Politics; or, Grappling with Liberalism and Women's Lib

I expected the women’s movement to evaporate as quickly as it had materialized. It was the worst cultural prediction of my life.

Kathryn F. Clarenbach and Betty Friedan (right) at a meeting of the National Organization of Women in 1968. Getty.

Kathryn F. Clarenbach and Betty Friedan (right) at a meeting of the National Organization of Women in 1968. Getty.

Feb. 27 2019
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

We present here the tenth chapter from the memoirs-in-progress of the renowned scholar and author Ruth R. Wisse. Earlier chapters can be found here. Further installments will appear over the next months.

When I began writing on political subjects, I prepared by imagining myself in the kosher bakery that was a seven-minute drive from my Montreal home. My women friends, who thought my affection for the place perverse, baked their own hallahs or sent their husbands to do the shopping. But for over two decades I’d gone there for encouragement in times of stress.

The bakery’s staff had long since given up trying to keep order by means of numbered tickets. The largely immigrant customers paid such things no heed, shouting “I was here first!” or elbowing others aside as if the next loaf sold from under them might mean they would never feed their families again. The cacophony on a Friday, not to speak of a holiday eve, peaked when the trucks bearing gefilte fish arrived and the women grabbed the packages before the deliverymen could reach the refrigerated shelves.

This fevered behavior sometimes proved too much even for me, but this was the company I felt I belonged in, and when I began writing about politics I thought of it as my audience. My beloved author Mendele Mokher Sforim said he switched from Hebrew to Yiddish, the lower-status vernacular, after asking himself for whom and on whose behalf he wrote. The bakery is where I would have mounted my soapbox, if only to urge my readers/listeners to turn down their anxieties a notch. “You are now in Montreal, not in Munkacs. The Nazis have been defeated. The Canadian government is formally committed to our protection. Israel is up and running. There is enough food here to feed us all.”

This impulse to turn down the emotional heat may show how my East European-bred anxieties were adapting to the cooler, British-inspired Canadian political climate.




In the late 1960s, what had been the province of Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution”—its measured evolution out of nativism and the grip of the Catholic Church—was transformed into a radical separatist movement promoting the French-speaking province’s break from the rest of Canada. While, at first, most separatists were prepared to work through, and take their chances with, Quebec’s normal electoral procedures, a sprinkling of revolutionaries resorted to violence. This, combined with the growing rhetorical belligerence of the Parti Québécois (PQ) set off an exodus on the part of some Jews whose experience with nationalist movements elsewhere had hardly disposed them to this latest incarnation.

Until this time, Montreal had been an ideal Jewish diaspora, with two strong ethno-religious communities—English Protestant and French Catholic—encouraging our smaller one to flourish between them. As well, the influx of thousands of French-speaking Jews from Morocco beginning in the late 1950s had incidentally served to make the otherwise largely English-speaking Jewish community more at home with the province’s French majority.

But now the “to stay or to leave” question became the default topic of every local Jewish gathering. Len and I did not seriously contemplate leaving. For one thing, having tried moving to Israel, we were disinclined to move again. For another, Len’s law-school education at a French university and our ensuing friendships with his classmates had already made us almost as comfortable among French Canadians as among the English.

Hence our surprise when, at the end of an otherwise pleasant evening at a French movie, a former law-school classmate began scolding us for having always conducted our conversations with him in English. Switching instantly, we said, “Mais si tu préférais. . . . But if you preferred French, why didn’t you say so?” But it soon became apparent that this was not the real point at issue.

From mutual friends, we would discover that our friend had joined the PQfrom which we were implicitly excluded. I might have sympathized with his predicament—obviously, he did not wish to be perceived by us either as an old-style Roman Catholic xenophobe or as a new-style Quebec anti-Semite—but he had preempted that possibility by effectively blaming us for the estrangement he was initiating.

It would be several decades before Len and his old friend attempted another serious conversation. Meanwhile, the debates swirled around us. Some adherents or fellow travelers of separatism even tried to solicit our support for French sovereignty by reference to the state of Israel: “How can you favor an independent Jewish state if you deny one to the Québécois?” This analogy ignored the fact that French-Canadians already enjoyed the benefits of both an ethnic community and a secure larger polity that was equally theirs. Had I been in their place, I would have thought my Québécois ambitions for maintaining the French language and culture could best be achieved within the Canadian framework. That had worked so far to preserve French identity, and could be relied on to continue doing so.


