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Parshas Vayishlach (5775)

Anti-Semitism: Is it here to stay?

Anti-semitism ... that is something we can all live without ... but, whether we like it or not, it's definitely out there. Anti-semitism is not just a thing of the past, but is unfortunately alive and well and flourishing especially in Europe and even in North America at the beginning of the new millennium.

Truth to tell, we Jews at times will tend to exaggerate our fears about anti-semitism, almost bordering on paranoia. Witness the following joke:

A young Jewish man comes home from a job interview. "They did ... did ...didn't gi ... gi .... give me the job as a ra ... ra ... radio announcer," he laments. "Bunch of lousy an ... an... anti-semites."

Generally speaking, though, our fears have been justified. Every so often, though, we get our revenge, as is illustrated in the following amusing story:

During the Second World War, a southern matron calls up the local army base. "We would be honored," she tells the sergeant who takes her call, "to accommodate five soldiers at our Thanksgiving dinner." "That's very gracious of you, ma'am," the sergeant answers. "Just please make sure they're not Jews", the matron adds. "I understand, ma'am." Thanksgiving afternoon, the woman answers the front doorbell and is horrified to find five black soldiers standing in the doorway. "We're here for the Thanksgiving dinner, ma'am," one of the soldiers says. "Bu ... bu ... but your sergeant has made a terrible mistake," the woman says. “Oh no, ma'am," the soldier answers. "Sergeant Greenberg never makes mistakes."

Many explanations for anti-semitic feelings and behavior have been suggested throughout the ages. One reason given is that Jews are different - they have a different religion, a different culture, they even look different - and nobody likes someone who is different and "weird". Another reason might be that some non-Jews are jealous of the amazing successes of the Jewish people. Our power and high positions of influence are disproportionate to our small numbers. And that jealousy breeds hatred.

In their book Why the Jews (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin suggest yet another reason: Because the Jews gave the world a code of ethical behavior, they are hated. Even though the world has, by and large, accepted the Torah's code of ethical behavior as morally correct, the Jews face resentment because of it. Even though the child knows it is right, the child still resents the parent for imposing the restrictions.

All these explanations no doubt have some validity to them, but they just don't cover all bases. More often than not, anti-semitic behavior borders on the irrational. There has never been a consistent attitude towards the Jewish people - whatever we do, there will be always be someone out there who will have a problem with it. If we make too much money - we're taking over the country. Too little money - we're parasites who live off other people's money. You just can't win. And how about the Nazi's systematic genocide of one million innocent Jewish children? Were they jealous of those Jewish kids? Were the children running world banks? Clearly, there is something much deeper going on here. Something that can't be explained in a rational way. What is the secret behind anti-semitism?

Rashi in this week's Torah portion (Genesis 33:4) quotes the following Midrash:

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says, "It is a well-known Halachah (law) that Esau hates Jacob".

The commentaries explain that the hatred between Esau, representing the non-Jews, and Jacob, representing the Jews, is a Halachah - a G-d given law of nature - as natural to the world as any other law of nature. Of course, this does not mean that all non-Jews hate Jews, only that some non-Jews hate Jews without any logical reason or provocation.

While this explanation doesn't really enhance our understanding of anti-semitism a whole lot, it does tell us some important things about the nature of our relationship with the non-Jewish world.

First of all, it tells us that anti-semitism is not going to go away, much the same way clouds and earthquakes are not going to go away.

Secondly, and this is most important, if it is part of natural law, then there must be something about anti-semitism that is crucial and necessary for the world as G-d sees it. When G-d created animals and plant life, He had the betterment of mankind in mind. It follows that when G-d created the idea of anti-semitism, He also had some "constructive purpose" in mind. Just what that "constructive purpose" might be, we mortals, with our finite capacities of understanding, can only theorize and conjecture about. Nevertheless, with the benefit of the hindsight of well over two thousand years of Diaspora, we can see some "good" that has come from anti-semitism.

In a strange sort of way, anti-semitism has always served to remind the Jew of who he is, and what his purpose is here on earth. Sometimes, a Jewish Hebrew School experience won't do it. Nor will brief exposure to a synagogue always succeed in bringing a Jew back to his roots. But one anti-semitic comment from a co-worker or neighbor really hits home. It wakes us up to the realization that there is something about us as Jews that sets us apart - it reminds us that we are we are here on earth with a very specific and distinct mission. And that although we and our non-Jewish neighbors appear to be exactly the same - we both mow our lawns on Sunday, our kids might even go to the same schools - in reality, we are worlds apart.

When Jews in Berlin in the years leading up to World War Two had entirely assimilated into the German culture to the point that they considered themselves more German than Jewish, along came the Nuremberg Laws which persecuted Jews who were even 1/8 Jewish (meaning that only one of their great-grandparents was Jewish). At that point the Jews sadly realized that, no matter how much we try to forget who we are and absorb ourselves into the greater non-Jewish culture - a Jew is a Jew is a Jew - but for many, it was too late.

We have a ancient Jewish tradition that there will come a time when the entire world will be filled with an understanding of the deepest secrets of the history of mankind - this is the period known as the Messianic Era - and we will one day be able to fully comprehend why G-d allowed there to be such a terrible thing as anti-semitism. Until that time, however, the best we can do is to come to terms with the reality that is anti-semitism, and to study its lessons well.

[For Aish Hatorah’s amazing online seminar on the roots of anti-semitism called Why the Jews: The Shocking Explanation for the World’s Longest Hatred, click on: http://www.aish.com/seminars/whythejews/index.htm ]

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