Why the Jews?
This Dvar Torah is offered in memory of Sy Eisenberg, Shlomo Yosef Ben Chaim HaLevy, z”l (1930-2021), one of the founders of our Miami Beach Jewish community. May his neshama (soul) have an aliyah.
In Parashat Shemot, we find a clear instance of what we now call “antisemitism,” a term coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, an anti-Jewish agitator in Germany, as a more modern, euphemistic and non-religious substitute for the German term, judenhass, 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 (note the repetition of “ruthlessly”), until finally it is acceptable to murder them.
This pattern reminded me of something that happened in my past and in my present.
I was blessed to be sent to an all-girls Jewish summer camp, Camp Pembroke, in Massachusetts. And in those days, we still had debates in our Judaic studies period:
Do you consider yourself an “American Jew” or a “Jewish American?”
Another popular question/ debate was:
If Israel were at war with the United States, which side would you be on?
Even from that early age, the answer was totally clear to me:
I’m an American Jew (American is the descriptor and Jew is the core noun) and I would support Israel.
It’s not that I don’t love this country, I do. America is an amazing country compared to any other in the world, past or present!
But by simple logic, I felt it was obvious that if I had to make a choice (G!D forbid), becoming a stam (generic) American through total assimilation was not only wrong, but counter to everything America stands for. So what was the point of assimilating into an America that had lost its moral compass?!?
And if America and Israel were at war (G!D forbid), then America would be at war with the JEWISH State, meaning with Jews, meaning with me. And short of giving up my Jewishness entirely (if that were possible), why would I support the side that wanted to harm me, my family and my people?
Ok, so maybe I was a little rabbi-in-training in those days without even knowing it, but the logic seemed very compelling to me then and still is now.
And just the other day, I was previewing the film Tree of Life, about the Pittsburgh shooting three years ago that murdered 11 Jewish worshippers. This excellent documentary is premiering in our Miami Jewish Film Festival (January 13-27) and ended with some statistics:
“Since 2010, there have been 15,000 religious-based
crimes in the US— over 50% have been against Jews. In 2020, there were over 2000 anti-Semitic incidents in the US.”
And that’s when I remembered a very powerful book that I had read years ago by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin— Why the Jews?: The Reason for Antisemitism.
They offer us all a very valid 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.”
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 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.”
And what is that something that threatens the core values of many people in the world (the Western world especially)? Judaism.
Yes, Judaism itself is the root cause of antisemitism.
“Anti-Semites have hated Jews because Jews are Jewish. Christian anti-Semites ceased hating rich Jews when they became Christians. The same has held true for virtually all other anti-Semites except the Nazis.”
They assert that there are 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.
That is why until the modern era, every Jew murdered by an anti-Semite was not described as a victim of ethnic prejudice but as having died Al Kiddush HaShem, a martyr to the cause of Judaism, sanctifying the name of G!D to the world.
Because Jews stand for something, even if any given Jew doesn’t know what that it.
As a distinctive people (Jewish denominations differ as to what those distinctions are but all strive to be distinct from non-Jews), the job description of Jews are: “to make the world aware of two basic principles—ethics need G!D and G!d’s major demand is ethics…
G!D without ethics has led to crusades and Qaddafi; ideologies without G!D have led to Gulag and Auschwitz.” Today we might substitute “Khomeini” in Iran for Qaddafi or “Uighur re-education camps” in China for Gulag, but the point remains valid.
And we must remind non-Jews that “treatment of Jews has served as one of humanity’s moral barometers…Jew-haters begin with Jews but never end with Jews, as antisemitism is ultimately a hatred of higher standards…They hate whatever and whoever represents a higher value, a moral challenge.“
Jews are, and always have been, humanity’s canary in the coal mine. “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.”
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 fights antisemitism and transforms lives through education!