I was eager to write about the implications of Québécois separatism for the Jewish community, but I also felt inhibited, lacking proper certification. My scruple was almost certainly the byproduct of having gotten a PhD: alleged professionalism in one area undermined confidence in my ability to venture into another. Looking for a co-author to supply the missing sanction, I found him in Irwin Cotler, who was already prominent in Jewish and political affairs.

Irwin taught at the McGill Law School, conveniently located right across from the Jewish Studies office. It took us only one meeting to sketch out “Quebec’s Jews: Caught in the Middle,” which appeared in Commentary in September 1977, not quite a year after the PQ, for the first time, won a majority in provincial elections and was now wielding power:

With a sense of eerie familiarity, [we wrote], Quebec’s community of 115,000 Jews finds itself beset by a crise de conscience. On the one hand, Jews understand, even sympathize with, the aspirations for self-renewal on the part of French Canadians. At the same time, Jews fear the inevitable fallout of these nationalist impulses and oppose their repressive dimensions. They also wonder at what point their own particularism, so acceptable in what was once an atmosphere of ethnic pluralism, will stick in the craw of a nationalist bid for domination.

Where the individual Jew weighs the spiritual and material costs on the personal level, for the Jewish community as a whole the matter is more complex: does the uniqueness of the Montreal Jewish community justify a special effort at adaptation to the new situation, in order to protect and nurture the community’s many institutions and cultural achievements? Or is the Montreal experience now being revealed as just another piece of evidence corroborating the old Zionist contention that the diaspora can never provide a wholly comfortable home for Jews?

In describing the conflicting national aspirations of Jews and French-Canadians, our article made one bad mistake that would return to haunt us:

There are things in Jewish history too terrible to be believed but not too terrible to have happened. When the jubilant mass of Parti Québécois supporters at the victory rally on November 15 [1976] sang a French version of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the Nazi party song from Cabaret that has unfortunately been adopted as a French-Canadian nationalist hymn, it triggered in countless Jewish minds fresh images of stormtroopers and jackboots in the night.

Irwin and I had relayed this morsel about the song from local media without checking it out. In a damning response to the editor of Commentary, the Montreal composer Stéphane Venne protested that Demain nous appartient (“Tomorrow Belongs to Us”) was not the French version of the song from Cabaret but his own original composition. This was deeply embarrassing—even though we certainly hadn’t likened French Quebecers to Nazis but were rather reporting an instinctive Jewish reaction to the delirium of the PQ victory. At most we could be interpreted as saying that, whatever their own intentions, those who unleashed nationalist passions could not necessarily keep them in check or guarantee the democratic commitment of their successors. We knew we were never in danger for our lives.

But one mistake was enough to challenge our credibility more generally. Because our article appeared in a respected American publication, PQ leaders took it seriously and peppered us with protests. Irwin was already active in politics—on his way to a distinguished career as a member of parliament, minister of justice, and attorney general of Canada—and his alarm over the damage to his reputation prompted me to write to Premier René Lévesque accepting full responsibility for the essay and absolving Irwin of any blame. The Internet can retroactively do what print cannot, which is why, in the web version unlike in archived print copies, Irwin’s name no longer appears as co-author of the essay. For the record, though, I do insist on stating that the marvelous line “There are things in Jewish history too terrible to be believed but not too terrible to have happened” was entirely his.


In the end, aside from resolving that as a writer I would henceforth (a) check all of my facts and (b) never again partner with anyone, I was also forced to see how I differed from Irwin. He was certainly feisty and brave, and he and Alan Dershowitz, his friend and fellow law professor, put themselves at risk in defending Soviet prisoners and other political dissidents. They were also masterful debaters and passionate advocates for Israel and the Jews.

Yet they needed always to be seen as the good guys, as liberal defenders. Meanwhile, however, the PQ had flipped the political equation by turning our legitimate liberal concerns into a putative right-wing, Anglo-American assault on them. As with our erstwhile friend’s complaint about our having spoken with him in English, but on a larger scale, they blamed us for the aggression they had initiated.

