And among those [enemy] nations you will not be tranquil… there Hashem will give you a trembling heart … and suffering of soul. Your life will hang in the balance, and you will be frightened night and day…And you will offer yourselves to your enemies as slaves-but there will be no buyers.
— Deut. 28:62-68
Don’t worry – Hitler will be good for the Jews. He’ll bring back prosperity and then the Germans will stop hating us. Mark my words; you’ll see … Everything will be all right.
– Anonymous, 1935
In Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “If it is true that a community is historical to the degree that it remembers its history, then the Jewish community is the least historical of all, for it keeps a memory of nothing but a long martyrdom … their money giving them ultimately little true comfort.” Walking past a newsstand a few years ago, I happened to notice the headline of USA Today about Wall Street and the “one-percenters.” Above the fold were four accusatory photos with one thing in common: They could all find the afikomen. All four billionaires on the front page of USA Today were Jews. Bloomberg, Ellison, Zuckerberg and Adelson… Couldn’t find a Walton, Koch, Buffet, Gates or Bezos in the bunch. Four members of our tribe were smiling out to America! Was I being paranoid? History has embedded in us a sense of insecurity no matter how many miracles G-d has pulled off for us.
Don’t really know what the demonstrators expected to happen when the multitude got there. Alighting on the streets of America’s most famous financial district, their faces wrapped in their “communism red” bandanas, they carried signs about income inequality, demanding their “fair” share (whatever that is) – without putting in the effort, of course – along with a few anti-Semitic signs just to keep us on our toes. I think the response from the pillars of the financial district was the legendary “Let them eat cake.”
I know it can’t happen here, said our German-Jewish brethren. Too enlightened! Too educated! Too civilized! But American college campuses have become cesspools of anti-Semitism. Newspapers are more nuanced while looking for billionaires. Jews today comprise less than one and a half percent of America’s population; but the good news is that 48 percent of America’s billionaires are Jews. The 75 percent who loyally vote Democratic along with the hate-filled demonstrators have chosen the road of our all-too-familiar history. Abraham’s stars in the heavens and that Covenant have become a distant memory for our Jews of the liberal persuasion. The prime minister of Israel wants to come to the U.S. to plead his case to Congress about an Iranian deal that jeopardizes the lives of almost nine million Israelis, yet a Conservative rabbi from Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood questions his need to speak out, insisting the prime minister has no business speaking to Congress just to voice his concerns over what we now know was a seriously flawed agreement. This prime minister Jew mustn’t be allowed to embarrass our first African-American president, scoffed the finely brocaded, liberal, loyalist rabbi of the president’s Democratic Party. “Please, Jew, don’t make us look bad! Sha! Shtil!”
In truth, once we Jews crossed Delancey Street, we shifted the American economy into high gear, put Americans to work, and helped build the wealthiest middle class in the history of civilization. We Jews – the ultimate risk-takers –again helped a nation to thrive and its people to prosper. But actually it’s an old story—a very old story. We did it in England, in France, in Spain, and yes, in Germany—but it all started in Egypt. In each country we had our diaspora delusions. Our Torah is as relevant today as the day it was inscribed.
A Jew named Joseph is thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and ends up in Egypt – in a prison, no less. Interpreting a dream, he is pulled out of prison. He interprets Pharaoh’s dream, and Pharaoh thinks, “This little Jew-boy is pretty smart – smarter than all the knuckleheads in my court.” And in a lawyerly manner, Joseph leadingly suggests, “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt… and he shall prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance.” (Gen. 41:33-34)
It’s almost as if Mel Brooks is directing. Now who are they going to get to do the job? The knucklehead chamberlains begin twitching at one another, and Pharaoh looks at these guys who couldn’t tie their sandals in order to figure out his dream, and suddenly they all turn to Joseph, the Jew. Let the Jew take the fall if the idea fails! And Pharaoh suddenly grasps the obvious, and righteously commands, “Since G-d has informed you of all this, there can be no one so discerning and wise as you. You [Jew- boy] shall be in charge of my palace and by your command shall all my people be sustained; only by the throne shall I outrank you.” (Gen. 41:39-40) So at age 30, Joseph, with his MBA from Hashem University, becomes the Cairo Street wizard of Egypt. He marries a princess, has a couple of kids, and begins to live the good life on Egypt’s Ramses Avenue. He names his second son for his diaspora success – Ephraim – for “G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” (Gen. 41:52)
Life is good. Years later, after several interludes with his unsuspecting brothers who don’t recognize him in his Egyptian Armani, he learns that his father is still alive. He tells his brothers to bring their father Jacob down to Egypt. Jacob packs his wagons and down he comes, to be reacquainted with his long lost son of the bloodied technicolor dream coat. After small talk about the interim years, and after Joseph boasts to his father of how great he has become as the second most powerful person in Egypt, a bit of concern slips out when Joseph tells his father, “When Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you are to say, ‘Your servants have been cattlemen from our youth till now, both we and our forefathers,’ … since all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (Gen. 46:32-34) But that is not the truth. Joseph, Mr. Wonderful, Mr. Almost-All-Powerful, is telling his father and his brothers to lie. Could it be that his reality is the insecurity of the diaspora delusion?
