The year was 1894. A young journalist named Theodor Herzl was working as the Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper the Neue Freie Presse. While in Paris, Herzl covered the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a highly decorated Captain in the French Army who happened to be Jewish. Dreyfus was falsely accused and convicted for treason. Following the conviction – which was later overturned – Herzl witnessed and wrote about mass anti-Semitic rallies in the streets of Paris where many chanted: “Mort aux Juifs!” “Death to the Jews!” The experience of covering this trial had a profound impact on Herzl and, legend has it, was the impetus for writing his book, Altneuland which paved the way for the modern Zionist movement and, ultimately, the creation of the State of Israel 54 years later in 1948.
One of the key themes of Herzl’s writing was the fact that, if France, the birthplace of the Emancipation could voice such animus against the Jews, then there was no solution for the problem of anti-Semitism other than the creation of a Jewish State. Jew hatred was an eternal conundrum that could only be solved by nation-building.
Today, in the wake of 3 Terrorist acts that have shocked the world, we have, to our great sorrow, once again witnessed the grotesque dark shadow of murderous anti-Semitism pass over the beautiful facades of the City of Love and Light. Of course, this is nothing new. The rise of Islamic extremism and the French Muslim population explosion has long-branded Paris as the epicenter of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric and terror in Europe.
How can we, as American Jews living in relative safety, understand and comprehend these incomprehensible events? What are the lessons, if any, that we might begin to glean in the aftermath of today’s horrors?
I wish I knew…
All that I can do is to somehow try to place today’s evil in the context of our weekly torah portion.
On this Shabbat, we begin a new chapter of Torah –Shemot/Exodus- that contains the phrase: Vayakom Melech Chadash Al Mitzrayim Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef — and a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)
Why was it important to mention Joseph’s name in the context of speaking about the new Pharaoh? Our tradition teaches that perhaps it was only because of the greatness of Joseph that Pharaoh allowed the Israelites to live in peace. Once Joseph was out of the picture, any security that the Israelites may have expected disappeared.
Overnight, the fortunes of the Israelites changed from a protected and valued people, to that of outsiders who were ripe for enslavement.
How could this have happened? Were there no signs or warnings that would have indicated that this new Pharaoh was so hostile? Our commentators differ in their answer to this question. Some posit that, even in the last chapters of the book of Bereshit (Genesis) the Egyptians were showing the beginnings of their fear of the Children of Israel. For example, when Joseph and his brothers go to Canaan to bury their father, Jacob, Pharaoh sent an army of soldiers to accompany them – officially as a sign of the high esteem in which Joseph was placed – but also, quite possibly, the soldiers were sent in order to ensure that they would return to Egypt.
Whatever interpretations we might want to ascribe to our text, the lesson is clear enough: just because one generation finds itself in relative safety and comfort, this safety is not guaranteed into the future. Attitudes, prejudices and fears of the other are fickle. Yesterday’s hero is tomorrow’s pariah. All we need to do is look at World attitudes towards the State of Israel to find proof of this fact. Following the 1967 war, everybody loved Israel –the underdog; the David facing the Arab Goliath.
As Israel prevailed against her enemies, we witnessed a turning of the tide to the point where Israel was portrayed — not as the victim, but as the perpetrator of evil. Israel’s acts of self-preservation in the face of terror and violence have been re-interpreted by many, if not most of today’s Europe as illegitimate. And, as we have seen all too often, anti-Israel discourse quickly morphs into the classic tropes of anti-Semitism. Many European countries have also become safe-havens and breeding grounds for the radicalization of young, impressionable Muslims who themselves are not accepted into mainstream European society. This creates a toxic combination of medieval anti-Semitism with Islamic xenophobia and Jew-hatred that is both ancient and new.
The reality is that, no matter how good it may be for the Jewish people today, the possibility of a radical shift occurring in the attitudes of non-Jews towards Israel and the Jews is always there – lurking underneath the surface. Think of Spain in 1492 – the beginning of the Inquisition; or Germany in 1933 – in the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power. Think of the situation of the Jewish Communities in Morocco, Iran, Iraq and throughout the Arab World following the establishment of the State of Israel. Communities that had thrived for centuries were decimated overnight.
Is there anyone who watched the terror unfolding in that Supermarket in Paris and who didn’t ask themselves: how could this happen? Could it happen here? The answer is: It has happened…and it easily could happen again. That is the reality of Global terror and hatred.
So how do we deal with all of this? I think the answer can also be found in a story in this week’s parasha reading. If you will recall, one of Pharaoh’s decrees was to kill all male Israelite children. You also may recall that there were two Egyptian midwives named Shifra and Puah who defied Pharaoh — who refused to carry out his genocide. Their bravery – their decision to defy Pharaoh’s decree and speak truth to power ensured that the Israelites were not destroyed.
And so, on this Shabbat, I ask the questions: Who will be France’s midwives? Who are the Shifra’s and Puah’s of today? Who is brave enough to confront the faces of evil and say: “Enough! We will not allow ourselves and our society to be bullied into submission by Religious Fanatics who distort the meaning of their faith through their acts of violence.”
In 1894, a young Theodore Herzl saw the future in the chants of the mobs of Paris. If, today, we do not find the courage to proclaim that we will never allow terror to define us in the 21st Century in the aftermath of today’s events, then we have forsaken our sacred duty to stand up to oppression. We must seek out voices of moderation within the Islamic community – voices who will not only condemn extremism in private conversation – but shout from the rooftops that they will not allow their sacred faith to be polluted by terror. We must be vigilant in the face of attempts to paint Israel and all Jews as evil – whether in the United Nations, the European Parliament, the streets of Paris or here in Denver. 17 pure souls- at least 4 of whom were Jewish – lost their lives because of hatred these past three days. That alone should be a call to action and sanity. Today we grieve the loss of life due to hatred. Tomorrow we start building a new future.
Y’hi Zichram Baruch – may their memories be for a blessing
(My thanks to Rabbi Emma Gottlieb for the idea for the question: “Who will be France’s midwives?”)