People who knew me at college have sometimes asked, “When did you turn conservative?” The short answer—“when liberalism turned illiberal”—fails to show the deviltry that lay in the details. Opposing Quebec’s separation from Canada was a quintessentially liberal position: the position, in fact, of Canada’s Liberal party. Despite our misguided Nazi reference, Irwin and I were justified in claiming that a Canadian federation offered its minorities better guarantees of toleration than would a small nationalist state. We might have added that, in this regard, the British political tradition stood for pluralism, liberal democracy, and decentralized authority. For its part, the PQ stood for centralized government control, and defensive ethnic nationalism.

And so it came to be: no sooner did the PQ assume power in the province than it passed a French-only language law, complete with policing force to monitor infractions. In seeking to impose linguistic hegemony on a pluralistic society, it denounced as regressive those who intended to protect Canada’s guaranteed freedoms. I coined the term “gliberals” for the gutted, gutless liberals who failed to stand up for classical liberal tenets. Thankfully, most Quebecers would eventually choose as we did and reject the separatist option.




For all the anxiety it caused us, our idiosyncratic situation in Quebec bothered me less than did political challenges elsewhere on the North American continent, and of a lengthier pedigree. Writing about the experience of the American 1930s, the New York cultural critic Robert Warshow (1917-1955) confirmed an impression I had formed independently from my study of American Yiddish culture:

In this country there was a time when virtually all intellectual activity was derived in one way or another from the Communist party. If you were not somewhere within the party’s wide orbit, then you were likely to be in the opposition, which meant that much of your thought and energy had to be devoted to maintaining yourself in opposition.

In either case, it was the Communist party that ultimately determined what you were to think about and in what terms.

Among his cohort of New York intellectuals at Commentary and Partisan Review, Warshow was one of the least ideological, so from him I was inclined to trust what in another might have struck me as exaggeration. Could an ideological minority indeed set the political agenda, even in a free society like the U.S.?

By the late 1970s, I began to recognize a recurrence of the 30s pattern described by Warshow. Presidents Nixon and Reagan would lead the Republican party to electoral victories, and the United States would go on to win the cold war, but in the academy and the media it was still the left that “determined what you were to think about and in what terms.” It did so by seizing the moral high ground under the banner of progress, commandeering the positive terminology of civil rights to impose a regime of reverse discrimination, and of free speech to restrict speech, and deploying the negative terminology of racism and oppression to malign those who stood for old-style constitutional democracy. Forced onto the defensive, many liberals, especially in the nation’s universities, lapsed into moral submission.

By the 1970s, there was also the shift in social behavior to contend with. Montreal friends invited us to join them in smoking pot. “Would you like to try this joint?” “How about inhaling from this teapot?” Someone gave me a tab of what he assured me was a safe dose of LSD, which Len, to his credit, flushed down the toilet. In a single week I heard about two couples divorcing, a happenstance once seemingly as remote as malaria.

Not all the changes were unwelcome. For instance: I thought decriminalization of homosexuality and abortion long overdue. On the former subject, it had taken only one close friend who found a good partner of the same sex to affect my attitude; we had shared enough disastrous double dates with him to rejoice when he settled down with someone compatible. What hadn’t occurred to me was that, in the rush to non-judgment, tolerance would turn to advocacy and advocacy into reverse orthodoxy. In our little Canadian corner of the world, young men and women who a generation earlier would have entered into heterosexual marriages now declared themselves gay and began living their lives accordingly.

Having held standard views about the primacy and nature of family, I was stunned when those assumptions fell as dramatically as the Berlin Wall dividing east from west. Still, though I would have wanted language to continue distinguishing between marriage (between man and woman) and union or some lovelier term for members of the same sex, on no other social issue did I find it harder to defend “traditional values” against individual inclinations.

Abortion proved another matter. There I had started out with no scruples at all, persuaded by my mother’s experience in 1938-9 Romania when her obstetrician insisted on aborting a life in embryo, thereby enabling the escape and survival of our family. So I assumed all obstetricians would be of a similarly “realistic” frame of mind. When a friend and fellow patient complained to me that our gynecologist had refused to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, I confronted him in expectation of some witty comeback. Instead he muttered, “I didn’t go into medicine to become a human sewer.”

Who knew that he nurtured a passion for initiating life, and balked at ending it? Nor was he unique. After Quebec law was liberalized, a hospital administrator whom I knew took advantage of a retrenchment in medical facilities to shut down his hospital’s obstetrics ward because abortions were outnumbering births. He, too, voiced his revulsion.

