-Zionism that targets Jews in their homeland.”
For Podhoretz, who in 1960 had assumed editorship of Commentary Magazine, 1967 was a turning point. That year he published Making It, a devastating J’Accuse that scandalized the ideocracy. Wisse is equally contemptuous of the credentialed hypocrites and cowards who brazenly disparage with condescending expletives and outright lies the very liberties to which they owe their sinecures. She also skewers those who would exchange a New York Times byline or Harvard tenure for whatever was left of their souls.
BDS, Israel, and the Jews
“The ugliest aspect of the New Left was the embrace of anti-Zionism that the Soviets had forged in the 1930s,” writes Wisse, a “strain of venom originated with Karl Marx.” Soviet ideology merely adopted and updated his declaration that “money is the zealous one God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand,” using it to demonize Israel and the Jews. “The New Left of the 1960s had only to dust off the old Soviet slogans,” observes Wisse. Its own “version of blaming fellow Jews for anti-Zionism ideally suited the political climate in Berkeley, California, which had spearheaded the antiwar protests against American engagement in Vietnam.”
Fast forward to Harvard in 2003, where Wisse served as Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature. Newly appointed president Larry Summers’ persecution started almost immediately, prompted by his support for a counterpetition that rejected an initiative for Harvard to divest from Israel and from the companies that sell arms to Israel. Soon known as the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, it harkens back to a 1945 Arab League declaration, which called upon all Arab “institutions, organizations, merchants, commission agents and individuals . . . to refuse to deal in, distribute, or consume Zionist products or manufactured goods.” The ideological underpinnings, of course, were Soviet.
Gradually, colleagues who originally supported Summers fell by the wayside, victims of political correctness. His eventual ouster in 2006 was ominous in the extreme: “History rarely issues us a red alert. But the surrender by America’s premier university to its anti-intellectual assailants marked a point of no return. . . . Students had been the driving force behind the leftism of the sixties, but current students who wanted a better education were unlikely to mount a response.”
Things would go from bad to worse. “Individual anti-Zionists like Noam Chomsky quickly bourgeoned into groups like J-Street, Bending the Curve, Jewish Students for Peace, and Students for Justice in Palestine that masked their hostility in benevolent concern for the real aggressors just as their forebears—with far greater risk to themselves—had once sacrificed their fellow Jews to the cause of peasants and proletariat.” She agrees with her friend and scholar Hillel Halkin’s observation that “Judaism has value to such Jews to the extent that it is useful,” representing the ultimate betrayal. The words betray profound sadness.
Are Jew-hating Jews at bottom self-hating? Don’t they realize how self-defeating that is? She reflects on the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, who “was so uncomfortable with his Jewishness that he let it undercut his own literary potential.” So too, Philip Roth—a master of dialogue and literary pyrotechnics, “was reduced to sex because his subjects no longer shared much of a culture.” His narrators tend to assume “a moral superiority over the vulgar Jews,” belying their own sterility.
The book is filled with such precious cameos, painted with subtle brushstrokes, insinuating meaning with discrete understatement. If sometimes hard to follow, as dates tend to be scarce and topics peppered throughout the text, the book is eminently accessible. In this time of Orwellian semantics and postmodernist gibberish “theory,” it becomes “necessary to reestablish the obvious. Since antiliberal ideologies work through inversion (freedom as oppression, merit as inequality, the Arab war against Israel as Israel against the Arabs, and so forth) it keeps getting harder to straighten the record.” Which is exactly what she is doing. Except that records cannot be straightened out until one is prepared to straighten one’s spine. Ideology aside, what she experienced in the academy has been “less the direct coercive tyranny of leftism than a pervasive culture of capitulation and pusillanimity.”
Her solution is to revisit the idea of freedom itself, which is based on the very nature of being human. Like her “parents and many Jews of their generation [who] probably kept God alive only because there was no other framework mighty enough to contain their grief and protest,” Wisse’s is an all-affirming embrace of moral self-reliance rooted in God’s creation of mankind in His own metaphorical image, and endowed with free will.
Thus Free as a Jew ultimately evokes the condition of a bird: winged, it is free to fly above the unspeakable beautiful earth while also escaping its dangers, heavenward. Just as Israel emerged an improbable phoenix standing proof to the reality of miracle, so too must America’s eagle continue to soar, gazing toward the olive branch of peace held firmly in the talons of its right foot.
Wisse is no Icarus flying too close to the treacherous sun of utopia. Hers is a rooted freedom, anchored in gratitude for being alive. The message to her children and grandchildren is profoundly simple: “part of their joy in life and contribution to society will depend similarly on the gratitude they feel and express for the good fortune of their birth. So many others would like to have what has come down to us, and what is ours only to appreciate, and to work to deserve.” In her closing chapter, Wisse urges her readers to surge beyond the gathering clouds of doom, hoping that the decline in our civic culture, though alarmingly deep, is not irreversible. She thus dedicates the book to her “students—and theirs—in the hope that they will retrieve the precious freedoms that are being lost. I wish them strength.” They will need it. But first we must find our own.