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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Is this the beginning of anti-semitism?

Posted by rabbiart on January 16, 2009

The word itself was invented relatively recently, but the behavior has been with us for way too long.  Iin rabbinical school I took a course by Professor Michael Meyer on anti-semitism.  The first passage we reviewed was the opening chapter of Parshat Shemot.  He posed the question to us – is Shemot Chapter One the first recorded instance of anti-semitism? After un-remembering Yosef, the new Pharoah proclaims

הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ. י הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה, לוֹ: פֶּן-יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי-תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם-הוּא עַל-שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם-בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן-הָאָרֶץ.

He said to his people. Look, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. We must deal cleverly with them, or else they will become even more numerous, and if we get into a war, they will join with our enemies and fight against us, and leave our land.

The text gives us no reason for Pharoah to fear the Israelites. According to the record we have in the Torah, Israel – in the person of Yosef – has done a great service to the ruling class; saving the people from famine and increasing the power of Pharoah. Of course the new Pharoah may have unseated the old Pharoah, and not want to recognize Yosef’s contributions. But his attitude toward the Israelite is classic double-bind. The are numerous, they might get more numerous, so they are a threat to Mitzrayim. But if they become sufficiently powerful and numerous, they miight ally themselves with an enemy, and leave us. The inevitable reaction of the reader (if the reader is me, of course) is to think – but then the Israelites would no longer be a threat to you, so what’s your problem.

Classic anti-semitism (even before the term existed) has been described as having four stages:

  1. You’re Jews, you’re not like us.
  2. You can’t live among us as Jews.
  3. You can’t live among us.
  4. You can’t live.

In our text, Pharoah leaps immediately to  from stage 1 to stage 4 when he order the midwives to kill the Israelite sons.  The midwives (no dummies they) feed into Pharoah’s viewpoint when they defend their failure to kill babies by saying that the Israelite women are “different”; they give birth much faster.

A signficant part of the  history of Jewish migration – and the Jewish people ourselves – seems to be described and foreshadowed by the latter part of Breshit and the early part of Shemot. In short

  • Enter the land under the auspices of a protector.
  • Produce social and economic benefit to the host country.
  • Wear out our welcome – or have it worn out for us – and get thrown out.

Not until the twentieth century – and now into the twenty-first – do we seem to be in a battle for our very survival.  In the ancient middle east – in the depths of Mitzrayim – the known world (the part Israel knew – which is to say Egypt) was against our very existence.  Pharoah sought to destroy us.  Now in the contemporaneous middle east, the known world (the part surrounding Israel) seems to be seeking our very destruction; we can read  and hear their edicts in any medium we choose.

We’ve all heard a variation of the “shortest holiday story”; they tried to kill us, we survived and flourished, let’s eat.

As it has been, so it will be in the future.  Enjoy your Shabbat meals.


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