When people think of great ancient civilisations, they often think of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, India, China, Greece and Rome. Many of these civilisations developed along a great river – the Nile, Tigris/Euphrates, Yangtze, and Indus – or in lush mountains. Great monuments were built and left behind – the Pyramids, Hanging Gardens, Great Wall of China, Pantheon, and Coliseum. Also famous are the great monuments in other civilisations at Angkor Wat, in Zimbabwe in Africa, as well as those of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans in the Americas.
In bookshops and libraries, schools and universities, there are many books about the great civilisations of the world – ancient civilisations and their monuments, their armies and conquests, their gods and governments, and their great material achievements.
However, one civilisation of lasting influence and impact on the world did not develop along a major river or amidst lush vegetation, but was born in an arid desert, in a no-man’s land, and was founded not by kings and conquerors but by pastoral nomads and runaway slaves. This was a civilisation that left its imprint not so much in material achievements – monuments, buildings, military conquests and empire – but rather in the human heart and mind.
This is the civilisation of the Jewish people. Its principal achievements and lasting legacy have been in the realm of ideas, values, ethics, laws, and a vision for humanity. This Judaic vision is based on the foundational concepts and values in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), given to the Jewish people at Sinai 3,500 years ago. The Jewish festival of Shavuot (literally, “weeks”) celebrates the giving, and receiving, of the Torah.
Much is written about Greek and Roman culture as the foundation of Western civilisation. However, most ‘Western’, and increasingly most global, civilisational values and ideals, derive from Judaism, from Jewish values and Jewish laws. These were adopted and adapted by Christianity and Islam, the two daughter religions of Judaism, and spread by them. Some of these Judaic values are becoming increasingly widespread, such as human rights; while others have only more recently started to gain ground, such as environmental protection and animal rights.
The Jews, through the Torah, brought these, and many other, unique and revolutionary concepts and values to the world:
- ethical monotheism
- brotherhood of humanity
- the inviolable sanctity of human life
- the dignity of each person
- individual conscience
- social responsibility
- individual rights
- equality before the law
- a vision of a society founded on justice
- universal peace as an ideal
The Jewish people brought the world the idea of the oneness of G-d and the corresponding oneness of humanity, together with the ethical principles of the Torah. These ethical principles are the foundation of what we today recognise as human rights, social justice, and the rule of law, conscience and morality. They include care for the poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable, the idea that all humanity are brothers and sisters under the parenthood of one universal G-d, and the vision of peace between peoples – all principles that were revolutionary in a pagan world, and are still considered revolutionary in most parts of the world.
The pagan world of 3,500 years ago was predominantly one where human life had no value, where it was normal for human beings, including children, to be sacrificed to pagan gods or deified kings, where some human beings (slaves) were considered to be mere property and “animated tools” (as Aristotle referred to them), and where some humans, such as the disabled or sickly children, and frequently female babies, were cast out from their homes and their families and left to die of exposure.
Although the earliest known civil law code in the world, the Code of Hammurabi (dated some 400 years before the Torah), enacted laws for commerce, property, criminal law and the like, the Code was aimed primarily at the protection of property, not of human beings. Mutilation and brutal forms of execution were the norms for property offences such as theft. The Code of Hammurabi set out laws, and as advanced as many of them were for their day, people still lacked many basic human rights, and the Code lacked ethics and a universal moral vision.
The Torah is a blueprint of how to live and how to organise a just society. The verses “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) and “Love your neighbour [and] the stranger as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, 19:34) are pivotal. Some of the other key ethical and practical commands within the Torah include: do not steal, lie or murder; do not sacrifice your children; do not put a stumbling block before the blind; do not stand by while your brother bleeds; give to the poor and needy; be honest in business; pay your workers on time; judge fairly between people in their disputes; leave the produce in the corner of your field for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-15). Further, “if your brother becomes poor, and his means fail him, then you should strengthen him, whether he is a stranger or a fellow Israelite” (Leviticus 25:35).
The Jewish ethical and legal code includes rights and protections for children, women, workers, strangers (foreigners), and animals. Even the ecology is to be protected, “for the tree of the field is the life of man” (Deuteronomy 20:19). In addition, the Hebrew prophets reinforced and reiterated the ideals and values in the Torah. Both Isaiah and Micah express the ideal of universal peace: “and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation. They shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4).
