In Parashat Shemot, we find a clear instance of what we now call “antisemitism.”
Some of you know that this term was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, an anti-Jewish agitator in Germany.
But do you know why he created it?
Because it sounded better (more modern, euphemistic and non-religious) than the German term that had previously been used -- judenhass, i.e., Jew-hatred.
The Torah tells us in Shemot / Exodus 8-16:
“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase’… so they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor… But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased…The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly, they made life bitter for them with harsh labor…Pharoah spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifrah and the other Puah, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women… if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.’”
As this ancient text makes clear, the fortunes of the Jewish people can turn on a dime.
First comes the oppression of the Israelites through forced labor, then harsher measures, until finally it is acceptable to murder them.
A very powerful book that I had read years ago by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin — Why the Jews?: The Reason for Antisemitism attempts to answer this pressing question.
In pre-Christian times, there was Jew-hatred as noted above in Egypt, in Persia (remember Haman), and then later in Rome.
In Christian times, we were considered Christ-killers and told we must convert to Christianity or live a degraded, oppressed life punctuated by public Jew burnings, massacres and expulsions.
Under Moslem rule, we were treated slightly better, but still oppressed with discriminatory laws and intermittent mob violence.
Under Communism, we were accused of being evil capitalists and under Capitalism, we are accused of being evil communists.
That kind of consistency of hatred-- throughout the centuries, across continents and civilizations, under pagan and monotheistic religions—is indeed unique.
It means that antisemitism is not “yet another sad example of racism or religious bigotry or that anti-Semites are simply sick.” (Why The Jews, p.11)
As Prager and Telushkin suggest:
“Factors specific to a given society help account for the manner or time in which antisemitism erupts, but they do not explain its genesis— why antisemitism at all? To cite but one example, the depressed economy in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s may help to explain why and when the Nazis came to power, but it does not explain why Nazis hated Jews, let alone why they wanted to murder every Jew in the world. Economic depressions do not account for gas chambers.” (Why the Jews, p.21)
And so they go about, chapter after chapter, considering all the possible reasons that have been given for Jew-hatred:
- Jews were too affluent— but poor Jews were also hated;
- Jews are too strong— but weak Jews were persecuted by anti-Semitic bullies;
- Jews have unpleasant personalities— but kindly Jews weren’t spared the animosity;
They note this powerful point:
“It takes infinitely more than economic tensions or racial prejudice to create the animosity— so often to the point of torturing children and murdering whole communities— that [the existence of] Jews have created throughout their long history. Only something representing a threat to core values, allegiances, and beliefs of others could arouse such universal, deep and lasting hatred.”(Why the Jews, p.24)
And what is that something that threatens the core values of many people in the world (the Western world especially)?
“The ultimate cause of antisemitism is that which has made Jews Jewish — Judaism.” (Why the Jews, p. 22)
The authors posit 4 basic reasons for this and each revolves around the theme of a Jewish challenge to the values of non-Jews:
- Jews challenged the other people’s most cherished values (the divinity of Jesus, the divine prophesy of Mohammed) and the power of those who wished to be seen as G!D (all totalitarian rulers be they Nazis or Communists). As the Reverend Edward H. Flannery of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote, “It was Judaism that brought the concept of a God-given universal moral law into the world;” willingly or not “the Jew carries the burden of God in history [and] for this has never been forgiven.”
- The essential heart of Judaism has been to change the world for the better, which challenges the gods, religious or secular, of the societies around them and to make moral demands upon others.
- The Jewish belief that Jews are chosen by God to achieve this mission of perfecting the world.
- As a result of the Jews’ commitment to Judaism, they have led a higher quality of life than their non-Jewish neighbors in almost every society in which they have lived, provoking profound envy and hostility.
In sum, Jews stand for something, even if any given Jew doesn’t know what that it.
“Just as the death of canaries [that were carried in cages into the mine] warns miners of noxious fumes, so the death of Jews warns civilized nations of noxious moral fumes.” ( Why the Jews, p.196)
Jew hatred is, and always has been, humanity’s canary in the coal mine, and this is why CAJE and Jewish education is so important.
We must remain a distinctive people because we have a job to do in this world, as Jews, that is unique and compelling— to promote ethical monotheism (belief in a God who demands moral behavior) and to change the world for the better by challenging the gods, religious or secular, of the societies around us.
To do that, we need to understand our traditions, believe in its sacred power to transform ourselves and the world, and live courageously as bearers of G!d’s hope for humanity.
The world needs Jews in it, and we Jews need to be affecting and uplifting the world.
That is why CAJE works so hard to fight antisemitism and transform lives through education!