If I recoiled from the idea of terminating the life of a child-to-be, I felt obliged to help those confronting the practical consequences of unwanted pregnancy. An opportunity arose when a social worker of our acquaintance asked whether we could accommodate for several months a young pregnant woman who was going to give up her baby for adoption.

Quebec law at the time insisted that adoptions be permitted only within the same religious group; the result was plenty of unclaimed Catholic infants and a shortage of Jewish ones. In response, the local Jewish federation had come up with the idea of temporarily housing Jewish girls with unwanted pregnancies until they gave birth, thus enabling a local Jewish family to receive the child. Comfortably sequestered outside Jewish districts, these girls could pretend to be out of town and, after giving birth, resume their adolescent lives.

Our experience had a happy ending. The young mother who lived with us for five months went on to marry and raise a fine family of her own and was later sought out by her grown daughter who, although herself happy in her adopted family, wanted to know her birth mother as well. The longer I lived, the more I was persuaded that decriminalizing abortion was one thing, permitting it to be reduced to a single either/or choice another thing entirely.


On the religious front, I didn’t look for controversy in those years but sometimes it came to me unasked. Despite having joined an Orthodox synagogue, I felt a kinship with the Conservative movement, and particularly with the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, the denomination’s rabbinic and intellectual center. The decision in 1972 by the Columbia historian Gerson Cohen to leave that university and assume the chancellorship of JTS seemed to me the harbinger of a newly energized American Jewish community. Cohen’s soundness of mind and devotion to Israel convinced me that, with this impressive leader at its helm, JTS would become one of the two foremost institutions of higher Jewish learning outside Israel—Yeshiva University being the other. Cohen solidified my faith in his leadership when he appointed my brother David to teach Yiddish literature and culture as part of JTS’s academic and rabbinic curriculum.

But then, a mere seven years later, the Conservative movement issued a 27-page ruling approving the ordination of women as rabbis. Even someone as deficient as I in talmudic expertise could see that the movement’s avowedly cautious and “conservative” approach to innovation had been unceremoniously sacrificed to social pressure. Had JTS’s rabbinic authorities really framed their arguments for this decision in strict conformity with the movement’s formal guidelines? Had a cohort of female talmudists risen to rival or surpass their teachers in mastery of sources? Had a growing synagogue membership and intensified devotion on the part of Conservative women required such a tradition-defying innovation?

Had any of those been the case, the decision might have marked a religious breakthrough. Instead, Judaism was being asked to align itself with the tenets of the new women’s movement, without subjecting those tenets themselves to the slightest scrutiny.

Reviewing the ruling and its supporting documents for Commentary, I registered my dismay at this capitulation to a regrettable trend. The relaxation of norms, I felt certain, would simply hasten the decline in religious observance and enthusiasm that had prompted the movement to inaugurate such a change, and JTS to bless it, in the first place. Judaism’s hard internal logic was necessarily in tension with the pressure for “progress” at any cost, and giving in to change without anticipating the unanticipated consequences was, I wrote, a recipe for even greater assimilation.




When the women’s movement began to show some muscle in the late 60s and early 70s, I decided it was a passing fad, like the hula hoop. It did not seem possible to me that ideas in such obvious contradiction of the facts should be able to inspire and propel a serious mass movement. Convinced that women were the practical gender, I was sure they would never be deceived by false ideology, and I expected the movement to evaporate as quickly as it had materialized. It was the worst cultural prediction of my life.

By the time I wrote that passage in the late 1980’s, it was clear that a second-hand Marxism, in the form of second-wave feminism, had already prevailed. A close friend had given me Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, saying it had made her an ardent advocate. I dutifully read: “The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity.”

Friedan accused male-dominated American society, operating through women’s magazines and Madison Avenue advertising agencies, of guilt-tripping housewives who aspired to anything beyond their daily drudgery. Psychotherapy assisted the process. Freud, in whose Vienna women had been denied all opportunities to realize their full potential, developed theories rationalizing their culturally-induced anxiety and making it seem inevitable. Although feminists and suffragettes had won the fight for civic equality, they had been defeated by the mystique that prevented women from exercising their acquired rights. And whereas American women had earlier served in the workplace, especially when and as needed in wartime, that interval of empowerment was brief, quickly yielding to re-infantilization in peacetime. Friedan urged these stunted creatures to emerge from the “immaturity that has been called femininity to full human identity.”