In short, the Torah is composed of laws upholding the sanctity of human life, laws protecting the integrity of the family, laws of economic justice, laws for social justice, laws of dealing fairly and justly with our fellow humans, laws to protect animals, and laws of environmental protection. It encourages and exhorts people to act with integrity and justice and compassion, in their personal and family lives, and in their professional and communal lives, as a means towards bringing about a society and world built on fairness and cooperation.
It is for affirming these principles of right and justice in a damaged world beset by the worst of human passions that the Jews have been the target of the most persistent, intense and vicious hatred known to humanity. Yet, Jews are simply the messengers of the message to humanity contained within the Torah: that there is a better way to live, both as individuals and as a society. This message is so profound and so powerful, that those who prefer to live by brute force will oppose it and try to destroy it at all costs. They cannot destroy Torah, they cannot destroy an idea, this message, so they target the messengers, the Jews, as the bearers of Torah.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his book “Radical Then, Radical Now: on Being Jewish”, writes: “The Jewish people in its very being constitutes a living protest against a world of hatred, violence and war. […] it is a protest against the world that is, in the name of the world that ought to be. From this refusal-to-accept eventually emerged the most sustained of all man’s attempts to create a social order based on individual freedom and collective grace, a society of equal access to dignity and hope. Judaism is an ongoing moral revolution that began by challenging the great empires of the ancient world.”
It is this “moral revolution” that antisemites cannot stand. They want to maintain the freedom to conquer and kill, to dominate, exploit and oppress, to recreate a world where might is right and where power and brute force are the idols to be worshipped. They oppose a world where individual human life has meaning and value, where coexistence and cooperation are norms, and where the ideals of social justice and a common humanity are pursued. Across the span of history, these objectors rise and fall, leaving in their wake a world bloodied by hatred and violence. Whether they are the conquerors of old, or supersessionist religions, or in more recent times, the adherents of totalitarian and supremacist ideologies of fascism, communism, Nazism, or Islamism, they are manifestations of the same evil.
Antisemitism targets Jews. Despite the propaganda, Jews are not targeted for being rich or poor, secular or religious, integrated or segregated, too numerous or too few, being convenient scapegoats, being different, or for any of the other reasons that are often put forward. False accusations about Jews drinking gentile blood or conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the finance, governments and the media of the world are simply the propaganda bait and tools used by antisemites to entice and inflame people to their cause. Individual Jews often fail to live up to the Torah’s ethical values, but even this failure is not the true cause of antisemitism.
As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager noted in their book “Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism” Jews are targeted because they are the bearers of these values, the living affirmation of a universal message of a humanitarian and ethical world. Antisemitism therefore does not only affect Jews; antisemitism has ramifications for the whole of a society. Behind the antisemite is a mindset that, in essence, targets all human beings, and all hopes and dreams and aspirations for a better and decent world. It is that mindset that targets the Jews first, before moving on to others. Once it is acceptable to target Jews, the door opens to target others, along a sliding scale of those whose lives are deemed in the name of whatever cause, religion or ideology to be increasingly forfeit – the political or religious opponent, gays, the disabled, women, other races, and on and on, until only the ‘acceptable human being’ subject to dictator or ideology is left alive, but cowering. The result is a humanity trapped in wretchedness and pain.
Antisemitism is rooted in opposition to the values and ideals of the Torah, in a totalitarian mindset that asserts that a religion or a race or an ideology or a nation or even a royal dynasty must dominate and rule, and that individuals are therefore expendable for the so-called ‘greater good’ or in the interests of a state, a religion, a race or an ideology.
Jews are the “canary in the coalmine”. Whenever antisemitism takes hold, whether by a few individuals, a government or a society, when Jews are being targeted and attacked, that is the first sign that a sickness is seeping into a society. It is the flashing light, the warning siren that those who seek to destroy the humanitarian and egalitarian values of the Torah are rising up to dominate, control and exploit others. It is incumbent upon all who cherish human rights and a society based on individual dignity and social justice to recognise the signs and act to counter them.
Julie Nathan is the Research Officer for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry