Harvard professor Ruth Wisse is greatly admired for her Yiddish scholarship. She is also very well known for her passionate support of Israel and for disparaging feminism. Jonathan Gill’s lively review of Wisse’s memoir suggests one source of Wisse’s ultra-conservative views with regard to feminism. He suggests that children in Holocaust survivor families become illiberal. Having just completed writing a book about the Holocaust, I beg to differ. Because the number of families of survivors is/was vast, there is bound to be major variation in attitudes, perhaps fitting a bell curve. At one end, are highly conservative thinkers, as Gill proposes. At the other end, however, are survivors and their families who develop attitudes in the opposite direction – sympathy for people, the desire to protect people’s rights, and the embrace of liberation ideologies.
I believe that Ruth Wisse’s anti-feminist stance may be explained in a better way, using the lens of “uber-values,” i.e. Wisse evaluates ideas and social movements in terms of whether they are good for the Jews and Israel or not. As is well known, there is a deep connection between Jewish women and leadership of the feminist movement in the U.S., where it is defined as a social justice ideology.
In general, in Israel, it means something different. Feminism there has been demonized by the religious sector, based on the concept that it is an “American import” and not indigenous to Israel. Even more important, a large segment of the Israeli population says they have more things to worry about – i.e. security issues – than women’s rights. “Women and men must be united,” they argue, “not at war with one another. Feminism weakens Israel.”
In the U.S., academic women almost universally embrace feminist ideas nowadays. But some high-achieving women nevertheless choose to distance themselves from feminism in order to defend their reputations. They don’t want anyone to think that their achievements reflect any sort of affirmative action. They say, “I made it on my own; people who don’t succeed have no one to blame but themselves.” As Phyllis Chesler wrote in her review of Wisse’s memoir, “She was comfortable as the only woman in a group of powerful literary men, perhaps even preferred it that way, and with some exceptions (abortion rights and decriminalization of homosexuality), strongly opposed the feminist movement.”
In the last decade or so, Ruth Wisse has another reason to reject feminism. Many contemporary American feminists, including college students, embrace an anti-Jewish and anti-Israel perspective.
For a long time, Ruth Wisse was interested in feminism in order to show us its danger in the university and society at large. She also rejected it within the Jewish context and opposed the ordination of women as rabbis. By arguing vehemently against the left-leaning politicization of the academy and society, she became a formidable soldier of the right.
cover illustration Primo Gill