Has historical antisemitism been good or bad for the Jews? It seems like an odd question. For which people in history has hatred of them been good? But consider the following: Of all the ancient peoples who existed alongside the Jews, including the Romans, the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Amalekites, the Jebusites et al, only the Jews are still around. Why is that? As Mark Twain put it in his essay, Concerning the Jews, “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” How is it that despite all of the persecutions through the centuries, we Jews are still here?

Or, perhaps, it is not despite the persecutions, but due to them?

The 11th-century commentary on Exodus, Shemot Rabbah, cites the first verse of Parashat Tetzaveh, followed by a statement from Jeremiah. Parashat Tetzaveh reads (Exodus 27:20): “And you [Moses] shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light…,” and, quoting God addressing the Jewish people, Jeremiah states, “The Lord called your name a leafy olive tree, fair and with good fruit” (11:16). Shemot Rabbah is perplexed by this comparison of Jeremiah, noting that the Jewish people are compared to many different trees and fruit, including the vine (Psalms 80:9), the fig (Hosea 9:10), and the date (Song of Songs 7:8). Why does Jeremiah single out the olive tree?

Considering what olives have to go through before they are ready to be used as oil, the comparison is rather apt, answers Shemot Rabbah. First, the olives need to be hit off the tree with a stick. Then, they need to be collected. They need to be brought to the press. They need to be crushed by a large stone. The oil needs to be collected and filtered out of any impurities. Sometimes multiple times. Only then is the olive oil ready to be used. The process is much more complicated than for dates, figs, grapes, or nearly any other fruit. So, too, with the Jewish people, says Shemot Rabbah. The Jews have been physically and emotionally beaten for centuries. (Recall that this is coming from a source which had not experienced the Crusades, Inquisition, or Holocaust!) Our enemies have crushed our bodies and spirits. They have moved us from place to place. We have led the life of olives.

But what has come of us? Despite the persecutions, we are still here. Among other reasons, this is due to the fact that when we have been oppressed, we cried out to God, and He has had mercy on us. As Deuteronomy puts it: “In your distress, when all these things have befallen you…you will return to the Lord your God, and follow his voice, for the Lord your God is a merciful God; He will not fail you…” (4:30-31). In a sense, the persecutions made us a better people, a stronger people, a more faithful people. Would it have been nicer without the pain? Of course. But usually in life, anything worthwhile involves pain and sacrifice. As opposed to other ancient peoples who, when defeated, took their defeat as evidence of their gods’ weaknesses, we understood our defeats as evidence of God’s rebuking us. While we might have wanted God to treat us like any other nation, as His Chosen People, He had higher expectations of us. When we fell short, He let us know. Loudly and clearly.

This is why Jeremiah compared us, from all other fruit trees, to the olive tree. When the olive is first being harvested, it must feel that its world is coming to an end. It was leading such a peaceful existence, just hanging around (literally), enjoying the breezes. Then it is smacked with a stick, roughly thrown into a bag, poured onto a hard floor, and crushed until there is no life left in it. In the end, however, what comes out of this beaten olive creates some of the most beautiful light in the world.

So may it be with the Jewish people. May we know no further beatings, and may we be able to be a true “light to the nations,” spreading God’s eternal messages of justice and morality.

(Based on ב. יאושזון, מאוצרנו הישן – שמות-ויקרא, p. 164)