Anti-Semitism is hardly my favourite topic but unfortunately it has been much discussed this past year, more than at any time I can remember within my lifetime. We have witnessed murderous attacks in the US, as well as outside the synagogue in Halle, Germany. Jewish Cemeteries have been vandalised in France and in other countries around Europe and beyond, and anti-Semitic graffiti has been daubed in the United Kingdom, during whose recent General Election the topic of anti-Semitism was a pivotal theme with regard to the leadership of the British Labour Party. The ADL report for 2019 (https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/global-anti-semitism-select-incidents-in-2019) makes grim reading.
It is evident also this week in our Torah portion, Shemot, as we begin reading the book of Exodus (1.8-11):
“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground. So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses.”
The rise of a new politician leads to a new and harsh political reality for the Israelites in Egypt. The trope we know now so well - that they could become a fifth column of traitors within - leads to oppression and ultimately the decree to the midwives: “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” (Ibid 1.16).
The Torah has much to teach us about political theory on this unsettling and enduring topic. And there are no easy answers, despite what people might like to tell you and tell themselves.
In Israel there is a certain discourse about anti-Semitism. Recently Donniel Hartman wrote an article (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/i-hate-talking-about-anti-semitism/?fbclid=IwAR23bl31xG2Glii2KJae1PILJr1pIrORMpPwWWQnmwd0jHtIoNxihUZDqkA ) which resonated with me, and which I quote here:
“I hate talking about anti-Semitism.
I hate the way Israelis talk about anti-Semitism as a reaffirmation of Zionism. The discourse often embodies a combination of the perverse joy of “I told you so,” with a measure of paternalism, as Israel appoints itself as the solution and the protector. This is especially so when it comes to North American Jews, who dared to posit themselves as an equal alternative to Israel.”
“We told you that you would never be at home, be accepted, and be safe, anywhere other than the Jewish homeland,” is a common Israeli mantra. While Israelis condemn anti-Semitism, they do not believe that it can be eradicated nor even effectively combated. Anti-Semitism, they believe, is inherent to diasporic life and can only be overcome through a dismantlement of the Diaspora itself, and until this occurs, Israel anoints itself as the spokesman for the powerless Jew.”
But unlike Hartmann, I am a European Jew, and this adds a third part to the equation beyond the two major poles. I am someone who grew up in the UK, but who has spent most of my life, as we say, on the continent. I have served as a student and a rabbi, first in Hungary and in Poland, rebuilding Jewish communities in the ashes of the Shoah, and then in Luxembourg and in Belgium in the French-speaking world, which has seen several horrific murderous acts of anti-Semitism this past decade. And yet...I hope it comes as no surprise that I have long felt uneasy not only with Israelis and their discourse that negates the possibility of living in the Diaspora, but also with American Jews who tend to dismiss Europe as a Jewish graveyard and somehow inherently anti-Semitic, unviable for a Jewish life.
Don’t get me wrong: it does not give me an ounce of delight or schadenfreude to see anti-Semitism across the US today. It’s just extremely worrying that we all now have to deal with its resurgence across the world. Because if the US - long touted as the land of the free - is afflicted by this disease, then where remains safe for us to be? Australia and Canada have their own problems; do we really think Asia and Singapore provide more than a temporary bubble that will not one day pop as well?
Yet however this sounds, I am not a pessimist. The Torah portion shows us part of the answer. When the decree came from Pharaoh to kill the male Hebrew babies, it was resisted and defied by their midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Rashi identifies these brave women as Jochebed and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister, but whoever they were, they displayed remarkable courage. Their actions paved the way for Moses to lead the Exodus, with God hearing our cries and freeing us from Egypt. And I am optimistic because I do not believe that the majority are against us, rather we deal now with the radicalism of a small but persistent evil few, and that ultimately the good outnumber the bad, as long as they stand up to be counted.
History has a tendency to repeat itself, and at the seder table we are reminded to relive this story and to grapple with it in every generation. Like influenza, anti-Semitism is a disease that we cannot seem to destroy but we can survive it. We can live with it but it seems we have to fight it from time to time. And yet I shudder to be so accommodating, to sound so nonchalant with this medical simile. We need to work, as furiously and meticulously as any scientist, to reach the day when it, like all diseases, can be eradicated.
With International Holocaust Memorial Day just around the corner, this year marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Israeli President Rivlin is expecting to welcome more than 40 Presidents from around the world in Jerusalem next week. It is a timely reminder that ultimately we do not fight this malady of anti-Semitism as Jews alone, and nor should we. And wherever in the world we find ourselves, it is on us to look for new solutions to this most ancient of Jewish questions, ever reminding the world that it is not only a question for Jews, but rather a battle that all responsible leaders must wage as well.