Thursday, 22 Dec 2011

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

What is the relationship between antisemitism and Jewish behaviour? Do Jews sometimes provoke antagonism, hatred, persecution by the way they act? Of course now, we would instinctively say NO. It’s wrong to blame the victims of bigotry and violence. Over the centuries, and especially in the past 200 years, Jews have been attacked for every conceivable form of behaviour, including antithetical ones.

To take one spectacular example: Jews were attacked in the twentieth century for manipulating the system of finance capitalism to oppress the workers, and for leading a Bolshevik revolution of workers that threatened to undermine the capitalist system. And when the inconsistency was pointed out, the response was that both activities were part of an international Jewish conspiracy: the radical secular Jewish socialists destroy the institutions of traditional European society so that the capitalists could take over control. Antisemitism is a defect in the psychology of the antisemite, not a rational response to the behaviour of the Jews.

But as obvious and compelling as this analysis sounds to us today, we should recognize that there is a long tradition in our literature, going back to the Bible itself, which did indeed blame the Jews for the suffering that befell them. The predominant response of Jewish leaders to persecution throughout the ages, at least until the Holocaust, was to explain it theologically if not sociologically as the result of our sins. If we were oppressed, attacked, defeated, murdered, it was because we had failed to live up to our obligations under the covenant, and God was punishing us accordingly. The prophets warned of this in advance, and generation after generation of Jewish preachers and moralists responded to catastrophe in this way.

This explanation of Jewish suffering was not, however, generally used with the enslavement in Egypt. We generally read the narrative of the past two weeks to assert that Joseph made an invaluable contribution to his new country, saving the lives of the Egyptian people through his plans to prepare for the future famine, enriching Egypt by selling the stores of grain he had accumulated to foreigners in desperate need, earning the gratitude of the Pharaoh, who rewarded his family accordingly. It was only a new Pharaoh, devoid of institutional memory, who at the beginning of the Book of Exodus looked at the descendants of this family with cynicism or paranoia and commanded their oppression.

Yet the Biblical narrative provides some indications that the dynamic might be read rather differently. I refer to the second part of the last chapter of this week’s parashah, to which we usually don’t pay much attention. The passage states that as the famine continued, Joseph “gathered in all the money in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan as payment for the food that was procured, and brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace” (Gen. 47: 14). The following year, with no more liquid capital, the Egyptians were compelled by Joseph to sell their livestock to the king for food. The year after that, as the famine continues and there is no more livestock, the Egyptians had to offer their land, which passed through Joseph into the Pharaoh’s possession. Then they say these haunting words: “ve-nihyeh anahnu ve-admatenu avadim le-Phara’oh,”, “we with our lands will be slaves to Pharaoh (47:19).”

Now we know this language “slaves to Pharaoh” from the Pesach Haggadah. But according to the narrative in our parashah, the first people to say “Avadim hayinu le-Pharaoh be-Mitzrayim” were not our ancestor Israelites, but rather the Egyptians, enslaved, or perhaps enserfed, through the initiative of Joseph. (And indeed, nineteenth-century anti-Semites picked up on this theme, noting that it was the Israelites, who “under Joseph’s ministry, introduced slavery” into Egypt. ) Despite their purported profession of gratitude to Joseph for having saved their lives by providing food in a period of famine, we may assume that the Egyptian masses would not have been thrilled by the change in their condition over the past few years.

Finally, after this account of systematic nationalization, centralization, concentration of wealth in the hands of an autocratic ruler, comesthe climactic last verse of the parashah, “Va-Yeshev Yisrael be-Eretz Mitzrayim, be-Eretz Goshen, va-ye’ahzu vah, va-yifru va-yirbu me’od, “But Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly” (Gen. 47:27). For any reader with a sense of subsequent Jewish history for example of the court Jews of the 17th and 18th century absolutist states who helped their sovereigns enormously but aroused bitter resentment among the masses that dramatic contrast of disequilibrium between the fate of the native Egyptians dispossessed of their land and the flourishing of the foreigner Israelites acquiring land is almost chilling. One feels instinctively that it is a dangerously unstable situation that cannot last for long. And so, under a new regime, a Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph,” things came undone.

We live in a very different age, and blaming Jews as a group for our behaviour is simply not tolerated in respectable public discourse here in the UK, or in the United States, or in most European countries. Just last week, an important American ambassador was strongly criticized for suggesting that the tensions raised by certain Israeli policies toward the Palestinians were a cause of antisemitism. Bernie Madoff was justifiably condemned and punished for his criminally fraudulent financial behaviour, and some have noted the number of Jews in important economic roles, but openly antisemitic generalizations pertaining to the economic upheavals of the past few years remain on the lunatic fringes of the Internet.

Nevertheless, this final chapter from our parashah reminds us that in these difficult times the model of Joseph’s family—separating themselves from the broader society, thriving in their own separate Goshen under the protection of a high political figure while the majority were suffering a significant decline in the quality of their lives—is not an appealing model for us to emulate.


Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
December 2011


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.