Our Chosen Leaders

REVIEW: ‘Providence and Power: Ten Portraits of Jewish Statesmanship’ by Meir Y. Soloveichik

"The Judgement of Solomon" by Nicolas Poussin (Wikimedia Commons)
September 24, 2023

Statesmanship, the late philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued, is more of an art than a science. And as Rabbi Meir Soloveichik demonstrates in his brilliant book, Providence and Power: Ten Portraits of Jewish Statesmanship, some of its most able practitioners have been Jewish. Soloveichik seeks to explore a largely unexamined question: What is Jewish statecraft?

Studies of statesmanship aren’t exactly new. And many famous diplomats and strategists, from Henry Kissinger to Paul Wolfowitz, have happened to be Jewish. Biographies and character studies of these figures are not uncommon. But as Soloveichik notes, "Few, however, have turned their attention to the history of Jewish leaders in particular—that is, leaders specifically of the Jewish people," as opposed to "Jews who have risen to greatness in service to non-Jewish regimes or causes."

The absence of such studies, the rabbi suggests, might be owed to the statelessness that befell the Jewish people for thousands of years. How, it might be asked, could a stateless people practice statecraft? In fact, as Soloveichik ably demonstrates, this very condition made statesmanship more essential, and its feats more remarkable.

Appropriately enough, the character studies in Providence and Power span almost the entirety of Jewish history. Nor does Soloveichik limit himself geographically; figures from ancient Israel to Victorian England are represented. To the initiated, some, such as King David or Theodore Herzl, are unsurprising. But others, such as Shlomtsion, are less known.

David, who founded the Judaean dynasty and united the tribes of Israel, is perhaps an obvious, if deeply flawed, candidate for learning lessons about statecraft. Paradoxically, it’s his flaws that make him great.

"If we wish to learn about statesmanship from a Jewish perspective," Soloveichik writes, "we must turn first and foremost to his life and legend." David’s true greatness, he argues, came not in his victories but in his defeat. In David, Soloveichik finds a leader who exhibits both creativity and political inventiveness, but also a man who becomes all too aware of the costs of his own foibles.

Born a shepherd, David slew Goliath, eventually dethroned his predecessor, and united the tribes in Israel. Displaying keen political instincts, he was crowned king in Hebron, inside the territory of Judah. He moved the throne to Jerusalem, creating a capital city to unify all Israel. Yet, David also killed innocents and lay with married women—sins for which he would pay a heavy price.

Another candidate for greatness is Esther, whose deft political touch and emotional intelligence prevented a genocide of Jews in ancient Persia. Esther had the "ability to read any situation in which one finds oneself and to respond accordingly." This quality can’t be overrated. "Different moments present different challenges," and Esther had both the confidence and good sense to discard advice from her cousin Mordecai and formulate—and execute—her own plan.

The book of Esther also offers another salient lesson. Esther’s parents died young, and she grew up within Persian culture. By seamlessly adapting to the court of the king, she was able to push for a "more flexible and realistic approach to safeguarding the Jewish people in a hostile environment, an approach that in large measure" relied on "instinct and an innate mastery of realpolitik." Patience and cunning can be virtues too, and both are essential to successful statesmanship.

The stories of David and Esther are well known, memorialized in everything from Leonard Cohen songs to the Jewish holiday of Purim. But the saga of Shlomtsion, also known as Salome Alexandra, is not.

Shlomtsion ruled for nine years, a golden age of peace. Indeed, Shlomtsion means "the peace of Zion." In all Jewish history, she remains one of only two queens who ruled in their own right rather than as wives of reigning kings.

Soloveichik’s volume is valuable for its portraits of ancient rulers like Salome Alexandra. But the rabbi’s look at statesmen of the modern era is where the book truly shines.

On the surface, the inclusion of Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century British politician, is curious. Born Jewish, Disraeli was baptized by his father before he came of age. He went on to an illustrious career in both literature and politics, authoring successful novels and eventually becoming prime minister. His contemporaries remarked on both his unusual qualities and appearance.

Disraeli could have repudiated his Jewish heritage. Given the prevailing anti-Semitic attitudes of the day it would have been easy. But instead, his knowledge of Jewish tradition informed his approach to politics. Indeed, Disraeli "never sought to abandon one" identity "or to assimilate it wholly into the other; he deliberately sought not to."

In the view of Winston Churchill, Disraeli "never became assimilated to English ways of life, and he preserved to his death the detachment which had led him as a young man to make his own analysis of English society. It was this which probably enabled him to diagnose and assess the deeper political currents of his age." As Soloveichik recounts, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, took exception to Churchill’s description of Disraeli. But Churchill was almost certainly correct; Disraeli’s acute sense of being different left him with a sense of both cynicism and foreboding.

Presciently, Disraeli believed that "Europeans might yet save themselves and their civilization by recognizing and absorbing what they had gained from the Jews who first gave them the monotheistic ideal." But "if instead Europe continued to turn on the Jews, then ultimately the moral principles they had bequeathed to Christendom would be lost, with barbarism let loose again." Decades later, the Holocaust would prove him correct.

Providence and Power is important not only for his sharply authored character sketches of statesmen like Disraeli or Ben-Gurion, but for its thematic approach. A scion of a great family of rabbis and scholars, Soloveichik thoughtfully shows the lines of continuity in the Jewish experience. In so doing, he reminds us of "two abiding lessons about the Jews: their eternal vulnerability, and their eternal endurance." Both of which, he shows, are fertile soil for statesmanship.

Providence and Power: Ten Portraits of Jewish Statesmanship
by Meir Y. Soloveichik
Encounter Books, 224 pp., $29.99

Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.