Reading this, I could not have been more surprised had my friend offered to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. Women infantilized by men? Nothing was more condescending to women than Friedan’s image of us as so many Trilbies (after the artist’s model hypnotized by the Jew Svengali in George du Maurier’s best-selling novel Trilby). My female contemporaries and I had married young, and fortunate were we whose husbands cherished and supported us. When our son Billy was born at the start of Christmas week I sang along with the radio, “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given!” The births of Jacob and Abby were the subsequent high points of our life. Our children were the best contribution we women would make to society and the universe. Men, subordinate in this ultimate human act of creation, would assert their power in other ways.

About the inner motivations of Southern women like the civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks or the brilliant literary artist Flannery O’Connor I knew very little. But I saw precisely how a Jewish woman like Friedan had crudely applied Marxist economic assumptions to relations between the sexes, substituting the idea of gender warfare for the idea of class conflict. And about Jews I knew she was wrong to the point of inversion. In traditional European communities, which placed a premium on talmudic study as a religious imperative, the equivalents of Friedan’s “middle-class” women had been expected to support their studious husbands. When Jews turned modern, they attacked those socio-economic arrangements and mocked Jewish men as irresponsible luftmentshn who lived off their wives or abandoned them to run off to America.

At the turn of the 20th century, Jewish polemics, rising to the level of slander, portrayed husbands, fathers, and brothers feebly witnessing the rape of their womenfolk by rampaging pogromists. In a caricature that would be cheerfully exploited by Nazi Aryan propagandists, Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character (1903) assessed Jewish men as genetically feminized. Yiddish and Hebrew literature condemned Jewish men’s reliance on working women as against the “positive” Western European standard of male breadwinners. In fact, Jewish immigrant women in America who worked in the sweatshops dreamed of the day when their fathers or husbands would earn enough to let them raise their families at home. Friedan denigrated all that her predecessors had aspired to.

Of course, greater leisure had created a vacuum as well as an opportunity. But suburban women had been relieved of some of their heaviest burdens—and fears. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when synagogue attendance was highest, the biblical readings featured the experience of two barren women, Sarah and Hannah—childlessness having been from time immemorial the greatest misfortune of women and humankind, with infant mortality a close second.

All of my female forebears had lost children, my mother one, her mother several, my paternal grandmother five of the ten she bore. Ours was the first generation that could expect to raise all of our children to maturity. Scientists—men, until recently—had worked this miracle. Birth control and fertility treatments, epidurals and Caesarian sections, vaccines and antibiotics, vitamin supplements and mammograms prolonged and improved our lives. The incredible lightness of being a modern woman in a Western democracy ought to have elicited hosannas beyond the thanks we owed God for the gift of life itself. Whatever anxieties accompanied the fact of greater opportunity, how could women confuse their relief with deprivation?

In fact, in both my friend’s family and mine, responsibility fell unfairly on first-born sons. My older brother Ben loved music and literature, composing and writing, and would have wanted to pursue the bookish professions of his younger siblings. But men were expected to support families, giving their wives the option of working outside the home or not.

I myself had taken full advantage of being female to work only part-time when it suited me, and I thought so little about wages that from the time McGill first hired me I initiated no discussion of salary or rank. After a committee meeting to consider a colleague’s promotion, the dean of arts asked me why I was still at the associate level; when I said I didn’t know, he replied that, very well, he would put the process in motion, and the next thing I knew I was a full professor. My casual approach to salary changed only in the 1990s when we moved to Cambridge so that I could assume a position at Harvard, and Len gave up most of his Montreal legal practice. Only then did I appreciate what insouciance I had enjoyed at his expense.

None of this prevented me from pressing for women’s legal and political rights, properly understood. Thus I lobbied the Quebec government for the right to deduct expenses for a proportion of child care—otherwise, I could not earn my salary—and fought our hospital when told only fathers could authorize operations on their children. These and other holdovers from Quebec’s Catholic patriarchy were in any case being phased out. Once women in greater numbers joined the McGill faculty, the university opened its formerly restricted faculty club to us for membership.

