Anti-Semitism Ancient and Modern

In this morning’s Sidra, Pharaoh says to his people about the Israelites: “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase in number, and if there is a war, add themselves to our enemies and wage war against us, and force us out of the land”.

Why does Pharoah need to “deal shrewdly” with the Jews if he is worried about them? Why not an immediate all-out attack? After all, he is the supreme ruler!

Nahmanides, whose view is summarized by Nechama Leibowitz, explains that Pharaoh was nevertheless a bit worried about public opinion. His predecessor had invited the Jews to Egypt. Also, the Israelites were numerous and strong, and all-out attack would be dangerous. So Pharaoh proceeds in stages. First, he imposes a tax on the Israelites – a tax not of money but of labour. It was a custom in ancient times for strangers in a country to pay a tax to the king. Next, he secretly ordered the midwives to kill the male children on the birthstools without their mothers knowing – the mothers would be told it had been a still birth. Then, he enticed his people to throw every male child into the river, but at their own risk – if the Israelite parents could prove that this had been done to their child, the Egyptian who had done it would be punished. This was not an official royal edict: notice the Torah says that Pharoah commanded “all his people” rather than “his princes and servants” who would usually disseminate a royal command. The government gave no explicit orders to the people but rather looked away while the Egyptian masses “spontaneously” vented their frustration on the immigrants. Finally, the situation became openly murderous – the Egyptians would search Jewish homes and take children forcibly. That is the meaning of Chapter 2 verse 3, velo yachla od hatzefino – Moses’s mother, Yocheved, was no longer able to hide him from the marauders.

One cannot help being reminded of the staged assault on the Jewish people three and a half millennia later in Nazi Germany:

Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany in January 1933.

Later that year, all Jewish shops in Berlin are boycotted; books by Jewish authors are publicly burned and Berlin hospitals are declared “free” of Jewish doctors.

In September 1935 the Nuremberg Laws come into force.

In November 1938 Kristallnacht takes place and soon the systematic murder of the Jews begins.

What gives anti-Semitism such staying power, the ability to survive century after century, generation upon generation, right across the fault lines which divide the ancient world from the medieval and the medieval from the modern? Why, three and a half thousand years after the events of our Sidra, do people across the globe in these very days shout “Death to Israel” and “Death to the Jews” and physically assault Jews and Jewish buildings in Chicago and Paris and right here in London? Why – to take a milder example, but an example of what I nevertheless believe ultimately to be deep anti-Jewish prejudice – does the world say nothing during eight years of Hamas rockets falling on Southern Israel, possibly ruining the lives of a generation of Israeli children, and suddenly recalls the value of human life when people are tragically killed in Gaza due to Hamas embedding itself within the civilian population?

I don’t think we know the answer to these questions. Indeed, our Sages gave up on finding a rational explanation for the hatred shown towards our people. Rabbi Shimon, who likes to provide reasons whenever he can for laws of the Torah – as we read in the Talmud on several occasions “R. Shimon darish ta’ama dikra”, “Rabbi Shimon explained the reasoning of Scripture” – says of anti-semitism: Halacha beyadua she-Eisav sonei leyaakov – “It is a law that Esau hates Jacob”. Anti-Jewish feeling is a law we can’t explain, like sha’atnez or the red heifer. The Maharal of Prague terms anti-semitism sinah she’eina teluya badavar, “hatred which does not depend on any reason”.. Most hatred in the world is sinah hatelya badavar, there is some reason for it, and if the reason departs, the hatred departs. Not anti-semitism, which is in a class of its own.

So I don’t think we know why there is anti-semitism. There is however one thing we do know which is extremely important – and that is that anti-semitism cannot be avoided or even ameliorated by our being less Jewish or less proudly Jewish or less visibly Jewish. The Midrash tells us that our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt partly because shelo shinu et shemam velo shinu et leshonam – they did not change their Hebrew names or the language they spoke to one another. They were openly Jewish, openly part of a minority ethnic group. More pointedly still, the Midrash Shemot Rabbah (1:8) on our Sidra reports:

“When Joseph died, the Jewish people abandoned circumcision, saying, ‘Let us be like the Egyptians’… and because they did this, G-d turned the love which the Egyptians felt for them into hatred”.

Egyptian anti-semitism began precisely when the Jews attempted to assimilate. Trying to be less Jewish doesn’t make anti-Semitism go away. It makes it worse. As the Chief Rabbi once wrote, non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. They are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.

A second thing we know from the Haggada, the Haggada which is of course all about the events we read about in the Torah in these weeks. It is that anti -Semites can inflict terrible damage, but ultimately the Jewish people survives. Shebechol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu veHKBH matzileinu miyadam. “In every generation, they rise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, delivers us from their hands”.

Last Sunday at the Trafalgar Square rally I and I hope all who were there, including a good number from our own Shul, felt such pride. It was a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of the Name of G-d. Every speech at the rally and the whole atmosphere combined strong support for Israel with ethics and morality and the desire for a future of life and peace for the Palestinians as well as for ourselves. What a contrast with the desire of those who demonstrated against us, many of whom (most of whom?) wish to rid the world of Israel and the Jewish people. And our rally was peaceful, entirely lacking in the thuggery, intimidation and verbal violence that have characterized the demonstrations critical of Israel. As a BBC reporter said on the news on Sunday: “No trouble was expected from the demonstrators supporting Israel and – there was none”. What we Jews stand for, what Israel stands for, are the values that the world needs and the values that will ultimately triumph. So let us in these difficult days hold our heads high, and wear our Jewish identity with the pride that earned redemption for our ancestors in Egypt. – See more at: https://www.hampsteadshul.org.uk/learning/sermon1.php#sthash.ji6cvrXV.dpuf