Pinchas Goldschmidt

Are Jews really racist against gentiles?

I never thought I'd have to revive a century-old defense against an officially debunked blood libel, but the Russian public needs a reminder of the truth (Hukat)
By Sani Shapiro (Life time: This is a song from before 1923) - Original publication: 1913 New York. Immediate source: Microfilm, Public Domain,

Haters gonna hate, goes the saying – and we get an object lesson on that from this week’s Parsha, Hukat. In the portion, the Torah describes the laws of “tent defilement” – where a person becomes ritually impure if they happen to be in an enclosed space with a dead person. The Talmudic commentary on this law tells us that it only applies to Jews who have passed on; there is no ritual impurity if the dead person in the room is not Jewish.

So far, so good – but the way the Talmud arrives at this conclusion has furnished no end of challenges to Jews throughout the generations, and no end of fodder for antisemites who search out any and every excuse to hate Jews. The Talmud in Tractate Yevamoth (91a) cites the opinion of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who says, after typical Talmudical analysis of the verses in our parsha, that ritual impurity only kicks in when the dead person in the room is an “Adam,” the Hebrew word for person – and it only applies to Jews, because “You are called Adam, and the idol worshippers are not called Adam.”

That’s all the Jews haters needed. Throughout the generations, antisemites have cited this statement as “proof” that Jews consider non-Jews as less than human, as potential slaves, as not worthy of being rescued if they are hurt, etc. In truth, of course, the statement means something else entirely: “Adam,” translated as “person,” is singular, even if it refers to people in general. This is unlike the terms “man” and “men,” or “woman” and “women” – both of which also have a singular and plural form in Hebrew. So when we say “Adam,” or “person,” we refer to individuals who see themselves as a single unit – and that refers to the Jews, who have a mutual bond unlike that of any other people.

The antisemites sure see us as having that mutual bond. In the 1913 trial of Mendel Beilis, who was accused of killing a Russian boy for his blood in order to bake matzos – the infamous blood libel – Russian prosecutors used that Talmudic statement as proof that Jews saw Russians as less than human, hence candidates for blood harvesting. In response, the defense attorney (under the guidance of the rabbi of Moscow, Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh, who was instructed in this matter by Maharam Shapira of Lublin) described the statement as referring to the phenomenon of Jewish unity – a phenomenon that the trial itself ironically confirmed, as it had put all of Russian Jewry on trial over blood libel charges, something that would have been unimaginable for any other group.

In the end, Beilis was (perhaps miraculously) acquitted. But that did not put an end to antisemites’ attempts to use a misinterpreted comment as fuel for their Jew hatred. I myself was forced to deal with this issue, not in the days of the czars – but in the 21st century, when one would think medieval nonsense like blood libels would be a thing of the past. On January 27, 2005, more than 5,000 Russian citizens plus 19 members of parliament, mainly from Rodina, the Motherland-National Patriotic Union, a rightwing nationalist party, along with members of the Communist Party, wrote a petition to the Prosecutor General to close all Jewish religious organizations in Russia, and to ban Jews from working in the civil service and in the media. The reason, the petition claimed, was because of “anti-Gentile writings,” published by Keroor, the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations in Russia, which I was associated with. Among those writings was the exact quote of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai – which the antisemites took literally, despite our best efforts to explain what it really means.

We, of course, sought action against those spreading the petition – especially after hearing Vladimir Putin say at a ceremony at Auschwitz commemorating the 60th anniversary of the concentration camp’s liberation, that he was “ashamed” of the antisemitism in his own country, a rare off-script moment for the Russian president. Despite that, the Russian prosecutor’s office in June declined publicly to open an investigation into charges of extremism and antisemitism against the writers of the petition – opting several weeks later to open a preliminary investigation against Keroor over its “anti-Gentile” stance. Zinovy Kogan, the chairman of Keroor, was summoned to the prosecutor’s office to provide explanations.

According to a well-known academic I consulted with, Professor Yevgenya Albats, many of Rodina’s allegations were recycled directly from the Beilis trial. Albats recommended that I go to the media with my explanation of the contentious statement. And I did so in an article that was published in Izevstia, one of Russia’s most important (then) government-controlled newspapers. I later told the JTA that I thought it “ironic” that nearly a century later, I needed to follow in the path of Rabbi Maze, telling reporters that “the issues that were at stake during the Beilis trial back then came back to haunt Russia today.”

Indeed, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Technology, economies, and the level of human comfort in 2024 have never been more advanced. But as we’ve seen in the months since October 7th, some things never change; Jew hatred is as strong today as it’s been in the past half-century, and beyond. The lesson for us is that we need to act in that unified way that the term “Adam” symbolizes. Antisemites believe the lies that fuel their Jew hatred; we need to believe the truth, and act on it.

About the Author
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is the President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and exiled Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is also the recipient of the Aachen International Charlemagne Prize in 2024.
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