January 11, 2012
Déjà Vu, all over again
Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)
It’s a new year and we are beginning a new book of the Torah — Exodus. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the same old problem. Anti-Semitism, the oldest hatred, rears its ugly head.
Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler, scapegoats the Jews and turns them into the enemy, a pattern that has been repeated too many times over the centuries. Sadly, anti-Semitism is not just a history lesson; it’s also current events.
Mark Steyn of the National Review points out that the “oldest hatred didn’t get that way without an ability to adapt: Once upon a time on the Continent, Jews were hated as rootless cosmopolitan figures who owed no national allegiance. So they became a conventional nation state, and now they’re hated for that.”
Anti-Semitism, the main subject of this week’s Torah reading, can be a controversial topic of discussion. Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, will be the first to tell you. In December, Gutman explained why he felt it was important to differentiate between older forms of anti-Jewish hatred and a newer growing anti-Semitism in Europe, which stems from the tensions of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Who decides what constitutes anti-Semitism? The very act of trying to differentiate one kind of anti-Semitism from another is itself “simply anti-Semitic,” as U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) put it.
In this week’s Torah reading, what was at the core of Pharaoh’s anti-Jewish outlook?
“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land’ ” (Exodus 1:8-10).
Why did Pharaoh assume the worst and think that the Jews posed a threat to Egypt? Did he really believe the Jews would support Egypt’s enemies? Weren’t the Jews always loyal to Egypt? Wasn’t it Joseph who interpreted Pharaoh’s own dreams and guided him through Egypt’s recession and economic crisis? Why did Pharaoh choose to ignore this obvious chapter of Egyptian history?
Conspiracy theories and the incitement of hatred can lead to discrimination against minorities, as we see in this week’s parasha.
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the classic anti-Semitic conspiracy text, fraudulently claims an international group of Jews seeks to control the world. “The Protocols’” author intended to stir up animosity against the Jews.
Accusations of dual loyalty among American Jews are common in the blogosphere, and some bloggers refer to Israeli supporters as “Israel firsters.” This false claim posits that pro-Israel Jewish Americans put Israel’s interests over American interests. Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated that these bloggers “are guilty of promoting dangerous political libels resonating with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices.” Furthermore, Rabbi Cooper reminds us that not too long ago, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” made the accusation that American Jews exercise a uniquely malevolent influence over American foreign policy.
These charges have been around since 1920, when Henry Ford said, “Wars are the Jews’ harvest,” and Charles Lindbergh in 1940 condemned Jews for conspiring to plunge America into World War II.
New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote recently, “The standing ovation [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] got in Congress this year was … bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”
There is a well-known rabbinic phrase, “maaseh avot, siman l’vanim” — what happened to our ancestors in the Torah, is a sign for us, their children. Let’s make sure we carefully read this week’s Torah portion, so that we know how to respond to these false and misleading derogatory statements, and so we can properly deal with this irrational prejudice.