When Ruth Wisse, now Harvard professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literature, accidentally sliced her hand on broken glass as a child in Canada, she “knew not to make too much of it. That may have been the very day my Bialystok cousins were shot, or my Kovno cousins transported to their deaths.”
Although Wisse’s family did not flee the Nazis—her prescient industrialist father realized early on that they would be doomed if he did not escape the Soviet invasion of Romania—she sketches a likely alternate history for herself, if she had remained in Europe, in her compelling new autobiography, “Free as a Jew, A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation”:

I was four years old when my parents engineered our escape from Europe, so I cannot pretend to have had a big hand in the matter. Had they not managed our flight in the summer of 1940, I would have remained a cute photograph in some Holocaust memorial museum. As we say in Yiddish, moykhl toyves—spare me those favors.

Wisse, a small dynamo with Old World gentility, grew up attending Jewish schools in Montreal; her mother insisted the family speak Yiddish at home and hosted a literary salon for Yiddish writers. (Her mother had run a Jewish publishing house in the European city of Vilna). “Free as a Jew” is a page-turner, quite a feat for a book set partly in academia. It features vivid portraits of such intellectual and literary heavyweights (and friends of Wisse) as novelist Saul Bellow, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and his wife, the late Midge Decter (journalist, author and an IWF founder), and Canadian poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen. 

Wisse established a Yiddish literature program at Canada’s famous McGill University before being lured to the United States in 1993 to become the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Studies and a professor in the departments of Comparative Literature and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.  

Currently a senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund, Wisse recently delivered a stunning talk at the American Enterprise Institute on the rise of antisemitism in the United States. IWF wanted to ask her more about antisemitism. Is what we are seeing on American campuses a garden variety version of “the great hatred,” as antisemitism has been called, which has been with us throughout European history, or are there new elements to this outbreak of antisemitism? 

“Some years ago, when I was still teaching at Harvard, there was a movement very much like the encampment movement that you find today. That was Occupy Wall Street,” Wisse replies. “Students were in the same kind of tents, and they were protesting in the same way, and it was against what? Wall Street. Now, how would you define that? That was straight out against capitalism: capitalism is rotten, and we must bring it down. Harvard at the time did nothing. It didn’t remove the squatters or punish them, though they caused great discomfort to those having to cross Harvard Yard because guards had to be kept at the gates to check IDs. In fact, Harvard protected these kids as if to say, oh, well, this is what kids do. They protest.” 

Wisse says that so much of what we are seeing in campus antisemitism is “basically a movement powered by grievance that wants to move in a radical left political direction.”

She continues, “There were Black Lives Matter protests, all kinds of protests over the years, but now come the Palestinians and in this truly frightening development, they say, ‘WE are the most aggrieved people on earth. We are the symbols of your grievance—the embodiment of the downtrodden, of those looking for freedom.’ And how do they define their freedom? Destroying the Jews, destroying the state of Israel. That represents their great ideal of cleansing, their idea of liberation through conquest. That is basically a jihad movement, bringing together all the grievance movements in one recognizable campaign. The Islamist movement isn’t hiding its face. It attacks Israel as a representative of the democratic West, using the removal of Israel as a proxy for ‘we are for an Islamist America, we have a right to change this country, and why not? Why should we not have America be Islamist rather than what it is? What is this Judeo-Christian tradition? It has had its day. It’s no longer for us.’ Beyond the campus, they protest the Thanksgiving Day parade and the Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center.” 

Wisse says that so much of what we are seeing in campus antisemitism is “basically a movement powered by grievance that wants to move in a radical left political direction. It claims to be for the underdog, for bettering the condition of women, for the gay and lesbian community. It is for righting all the wrongs that have been done to African-Americans. There are surely legitimate reasons for grievance. I am not suggesting that there aren’t people who need society’s help, but that is why we have an electoral process to address and correct these abuses. 