I never thought such welcome evolutionary developments warranted an ideological power struggle between the men and women whose loving partnership was the bedrock of any sane society, and I feared that the politicization of gender would damage America at least as much if not more than Communism did Russia. The resemblance of politicized feminism to Bolshevism was never far from my mind.




Switching party affiliation is generally the last phase of political evolution. Though hers was by no means the defining voice in the process, I associate my own realignment in the late 1970s with Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and her essay in Commentary, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”

For purposes of a foreign policy based on American national interests, Kirkpatrick argued, it was necessary to bear in mind the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. President Jimmy Carter’s failure to make this distinction, she wrote, had “actually collaborated in the replacement of moderate autocrats friendly to American interests with less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasion.” Her analysis, pointing to the crucial difference between between greater and lesser evils, caught the attention of then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who would subsequently appoint her U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

When she assumed her position at the UN, Kirkpatrick was a registered Democrat. By 1984, when at the Republican national convention she gave a keynote speech decrying the tendency of liberals to “blame America first,” she had switched her affiliation.

Like other Montreal Jews, I had always voted Liberal in the reflexive way many American Jews still vote Democratic. When my cousin Hela’s new American husband revealed he had voted in 1964 for the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, my instinct was that she needed to be rescued from so ill-fated a match. By the time Reagan became president in 1980, I was ready to welcome his leadership in the cold war, my conversion having been determined, like Kirkpatrick’s, largely by considerations of foreign policy.

If Kirkpatrick focused on Communism in Central America, I worried for Poland—a once-independent country that had fallen under Soviet domination. Her distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian governments applied to the efforts of Poland’s anti-Communists to free their land from what Reagan was not afraid to call “the evil empire.” Indeed, among my overseas concerns, Poland, the land of my immediate ancestors, was second only to Israel. I had long wanted to visit, and in the spring of 1978 had seized on the chance to join W. on a trip to Warsaw

The two of us had met a McGill graduate students when W.—the only person in that painfully polite crowd to comment on the advanced stage of my pregnancy—had offered to take notes for me when I would be absent. Now a free-lance writer, she had a grant from the Canada Council to travel to Poland to interview Fred Rose, a one-time member of Canada’s parliament later convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. It was rumored that W.’s Communist parents had once hidden this man from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, yet she was now being subsidized to visit a person the government had condemned to permanent exile.

Though political opposites, W. and I were ideally matched as travel companions, since we could pursue our separate daytime quests and come together for respite in the evenings. Sharing a hotel room would be efficient and pleasant.

A strange mood came over me that week in Poland. I had never been timid, but from the minute we landed I became fearless to the point of bellicosity. I pretended to speak Polish, of which I knew but a dozen phrases, and felt utterly at ease in this place where almost three million Jews had been murdered. On a cold late afternoon I kept my taxi driver waiting while I trekked around the former Treblinka extermination camp, recalling all I had read about what transpired there. In the nearby town of Tykocin, where I had been told the local synagogue was being restored, and the caretaker insisted she did not have the key, I sat down on the ground and commanded: “I am from Canada. I stay here until I am allowed in.” Reinforcing my sense of invincibility, she managed to retrieve the key. Once she opened the door, the beauty of the synagogue so overwhelmed me that I collapsed on the floor and couldn’t stop sobbing.

Though we had no intention of meshing our interests, W. felt obliged to bring me along when Fred and Fanny Rose asked to meet me. By then this elderly couple may have had more in common with me than with W., who had shed the Jewish part of her leftist inheritance. They were most eager for news of Israel. As the editor of an English-language Polish state publication, Fred already had access to information about Israel’s domestic and foreign affairs, but I was able to supply fresh impressions of the country and even a little news about some of their acquaintances who had moved there after the uptick in Polish anti-Semitism in the late 1960s. I kept to myself that I found contemporary Warsaw circa 1978 shockingly worse off than Tel Aviv in 1957, when rationing was still in force.

Saying our goodbyes, Fred asked what further sites lay ahead of us. When I said I planned to spend a day at Auschwitz, he insisted that W. accompany me, either because he thought I needed someone to stand by me or, more likely, for her edification. It was snowing when she and I entered the camp in early May, and we encountered very few other visitors as we walked through the empty barracks, some of them still equipped with special torture facilities.

