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The Start of Anti-Semitism #759

12/30/2022 05:09:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Yayigash:
"Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt...They acquired holdings and were fertile and increased greatly." (Genesis 47:27)
The Start of Anti-Semitism

The issue of anti-Semitism is complex.

A few weeks ago, I shared the story of how, during a recent vacation, my wife and I were confronted by someone who pointed her finger in my face and accused “The Jews” of undermining America.

During his recent monologue on Saturday Night Live, comedian Dave Chappelle made several derogatory remarks regarding Jewish involvement in the entertainment business.

But one of his comments resonated with me:

“Early in my career,” he noted, “I learned that there are two words in the English language that you should never say in sequence, and those words are 'the' and 'Jews.' Never heard someone do good after they said that.”

Stereotypes plague many groups — especially minorities. At the core of bigotry, they perpetuate ignorance.

Many believe that anti-Semitism has its roots in illiteracy. During challenging times, religious and political leaders would often, without context, quote random scripture to the masses, accusing their Jewish neighbors of promoting some nebulous agenda to enslave the world — economically or religiously.

Our late congregant, David Levine, once recounted a story of while travelling through the Midwest in his youth, he required a brief hospital stay.

He was intrigued as to why so many strangers came to visit him, until one confided to him: “We wanted to see your horns.”

The idea of Jews with horns, comes from a Biblical mistranslation that recounts how — as Moses came down from Mount Sinai carrying the two sacred tabletshis face radiatedThe Hebrew word used for this shining light is “karan.” 

The Hebrew word for horn is “keren,” which does not appear in the Torah, but the mistranslation — likely deliberate — has stuck.

These days, it seems that many old images — and a series of new ones — continue to circulate.

Countless questions dominate Jewish discussion on this topic; there are no easy answers. But this week’s Torah reading leads us toward some interesting parallels.

As this week’s parashah, Vayigash. concludes, things actually look good for the Israelites. The Torah tells us that " Israel settled in the country of Egypt...They acquired holdings and were fertile and increased greatly." (Genesis 47:27)

Joseph is exalted as Egypt’s prime minister. His successful plan to help the Egyptians avoid seven years of famine has made him a national hero.

His extended family is now settled in the northeast corner of Egypt. They are revered and respected.

But in two weeks, as we begin reading Exodus — the second book of the Torah — we learn that “a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph.”

He viewed us as being different. Suspicion grew and we were eventually enslaved.

“Let us deal shrewdly with them,” says the new Pharaoh. “Otherwise, they may join our enemies in fighting against us.” (Exodus 1:10)

And the mold is cast.

How many times in our history have we been welcomed into a country only to eventually become persecuted?

I often wonder what happened in the Torah between the period that Joseph’s family was exalted, and when the new king arose.

Did the Israelites isolate themselves? Did they engage with their non-Jewish neighbors? Whatever happened, scripture indicates a lack of connection between the Israelites and the new ruler.

As I look at this first recorded example of anti-Semitism, two words jump off the page — ignorance and communication.

Why didn’t the new Pharaoh know anything about Joseph? What created the environment for ignorance to foster

Today, we live in a society where no matter what we Google, a website or post will appear to support society’s lowest level of ignorance.

Many absorb what they read without filters — whether it be tabloid newspapers, some cable networks, or the lies of Internet trolls.

You don’t have to look far to find those who baselessly blame “The Jews” for everything from forest fires to political unrest.

Today’s anti-Semitic conspiracists are, in many ways, like the illiterates of thousands of years ago.

Yet, in my heart, I believe there is a right and wrong way to address this issue.

The wrong way is to isolate ourselves. If we believe that anti-Semitism is based on ignorance, then education and communication are the best antidotes.

We need to interact more with people, confronting stereotypes and correcting by example.

Jews have never been good at self-promotion, but perhaps it’s time we advance with today’s realities.

We need more school boards across the nation to educate the next generation on issues relating to the Holocaust and hatred.

One of my favorite Jewish organizations, JewBelong takes aim at this problem, encouraging Jews to call out anti-Semitism on both the left and right of the political spectrum.

How interesting that within western society, Jews donate and support charities at a level exceeding almost all other measurable groups.

How disturbing it is that we are depicted as doing the opposite.

We — as a people — need to communicate more, educate more, and interact more.

For as history has taught us, the more we retract, isolate, and hide from anti-Semitism, the more likely we will be affected by it.

There are no easy answers to this rising problem. But we cannot sit still.

The Torah tells us that there is a time for prayer and reflection, and there is a time to take action.

American Jews are at a turning point. While we have overcome devastating adversity since the time of Joseph, through the Holocaust, and through the disturbing trends affecting us today — history has taught us that new kings will arise and define who “The Jews” are.

It is up to us to be known as who we are, and that requires action — if not through our own hands and voices, then by supporting organizations that are combatting the growing epidemic of anti-Semitism.

Each of us is entitled to address this issue in our own way. That is who we are. However, inaction is no longer an option.

Indeed, as Jews, we don’t always agree on the answers or even the questions, but over history, while respecting our individuality, we move together as one.

That concept rests at the core of the Shema prayer. A collection of individual souls dedicated as one, bringing about a more just society through action.

And that is who “The Jews” truly are.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784