“But a radical movement wants to destroy the present system of government to be replaced by something that is presumably better. Some of these young people believe with communists that a capitalist country with individual freedoms allows some people to advance unfairly over others; that in place of equal opportunity you must have equal outcome. These are two competing visions of life. America developed its own idea of equal rights through a complicated and marvelous balance of powers, including between individuals and society, local and federal authority. Intricate, right? That’s why you have three branches of government. Well, against that, you have people who say no, this is all a scam. It is merely an establishment using all these fancy institutions to keep us down. What we want is power, and we want it now. That’s what you see driving the coalitions of radicals, through identity and grievance politics. But the special horror is their choice of Hamas as the symbol of this anti-Americanism.” 

When Wisse spoke at AEI, she began with a European movement that “actually called itself antisemitism.” Wisse explains, “The political movement founded in Germany in the 1870s called itself the Antisemiten-Liga, the Antisemitism League, and it made no apology for wishing to rid Germany of the Jews. Antisemitism, they said, was not like the Christian opposition to Judaism, but something new and necessary, as their leaders put it, because they had to protect their countrymen from the Jews who would otherwise conquer Germany from within. They feared the liberal influences of Emancipation, and held the Jews responsible for whatever they said was going wrong.” 

In her talk, she put it this way: “The politics of the pointing finger offered explanation and solution. As explanation: Unemployed or underpaid? The Jews have your jobs, the Rothschilds have your money. Confused by the culture? Jews have taken over journalism, music, literature, and art. Heine corrupts our poetry. Freud corrupts our youth. Some Christians blamed Jews for the weakening authority of the Church. Some Nationalists said Jewish aliens were taking over the country. The rising middle class resented the Jews’ strong competition. The visible prominence of Jews made them a credible explanation, while their political dependency made them an ideal target. As solution: It was profitable to destroy the Jews and there was no political price to be paid for their elimination. Jews had political protectors, but only until those protectors themselves came under attack, at which point they sacrificed the Jews to protect themselves.  

“Some years ago, when I was still teaching at Harvard, there was a movement very much like the encampment movement that you find today. That was Occupy Wall Street,” Wisse replies.

“The self-styled antisemites identified all the frightening aspects of modernity and liberalism as the fault of the Jews. One can talk about it very simply, but Jews are at one and the same time the projected image of evil and real people in real danger. It was a real movement, and we saw what it led to. What these people really wanted to do was to impose their own form of politics on Germany. They had their own idea of a strong, homogeneous nation, without the ‘Jewish’ element. So, it was really about ruling Germany, but its instrument of getting there was destroying the Jews.”

What are our campus encampments about? “From the River to the Sea” is a battle cry of the campus protests, a call for Arab control over an area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—in other words, the eradication of Israel. The rioters propose that Israel is the problem that leads to war in the Middle East. “I often insist that no discussions about Israel in the Middle East be conducted without the presence of a full-scale map of the region,” says Wisse. “Why? Because if you look at that map and hear what they are saying, you realize it is a monstrous inversion of reality. Twenty-two Arab countries, with 640 times more land than Israel, with additional ties to Muslim lands (like Iran) displaced their fellow Arabs of Palestine when they refused partition. They, not Israel, insisted on keeping Palestinians homeless as perpetual claimants to the Jewish state. While Jews absorbed over 700,000 refugees from Arab lands, Arab leaders confined generations to refugee camps because they could not accept the principle of coexistence. The anti-Zionists (of the Middle East) took over where the antisemites (of Europe) had completed their task, confident that they could accomplish what the Germans did in Europe. They, too, boast of their intention, but how can this ideology have been permitted to take over campuses in the United States?   

“Even now, Egypt will not let Palestinians from Gaza cross into the vast territory that is entirely under their control. They have thousands of miles where the Gazans would be safe—as they could have been right there in Gaza had they not elected pathological killers for their leaders. But Egypt doesn’t want to house its fellow Arabs. What its leaders still want, despite the peace treaty they signed with Israel, is reason to blame the Jews for persecuting Arabs. Do you see how preposterous this is—and how cruel to their co-religionists?

