I tend to think of Harvard as an abode of lost souls, but it can’t be all bad since Ruth R. Wisse is a professor there. In these confusing times, she is a humanist who does what humanists ought to do, namely sort out what is right from what is wrong. Just now, she sent me her newest book, No Joke. Making Jewish Humor. In the trade, you are not supposed to write about books by people you know and think well of; “puffing” is the word for it.
Well, here goes. This short book is a unique comment on the condition of Jews. Jewish humor, as Mrs. Wisse puts it, has been a chronic habit of mind. Sometimes the joke is at the expense of Jews, sometimes at the expense of their enemies. Sometimes a joke implies surrender to what cannot be reformed or resisted; sometimes a joke is “creative defiance,” in another of her sharp definitions. In whatever the language and whatever the country, even in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, a joke is able to pose the essential question whether to accept reality or to deny it. Life and death can turn upon it.
Hours after I finished reading this brilliant book, the news came through that the Western powers had come to an agreement with Iran. Iran is supposed to delay opening a plant with a program for developing an atom bomb and to curtail its production of fissile material. In return, seven billion dollars held back under sanctions will be released. The Iranians confidently claim that their right to go nuclear has been recognized. After six months, all being well, there will be further agreements. The West has surrendered, with further surrenders implicit down the road.
Responding to this triumph, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejoiced that God’s grace had given him what he hoped for. Huge and attentive crowds shout, “Death to America, Death to Israel.” The ayatollah also broadcasts that Israel is an “unclean, rabid dog,” and vows it will soon be destroyed. In the night, a BBC reporter laid out what this might mean, describing how Syrians are cutting the penises off boys and chopping them up in front of the victims as they die. Of the 120,000 or so Syrians killed so far, 11,000 are children.
Easily outplayed by the Iranians, the Western representatives have proved intellectually and morally unable to stand up to determined enemies. The will has gone. All Iran has to do now is to lie though lip service and prevarication while continuing its nuclear program in secret, as North Korea did. Western intelligence services are in the dark. Jews are once more on their own. It is inconceivable that they would wait and see if the ayatollah means what he says and tries to chop them up too. Formerly they might have made a tragic-comedy out of their plight by denying reality along the lines explained by Ruth Wisse. This time, they have the means of defending themselves and the price the West will have to pay for its pitiful surrender lies in their hands.