How Antisemitism Comes and Goes

BY RABBI MOSHE HAUER

Antisemitism has never been just about physical attacks on Jews. It is the great conspiracy theory, a narrative portraying the Jewish people as all-powerful and utterly disloyal, a lethal combination that generates hatred and resentment. It is within that climate of demonization that physical attacks are perpetrated against us. It is true now and it was true then.

The original story of antisemitism is described in the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim. Am Yisrael were originally welcomed to Egypt as heroes, the family of the viceroy who had saved the country from ruin. But all the good and the benefits they brought to Egypt and its rulers was quickly forgotten; “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef,” and began to portray Am Yisrael as all-powerful and utterly disloyal: “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Let us deal shrewdly with them lest they increase and when a war befalls us, they will join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land” (Shemot 1:8–10)

The demonization of our people was a critical stage in the process of our Egyptian experience. Before a taskmaster cracked his whip or threw a Jewish baby in the Nile, a narrative was constructed to recast us as the Egyptians’ oppressors.

This is why the Pesach Haggadah cites the above verse to illustrate that which is written in the book of Devarim (26:6), “vayarei’u otanu haMitzrim vaya’anunu vayitnu aleinu avoda kasha, the Egyptians made us bad and afflicted us, and they burdened us with hard work.” The first phrase does not say that they did bad to us, “vayarei’u lanu,” but that they made us out to be bad. The verse does not describe the Egyptians doing bad to us but rather their creating a caricature of how we were not friend but foe, scheming against them and awaiting the opportunity to actively turn on them (see commentaries of Orchos ChaimRashbatz, Rav Kook, and Rav Soloveitchik on the Haggadah). 

We can readily imagine how disorienting this must have been for our ancestors. One of their own had saved Egypt and transformed its economy in Pharaoh’s favor, making him the owner and master of the people, the land, and the treasure of Egypt, and now they were suddenly recast as the enemy. Their contributions to Egyptian society were forgotten or ignored and they were quickly transformed from savior to oppressor.

Their first reaction must have been to blame it on Pharaoh, the person then sitting in the seat of leadership. “Once we are rid of him, things will certainly be better.” As Ramban wrote (2:23), “the custom of all subjects of a wicked tyrant is to hope for and look forward to the day of his death.” Heads will roll, we will sack the coach or the university president and all will be good again. But when they saw that the king died and nothing improved, they realized that conspiracy theories stubbornly survive and do not disappear from society with a change of leadership. 

As we consider the familiarity of this story and its reflection in current events, we must ask if there is anything that can come next that could potentially bode well for us? Is the only path forward one of doom, Heaven forbid? Is the painful history of Jewish exile necessarily repeating itself?

The Torah provides three better pathways forward. In Moshe’s Egypt, relief for the Jews came with the tragic collapse of Egypt. In Yosef’s case, he benefited from Pharaoh’s fear that Egypt might collapse. And in the story of Purim, Achashverosh simply awoke one night to reopen the history books and read the true story of the Jewish contribution to society, thus resetting the narrative about the Jews. 

Our Sages taught us to appeal to G-d for the well-being of our country and its government. Those of us living in the United States sincerely pray that the American kingdom of kindness will survive its current challenges and recognize and be responsive to the genuine threats to its future, awakening itself to reread the true story of America and of the Jewish people and fundamentally resetting the narrative to “place in the hearts of all Americans to deal kindly with us and all Israel. In their days and in ours may the Jews be saved and Israel dwell in safety, and may the Redeemer come to Zion. Kein yehi ratzon.”

Now it came to pass in those many days that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to G-d from the labor. G-d heard their cry, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Shemot 2:23).

 

Rabbi Moshe Hauer is the Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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