Divrei Torah Blogs

Shemot 5767 — Anti-Semitism

Pharaoh Pharaoh was the world’s first anti-Semite.  The Egyptians were the first people to persecute the Jews as a people.  This week’s Torah reading, Shemot, the opening of the book of Exodus, tells us “And they made their lives bitter with hard slavery, in mortar, and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field; all their service, which they made them serve, was with rigor.”   And far more horrifying, Pharaoh ordered the midwives to the Hebrews, Shifra and Puah, “When you do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.”

Why was Pharaoh picking on the Jews?  It does not appear to have anything to do with what they believed, or their religion – rather it was because Pharaoh was afraid.  The Hebrews were multiplying like rabbits – the Midrash says that every pregnancy among the Jews produced six healthy children – and he was afraid the Jews would be a fifth column joining with an enemy in battle, as the Torah tells us “Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it may come to pass, that, when there would be any war, they should join our enemies, and fight against us.”

But didn’t Pharaoh create his own problem?  There is no indication that the Jews were planning any kind of revolt or rebellion – at least not until AFTER Pharaoh chooses the misguided course of action of enslaving the Jews because of his paranoia over their numbers.

And that is one of the hallmarks of anti-Semitism throughout the ages – it’s NOT rational, it’s not logical, it’s a kind of blind prejudice not interested in the “facts” of the situation.

The reasons for anti-Semitism are many and varied.  Pharaoh’s anti-Semitism was motivated by fear – he thought the Jews were becoming too powerful.  And this kind of anti-Semitism is still pretty common in the world.  A survey commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) (click here to read it) found that 30% of Europeans believe Jews have too much power in the business world and 32% believe that Jews have too much power in financial circles.  Hitler preyed on these fears when he stirred up resentment of the Jews.  It sometimes amazes me how anti-Semites speak out of both sides of their mouth: “Jews are an inferior race” on the one hand, and without realizing the inherent contradiction, “Jews have too much power” on the other hand.  If we were so inferior, how did we acquire so much power?

I’m reminded of the story of a guy who gets on a subway in New York and sees his buddy Max reading an anti-Semitic paper.  Surprised, he says “Max, what on earth are you doing reading that filthy rag?!”  Max responds, “are you kidding?  The news is so much better in this paper.  Jewish bankers control the financial markets!  Jewish moguls control the media!  Read their paper and we run the world!”

Alas, even when I became a rabbi, no one gave me the secret handshake that unlocks the doors to the inner portals of the world’s banks.  Pity.

To try and get a handle on the types and forms of anti-Semitism is difficult because there are so many of them. Leon Wieseltier, editor of the New Republic describes it well:  “The taxonomy of present-day Anti-Semitism is ominously large. There are religious varieties and secular varieties; theological varieties and ideological varieties; political varieties and cultural varieties; old varieties and new varieties. There is the Anti-Semitism of Christians, which comes in many forms, and Anti-Semitism of Muslims, which comes in many forms. There is the Anti-Semitism of the right, in Europe and in the United States, still stubbornly blaming the Jews for modernity; and there is the Anti-Semitism of the left, most recently seeking shelter (and finding it) in the anti-globalization movement, which has presided over a revival of the new left’s dogmas about capitalism and liberalism and Americanism.  And there is the Anti-Semitism that manifests itself as anti-Zionism.”

Phew! What a list!  Other than the form related to power, the oldest forms of anti-Semitism still around are the religiously motivated ones.  20% of Europeans believe that Jews are responsible for killing Jesus – and one reason that figure is somewhat remarkable is that Europe is a VERY secular place, far more secular than America with much lower figures for regular church attendance.

For centuries, the Christian authorities blatantly encouraged anti-Semitism.  We don’t need to review the church’s role in the Crusades and the Inquisition, it’s all very well known.  The good news is, in this particular area a great deal of progress has been made.  The Catholic Church has officially stated that Jews are NOT responsible for the death of Jesus.  Protestant denominations are generally a little slower in their efforts to build bridges with Jews than the Catholics have been, but even there we see a lot of progress.  I was astounded when a Christian minister in Canada told me that in his opinion all Christians of his generation or older were at best recovering anti-Semites.  They realize there has been a problem.

It seems obvious that our religious differences would make us a target for hatred.  We stubbornly refuse to be completely integrated into the society around us.  Every ethnic group that first came to America experienced prejudice.  Italians were called wops, Irish micks, Germans krauts, etc.  But almost all of those have disappeared in common usage, and there is no longer any detectable prejudice against Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans.  Why is prejudice against Jews – and blacks – more enduring?