After going through a couple of buildings, each devoted to a different ethnic subset, I asked to see the recently added “Jewish pavilion,” and refused to take no for an answer when informed it was not yet open to the public. Staging a sit-down as I had done at Tykocin, I declared that jestem za Kanadu—as a Canadian—I intended to stay until we were shown the building. A guard summoned an administrator who escorted us by flashlight through the unfinished exhibition.

On one wall of this pavilion, a full-length blown-up photograph showed an armed Nazi soldier herding naked women, some trying to cover their breasts, to their death. As we left the building, W. said, “Did you get a load of those tits?”—an indelicate but piercing commentary on the way this presumed commemoration catered to and exploited the pornographic instinct. Surely these women had not signed releases for the use of their images.

Our trip turned me all the more strongly against Communism (and possibly turned my companion all the more strongly away from her Jewishness), but closer than ever to Poland. A few years later, Len and I traveled there with our children. In subsequent years, I joined scholars from the Hebrew University on several study tours to Poland and Lithuania. On one of my private visits, I met with distinguished Catholic intellectuals and their younger counterparts who had started a dissident Polish version of Commentary. I felt more at home sitting with these intense anti-Communists in a dark Polish coffee house than with my politically indifferent friends in Montreal. The small rural churches overflowing on Sundays convinced me that this people would someday win back its sovereignty from the Soviets just as it had from the tsars and the Germans.


As mentioned earlier, I had always voted Liberal. And so, in the heady days when Pierre Elliot Trudeau served as Canada’s prime minister—1968-1984, with a brief intermission—Len and I were close to his political circles. The two men had graduated in law from the Université de Montréal, Trudeau as the consummate insider and Len (several years earlier) as one of eight “Anglos,” six of them Jews, in a class of 125. Len had prepared Trudeau’s marriage contract to Margaret Sinclair in 1971, and he would later take our children and a nephew to Ottawa to visit our Liberal prime minister in his office. Only in 1981 did the camaraderie and the politics collide when Trudeau supported the Soviet-backed Polish government’s crackdown on dissidents.

The main foreign-policy function of Western liberal democracies, as I saw it, was to oppose the Soviets in East Central Europe and the Soviet-Arab alignment against Israel. Solidarity—in Polish, Solidarność, led by Lech Walesa—was the first independent trade union in a country ruled by Communism, and thus the most hopeful presage of democracy since the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956. Walesa joined Poland’s Catholic intelligentsia in what then became a two-pronged challenge to Soviet might.

How could Trudeau justify the Communist suppression of Poland’s striking trade unionists? Some said that, having himself called in Canadian troops against threats of violence by Quebec nationalists, he had to support the Polish government’s analogous jailing of Polish strikers. I thought, to the contrary, that our prime minister’s determination to keep Quebec free in a united Canada should have made him all the more supportive of a free and politically independent Poland, and I’d expected him to cheer the Polish workers.

It took me a while to realize that, as an ideological leftist, Trudeau was reluctant to appear in the guise of a cold-war anti-Communist. Even as, in Washington, President Reagan was creating the Strategic Defense Initiative to stave off the Soviet nuclear threat, and readying himself for the day he would demand that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down” the Berlin Wall, our prime minister was failing the cause of Polish independence.

From my own gnarled relation to Poland I recognized clearly enough that politics requires triangulation—that one set of values can contradict another. I knew of Jews killed by Poles for money or spite, and in wartime by Polish collaborators with the Nazis. I knew that Jews returning to their towns after the war were often chased off, and sometimes killed by locals. There was plenty of blood on those hands. Yet Poland had housed Jews for seven centuries, and its innate democratic traditions made it the most promising potential ally of America and Israel in the years ahead. Without deprecating the need for historical reckoning, I put the cause of political freedom higher. So if Trudeau wavered on supporting Solidarity, how could I not deem his “Liberal” label counterfeit?

We do not owe the same allegiance to political parties as we do to God, our families, our people, and our countries of citizenship. When parties change what they stand for, so must we. After Trudeau, I never again reflexively voted a Liberal-party ticket or any other, and in time I began writing a column to argue my own dissident view of politics and culture.

More about: Cold War, Feminism, History & Ideas, Poland, Politics & Current Affairs, The Memoirs of Ruth Wisse