If I Am Not For Myself by Ruth R. Wisse
Finalist for The QSPELL Prize for Non-Fiction in 1993
For over a century, Jews have been identified with liberalism. Not only have they been a driving force behind the spread of liberal politics; they have also been steadfastly loyal to a doctrine that promised them both safety and political acceptance. Recent evidence suggests that their committment has not waned. But while Jews continue to stand up for other groups and “vote their conscience”, contends Wisse, the liberal committment to the Jews is not nearly so strong. Whenever Jews have been attacked – from the trial of Captain Dreyfus to the sustained military and political war against Israel – liberals have been slow to defend Jewish rights and have preferred instead to hold the Jews responsible for the persistence of their enemies. Wisse’s book, inspired by a friend’s emigration to Israel, traces the Jewish romance with liberalism from its discovery by Jewish integrationists and Zionists to the acceptance today by many Jews of a moral equivalence between Zionism and the war against it. She also explores, among the many contradictions of modern Jewish politics, the ambiguous question of Jewish “chosenness”, and the Jewish longing for acceptance in a larger human family; the successful Arab war of ideas against Israel; and the dilemma of Jewish writers who wish to transcend their parochializing seige. Above all she shows how and why anti-Semitism became the twentieth-century’s most successful ideology and reveals what people in liberal democracies would have to do to prevent it from once again achieving its goal.
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