It’s because there’s no such thing as a “fifth-generation Irish-American.”  By the time someone of Irish extraction has got five generations of kids, they have been completely and totally absorbed into mainstream American culture.  They go to the same churches as their neighbors and they may not even be terribly aware of their Irish heritage.

But Jews stay stubbornly different.  Not just five generations later, but fifty generations, a hundred generations later we are still very much aware of our Jewish heritage.  We remain apart from our neighbors with our different customs, different houses of worship.  We have unique foods and holidays.  African-Americans of course also “stay different” because they tend to in-marry and continue looking like African-Americans.

Of course, one way out for us might be to assimilate.  Give up on our unique Jewish ways.  Become just like the neighbors.

There are rabbis who will argue that this is no answer.  Rabbi Shlomo Ressler has a d’var Torah on this week’s parsha which says that at first, the Jewish community in Egypt was flourishing, with schools, synagogues, etc., and assimilated was virtually non-existent.  There is a Midrash which says the Jews merited being saved from Egypt because they insisted on keeping Hebrew names.  But he quotes Rabbi Shraga Simmons as explaining that at the beginning of this week’s parsha, the people spread throughout Egypt, and the assimilation began. He claims it was this attempt to blend in the triggered the anti-Semitism – that people got mad when the Jews tried to blend in.  And he claims that the same thing is happening today, as Jews get more assimilated, anti-Semitism is getting worse.

I’ll have to respectfully disagree.&n
bsp; As much as I’d like to say anti-Semitism is caused by assimilation, it really doesn’t wash.  When the pogroms started up against the Jews, they were living very non-assimilated lives, isolated in shtetls.  Despite the great fidelity to tradition, and despite living apart, the Jews were still attacked.  The Midrash says the Egyptians hated us when we returned to our customs: "…when Joseph died, they abolished the covenant of circumcision, saying: ‘Let us become like the Egyptians.’ You can infer this from the fact that Moses had to circumcise them on their departure from Egypt. As soon as they had done so, God converted the love with which the Egyptians loved them into hatred…"

However, I would also have to say that assimilation is not necessarily the answer either, at least not in any kind of short term.  Many of the Jews in Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries who had converted to Christianity were still not trusted and were still persecuted a few generations after the conversion.  Hitler didn’t care how religious or not religious you were, if you had one Jewish grandparent you were doomed.  The Jews in Germany in the early 20th century were about as assimilated as you get – and it certainly didn’t stop the anti-Semitism.

The most incendiary form of anti-Semitism in the world today of course is fueled by anti-Zionism.  The terrorists who want to kill Jews don’t care whether you wear a kippah or not, they don’t care if you keep kosher or not.  If you’re Jewish, they want to kill you.  They claim it’s all because of Israel.  Many of them claim they don’t hate Jews, they just hate Israel.

There were mainstream media reports in the wake of the 2005 bombing in London that said the behavior of the terrorists was a reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Abraham Foxman of the ADL said: “To explain their behavior as a reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to achieve the dual negative results that anti-Semitism achieves: it diverts attention away from real solutions to the challenge facing mankind and potentially causes harm to the party being scapegoated. In other words, this is a dangerous perspective for Israel but it is equally perilous, if not more so, for the West in its necessary struggle to defeat the great civilizational threat of Islamist terror.”

The most powerful condemnation of anti-Zionism that I know of comes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose life and accomplishments we celebrate with a national holiday on Monday.  Dr. King wrote “". . . You declare, my friend, that you do not hate the Jews, you are merely ‘anti-Zionist.’ And I say, let the truth ring forth from the high mountain tops, let it echo through the valleys of God’s green earth: When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews–this is God’s own truth.

"Antisemitism, the hatred of the Jewish people, has been and remains a blot on the soul of mankind. In this we are in full agreement. So know also this: anti-Zionist is inherently antisemitic, and ever will be so.”

In part thanks to the efforts of Dr. King, and other leaders in the civil rights movement like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who was born 100 years ago this week, here in America, we’ve actually been pretty successful at putting an end to routine anti-Semitism.  Unlike the situation 60 or 70 years ago, Jews can belong to any country club they can afford, they are hired by all the major law firms, not just the “Jewish ones,” and deeds for property recording a restriction that the property may not be sold to people of the Jewish race are a thing of the past.