“When the state of Israel was created in 1948, it was recognized as proof of the resilience of the Jewish people—after one-third of them had been murdered in five years. This could have been the end of another people, but in that very same decade, the state of Israel was resurrected. The infrastructure had already been created beforehand.  New as it was, Israel could take in the refugees who survived the Shoah. When Israel was born—and became the 57th member of the United Nations that now numbers 193—it seemed to many people that all was well. Here we are. That problem is now solved. Right?

“The Islamist movement isn’t hiding its face. It attacks Israel as a representative of the democratic West, using the removal of Israel as a proxy for ‘we are for an Islamist America, we have a right to change this country, and why not? Why should we not have America be Islamist rather than what it is?’ ”

”Jews thought that, after all they had survived and accomplished, they were now safely back in their own country after 2,000 years. They were going to be a people like all others. And the United Nations seemed to guarantee that unexceptional status. Its Charter promised to nations what America promises to individuals, reaffirming faith in ‘the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.’ All nations were to be recognized and treated equally. But that’s not how it worked out. The Arab League was founded by seven countries in 1945 and soon joined by fifteen others. Some of their leaders had fought on the fascist side but were now freeing themselves of all their colonial overseers. Rather than abide by the terms of the United Nations, the Arab League launched against Israel the most lopsided war in history and by now one of the longest. There have been several peace agreements with Israel but by no means with all Arab and Muslim countries. Iran now takes the lead in vowing to destroy the Jewish state. Opposition to Israel is the great coalition builder among otherwise contentious Arab and Muslim lands, and since conquest has been to Islam as coexistence is to Judaism, this opposition is likely to remain an essential feature of their interaction unless parts of the aggressor countries recognize the reciprocal rights of the Jews to their land. 

“The organization of politics against the Jews has become a very powerful modern political instrument, and it can be mobilized by different powers in different ways. It changes according to the needs of the perpetrator. Antisemitism when the Jews were dispersed among the nations became anti-Zionism once they were returning to their homeland. The pointing finger blames the Jews for different things, but basically, as an instrument of politics it works very much the same way.”

Wisse, who lives in New York, has dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship. Her beloved husband, lawyer Leonard Wisse, died in 2022. The Wisses had three children, two sons and a daughter. Professor Wisse began writing for Commentary in the 1970s, where she was a highly effective combatant in the intellectual and cultural battles of the day (Wisse memorably dubbed the New York Review of Books, which attacked her position on Israel, “the Women’s Wear Daily of the American intelligentsia” because it was so swayed by the conventional wisdom among the elites). She is known both for her wit and fearlessness. She has written on everything from Yiddish humor to “If I Am Not for Myself…: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews,” which came out in 1992.

Wisse told her AEI audience that, when she first read The Federalist Papers, the first thing that jumped out at her was the insistence that a country must be able to defend itself. She has spoken repeatedly in support of ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps), which was banned from the Harvard campus after the Vietnam War. “Harvard didn’t want to be in the position of saying that it wouldn’t accept students on ROTC scholarships,” Wisse recalls, “so they made an arrangement with MIT to provide military training for them, as though there were something shameful about having uninformed cadets on campus. Other elite universities acted similarly. So, here was a country, this country, telling its best and brightest students that America is not worth defending. Don’t be a chump and join the military. Right?” (Harvard has partially reinstated ROTC.)

Wisse’s life began in Europe when antisemitism was in the ascendant and the world would soon be shocked by an almost incomprehensible horror resulting from it. And now that same virulent ideology seems to be spreading on college campuses in America. How does Professor Wisse feel about this new-old development?

“Well, my dear,” she replies, “your answer is in your question. That you put the question means that you understand exactly how I feel. That’s why I try to spend my time understanding it. To understand the problem does not necessarily mean that you can solve it. And that’s very painful. But on the other hand, you can’t do anything about it unless you understand it. So, that’s the difficulty. And that’s why we’re speaking here.”