And so it was that when Pharaoh asked the brothers and Jacob about their occupation, the brothers answered, “Your servants are shepherds as were our forefathers!” (Gen. 47:3), and feeling the blood rush from his head, Joseph was about to faint. That was not what he told them to say. But Pharaoh (or G- d) steps in to save the day. “Your father and your brothers have come to you. Take them to the best lands of Egypt – Goshen – and appoint them as chamberlains over the livestock that belongs to me.” (Gen. 47:5-6) With G-d’s help, Pharaoh did the wise thing for Egypt and his throne. So far, so good.
But after saving Egypt and putting its economy back on the road to abundance, “a new pharaoh arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph and said to his people, ‘Behold! The children of Israel [now it’s curious that he didn’t remember Joseph but he remembered his father, Israel] are more numerous and stronger than we. Come, let us outsmart them lest they become too numerous … and wage war against us.”(Ex. 1:8-10) Yes, in our people’s history and adventures over the last 2,000 years, there always arises a pharaoh, a king, a prime minister, or a president … who knew not Joseph.
Next to my desk sits a book of insights written by a Jew who came back to our tribe at a swanky New York cocktail party, where he was called upon to be a Jew. Ben Hecht, journalist and Hollywood writer, came out of the closet, pen in hand, with a book written in 1943, as his fellow Jews were being slaughtered once again in a land already drenched with Jewish blood. I love Hecht for his story and his eloquence. He writes, “I found Abraham admirable because of his smallness. He is the first small hero, the first to stand up in history and beckon for attention as a non-king, non-warrior, non-greatness maker. He is also the first recorded human famed for good deeds rather than evil ones. … He saw no kings when he studied the stars, and dreamed of leading no armies when he fell asleep … He was as unworldly as Adam, but with a new type of unworldliness called introspection. He wondered who he was.” (A Guide for the Bedevilled, p. 76) Hecht introduced me to a most historic and universal Jew:
He is a Portuguese Jew of distinction, and lives in elegance in the city of Bordeaux, France; time, 1763. [Today he could live in New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Chicago.] The Señor owns a few sailing vessels, trades with the people of the Indies, has a carriage with four horses … carries an ivory-handled cane, and reads the latest works of the new French Freemason, Arouet deVoltaire [think New York Times]. [Voltaire’s anti-Semitism disturbs Pinto.] He seizes his quill, produces in five weeks a fine volume of rebuttal, and takes this volume to Paris to hurl at Voltaire. The rebuttal says that Voltaire is a fool in assailing Jews as if they were all alike. Señor Pinto points out indignantly that the Portuguese Jews, who “are all practically aristocrats,” despise German and Russian Jews as deeply as do any of their other despisers. All Voltaire has to say against the Israelites, cries the Señor from Bordeaux, might well be true of these same uncouth German and Russian varieties. But it is in no way applicable to the fine, high-class Semites only recently driven out of Portugal. I shake hands with Pinto. … He reveals that neither Voltaire nor any anti-Semites have a corner on intolerance. …
But Señor Pinto’s distaste for all Jews but his own brocaded variety has an unhappy [ending].
Attracted by this dandy’s boasts, Christendom looks on the towns of Bordeaux and Avignon and is shocked to see Jews living in such high estate, Jews with ivory-handled canes and velvet caps and large sailing vessels full of spices and gold plate. Unlike the Epicurean Pinto, the Gentiles are unable to savor the distinction between Portuguese and German Semites. … The Portuguese Jews of Bordeaux are stripped again of their dignity and treasures and sent packing into ghettos.
Another reason I admire Pinto is that he permits me to say, here is one Jew who was victim only of his own stupidity. I imagine there are many such, but Pinto stands in a spotlight. There is a certain relaxation in beholding the Jew as a villain … There is also a historic lesson in Pinto, for he reveals that when the Jew plays villain, there are always better villains around to steal the part from him. Señor Pinto also helps me to understand many Jews of today who have come to high estate … These elegant ones are ever ready to repudiate all Jews without ivory- handled canes … No more than poor Pinto will these Jewish Fortunatuses know that, in the eyes of anti-Semites, Jews are as inseparable and identical as Siamese twins… that even espousing so un-Jewish a cause as anti-Semitism never makes a Jew less a Jew.
But Señor Pinto is not entirely a villain nor yet a fool. He is more the victim of a certain logic that the world refuses to share with him. … The logic in [Jews’] own heads informs them they are not Jews at all, judged by any Jewish standards they know. … But there comes a morning when they always wake up – Jews. History stands outside their windows and, in a voice that seems truly that of an idiot, bids them attend a massacre being held for Jews only. At such a time the Pintos and the near Pintos…catch a look at the true meaning of the Jew. He is part of a game the world plays. … This Jewishness is not essential to the Jew …But it is to his enemy, who refused to outgrow a panacea so soothing, so enriching, so ego- inflating as anti-Semitism.” (pp. 28-30)
On Wall Street, Ramses Street or les rues de Bordeaux, as they say, we have history. Even the liberal Americanized Jews, not unlike Señor Pinto, should keep their ears open for the dog whistle that will be coming.
Shabbat Shalom, 10/21/16 Jack “Yehoshua” Berger
* *Back issues are archived at The Times of Israel.com