But we shouldn’t get too complacent.  Those facts do not mean that anti-Semitism is dead.  Here’s a random sampling of some of the global anti-Semitic acts in the last year (not counting terrorist attacks in Israel):

All around the world, but especially in Europe, Ukraine, and Russia, we see Jewish graves desecrated, monuments defaced or destroyed.

In London a 12-year-old Jewish girl was beaten unconscious on a public bus in front of bystanders who did nothing to stop it.

In Oslo – not a place I would usually think of as a hotbed of anti-Semitism – several synagogues have been vandalized, and unidentified Middle Eastern men assaulted a Jewish boy on the street who was wearing a Kippah. The Jewish community in Oslo has recommended that people not wear Kippot or speak Hebrew in public.

The situation in France has been particularly bad: there were several incidents of arson, several attacks and beatings resulting in injuries, including an 11 year old kid who was beaten and had his nose broken.  Most horribly, a Jew was kidnapped and murdered in February, an attack which police say was motivated by anti-Semitism.

Closer to home, a Jewish boy’s school in Montreal was torched with a Molotov cocktail, resulting in extensive damage, and in July a Muslim killed a Jew and wounded five others at a JCC in Seattle because he was upset with Israel.

There aren’t any Jews left in the Middle East outside of Israel to harass, so in Muslim countries the anti-Semites have to content themselves with verbal abuse.  They proclaim the fictitious Protocols of Zion, which claims Jews run the world, as if it were the gospel truth.  It’s all too common to read incendiary statements in newspapers in the Middle East, like the following from columnist Najah Al-Zahhar in Saudi Arabia: "Judaism regards you with contempt, makes your killing licit, and makes it licit [to harm] your religion, your honor, and your values. It has been meticulously planning and carrying out its schemes for thousands of years, and now it is trying to reap the benefits.”  The Mufti of Egypt praises a book telling how Jews planned to make matzah using human blood.  The President of Iran calls a conference denying the Holocaust ever happened.  One of his advisors claims Hitler was the Jewish founder of Israel!

Verbal abuse is also alive and well in Europe:  at a soccer game in Germany a Jewish team was greeted with chants of “Gas the Jews” and “Auschwitz is back.”  And of course, here in America, we have Mel Gibson’s famous rant cursing the Jews when he was arrested for drunk driving.

All of which might make Toledo’s recent brush up with anti-Semitism truly seem to be a tempest in a teapot.  You may have followed the story in the Toledo Blade.  A few weeks ago, a reporter from the Blade called me to ask me what I thought, as a leader in the Jewish community about an anti-Semitic expression used by a public official in one of Toledo’s suburbs.  Perrysburg Township Trustee Gary Britten suggested that the deputy fire chief should try to "Jew down" a vendor when buying some equipment.

Naturally, I thought that using the word "Jew" in that fashion is utterly inappropriate, especially for a public official in a public meeting.  Mr. Britten said he didn’t see how anyone could have been offended, it was just a figure of speech.  The Blade quoted me as saying said official was pretty clueless. 

What makes the story interesting is that this is not where it stops.  I got an email from a member of my flying club that was very irate, saying I had a lot of nerve to suggest someone should apologize for an anti-Semitic remark, when I had done something which he felt I owed the flying club an apology for.  Talk about a non-sequitur!

Then the letters to the editor began to appear.  One person wrote to say "My head hurts. Now we have a rabbi whining about Gary Britten in Perrysburg being insensitive. Poor baby. Give me a break would you?"  The author, one Jason Craig, concludes "The one who seems clueless is the rabbi. Only a person who is lo
oking for attention and confrontation would consider that remark insensitive. Any clear-thinking intelligent human would be able to acknowledge it as a "figure of speech." Get over yourself."

Wow!  To start with, I was not looking for attention or confrontation.  The Blade called me, I did not call them.  To "Jew someone down" may be a figure of speech; but so is "there’s a n***** in the woodshed," and presumably Mr. Britten would know better than to use THAT one in public!

I was amazed at how the debate in the letters section of the paper continued for weeks afterward.  Several people—non-Jews—wrote that I was overly sensitive.  Several people – Jews – wrote that the remark was offensive.

With the virulent anti-Semitism seen in some parts of the world – Jews being beaten or even killed for being Jewish, epithets recalling the Holocaust – was I being oversensitive?

I don’t think so.  Our own Eli Benstein wrote a letter to the editor which said “I have several times been the only Jew in a locker room, board room, or meeting room when the "J" phrase was used. I had two conflicting emotions each time – punch him in the nose or crawl into a corner to hide my embarrassment and crawling skin.”

Eli continued “Make no mistake – that phrase carries with it a millennia-long history of hatred, envy, persecution, violence, murder, and ignorance. It is not a back-handed compliment, and it is not "just a figure of speech."

To combat racism, anti-Semitism, and other ugly forms of prejudice requires that we have a "zero-tolerance" policy for biased and bigoted remarks.  If we are to teach our children to have respect for people of all races and religions, we have to show that we respect people of all races and religions.

And sometimes we have to watch ourselves.  A Semite, technically, includes other Semitic peoples besides Jews – Arabs are Semites.  There are some in the Jewish community who are anti-Semitic, not against Jews, but against Arabs.  They make sweeping generalizations about how all Arabs, or all Muslims are out to kill all Jews.

Even rabbis have engaged in this sort of name calling:  Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, spiritual leader of the right wing Shas political party in Israel said “It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable," and "The Lord shall return the Arabs’ deeds on their own heads, waste their seed and exterminate them, devastate them and vanish them from this world."  In a startling echo of Pharaoh’s charge against the Jews in this week’s parsha – that they were multiplying – Rabbi Yosef said "In the old city of Jerusalem they (Arabs) are swarming like ants. They should go to hell – and the Messiah will speed them on their way.”

Just as not all Jews are the same, not all Muslims, and not all Arabs are the same.  We, the victims of anti-Semitism for millennia, should be more sensitive to these issues than most people.  A spokesman for the good rabbi later said that Rabbi Yosef wasn’t talking about all Arabs, just Arab terrorists – well, perhaps the rabbi should have been a little clearer about that at the time.

The answer to anti-Semitism or racism in America is not to ignore it.  When someone uses the term “Jew” in an inappropriate way, they should be called on the carpet.  And we should equally protest when someone defames another race, religion or ethnic group.

There are various theories as to the identity of the midwives who resisted Pharaoh’s charge to kill the male babies, Shifra and Puah.  One theory says they were not Jewish – Pharaoh knew he couldn’t ask Jewish women to kill Jewish babies – but these “righteous Gentiles” refused to go along with Pharaoh’s anti-Semitic plot.

Shifra and Puah serve as role models for us all – it’s not only Jews who should protest anti-Semitism – and it’s not just blacks who should protest racism, and not just Muslims who should protest anti-Muslim attacks.   It’s especially appropriate that we remember that message this Shabbat, the Shabbat before we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.

The real struggle isn’t between Jews and Arabs, or blacks and whites.  The struggle is between good people, people who respect other people, people who can see the Divine in others, and those who don’t.

May God strengthen us in our efforts to create a world free of anti-Semitism, free of racism, free of xenophobia, a world of peace, a world without hate,


Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

2 thoughts on “Shemot 5767 — Anti-Semitism

  • Let me offer some contrarian comments. I think there is a reason behind the Egyptian elite’s decision to enslave the Jews, the Jews’ passive acceptence of the initial stages of enslavement, and the Egyptian populace’s total lack of sympathy for the Jews’ enslavement.

    That reason is Joseph, and his behavior after the famine began in Egypt. As you will recall from Vayigash, Joseph reduced the populace of Egypt (except for the priests) first to penury, then to outright slavery. He was able to do this by selling the Egyptians the food that he had taxed away duing the seven good years – food that he had stored in such abundance that he could feed not only Egypt, but many people from Cannan as well.

    Having reduced them to slavery, he then imposed mass population transfer in order that the Egyptian people would be uprooted. No one could say ‘my father owned this land, and my grandfather before him’. He essentially exiled the people of Egypt within the borders of their own country.

    This seemingly left Bnei Yisrael as the only other free group within the land of Egypt. What could be more reasonable to the Egyptians that they feared that the Jews would misuse freedoms that the native Egyptians were deprived of? What could be more reasonable than for Bnei Yisrael, when asked to volunteer their labor, to accept? After all, everyone around them were slaves – demanding that they contribute as well no doubt seemed reasonable.

    And lastly, while perhaps the Pharaoh ‘knew not Joseph’ I would not be surprised if the Egyptian commoners remembered perfectly well who was behind their present situation. Schadenfreud at the Jews’ troubles seems a nigh inevitable reaction.

  • You make a perfectly valid observation…one could take what you say even further, and suggest that since Joseph “enslaved” the Egyptian people, the Egyptians enslavement of the Jews was “midah k’neged midah” an appropriate punishment.

    One of the nice things about being a rabbi is that when you have a different message to make, there’s no problem with completely contradicting what you said in a previous week…after all, there are 70 faces to the Torah…

    Reb Barry


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