On accommodation and resistance: the lesson of Joseph

A penniless young man works his way into a position second only to the leader of the land. He enjoys riches, honor, and marriage to a woman from the upper class. From this perch, he manages to protect his own family during an economic downturn that devastates the country. But when the original leader dies, the new administration turns against the young man’s descendants and enslaves them. No member of the population stands up to protest.
The biblical Joseph is perhaps the first Jew to cultivate proximity to the king, in the hopes that those in power will protect the Jewish community from oppression. But he is hardly the last. Throughout history, Jewish communities have gambled on relying on those in power for protection. And again and again, we have learned that this bargain always fails in the long run. As Jewish communities will read in this week’s Torah portion, eventually “a new king arose, who did not know Joseph.” Protected status easily shifts to oppression.

Today, the American Jewish community faces the same choice as Joseph and so many who followed him. Some of us have pledged to resist an administration that has tacitly encouraged hate speech and hate crimes, and that threatens to curtail religious and civil liberties. Others choose to cultivate access to the incoming administration, in the hopes of securing support for the direct needs of the Jewish community or for the current government of the State of Israel.

Choosing the latter route sometimes entails even ignoring or minimizing the rise in anti-Semitic attacks both online and in person, and the proliferation of swastikas, including on the flagship rabbinical school campus of the Reform Movement, and at a subway stop near my own home in Northern Manhattan. In an especially cruel irony, Rabbi Marvin Hier, director of a museum that memorializes the Holocaust, will offer a benediction at the Inauguration of a president who hints at fascism and who issues dog whistles to anti-Semites.

Those who choose accommodation over resistance often point to prominent Jewish figures in the incoming administration, including Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Steven Mnuchin, and Jason Greenblatt. After all, some say, these appointees will surely temper the influence of the white supremacists newly emboldened by the President Elect, and even of Stephen Bannon who ran the most important platform for the so-called “alt right.”

Instead of feeling relieved by the presence of these figures, the Jewish community should be alarmed. Throughout history, Jews have often found themselves in the role of the middleman, often forced into positions of economic authority, including as tax collectors and money lenders. In the Torah, when Pharaoh learns of the impending seven years of famine, he puts Joseph in charge of distributing food. Thus, when the starving people cry to Pharaoh for sustenance, he replies, “Go to Joseph.” (Genesis 41:55) In payment for the grain, Joseph sweeps up their livestock, lands, and labor for the benefit of Pharaoh. Is it any wonder that the Egyptians later accept the enslavement of Joseph’s children without protest?

Anyone who knows Jewish history should be terrified by the possibility of economic instability during an administration that has nominated Jews as Secretary of the Treasury, Director of the National Economic Council, and top White House Economist. In his assertion, “The only kind of people I want counting my money are little short guys that wear yarmulkes every day,” as well as with these appointments, the President Elect reinforces the most enduring of anti-Semitic stereotypes, the conspiracy theory that a Jewish global elite controls banks and media. Placing Jews in positions of economic authority only sets our community up for backlash. As the ancient rabbis warned, “Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They act like friends when it suits their needs, but do not stand up for a person in his time of distress” (Pirkei Avot 2:3)

The way to counter the dangers of anti-Semitism is to forge alliances with other vulnerable communities, to strengthen the democratic institutions that protect all minorities from depending on the whims of a particular administration and to work for economic stability. Indeed, according to the Torah, some of the first laws that God gives the Jewish people after their liberation from slavery address the protection of strangers and other marginalized people, the establishment of fair systems of justice, and care for the poor. In the words of the famed nineteenth century City College professor, Morris Raphael Cohen, “When we protest or fight against vicious discrimination or rowdy efforts to deprive us of our equal rights as citizens, we are not only defending our legitimate interests as Jews, but are also helping our fellow citizens to preserve the integrity of the traditional American way of life.. . . We dare not abandon the cause of liberalism. For if that fails in this country, we as a minority group, and ultimately all respect for human rights, are doomed.” (Reflections of a Wondering Jew 3-4)

Some will reject this call to ally with other minority communities by pointing to the rise in anti-Semitism in some corners of the left, as well as the minimal acknowledgment of Jewishness in the progressive discourse of intersectionality—the awareness of multiple overlapping identities. It is true that criticism of the policies of the Israeli government too often slips into classic anti-Semitic tropes , and that Ashkenazi Jews are too often viewed as just another variety of white people. But the response must be more engagement, rather than less. This response must include standing up for the rights of other minorities in the U.S. and working to end the Israeli military occupation while also refusing to tolerate anti-Semitism at any level, including calls for the eradication of the Jewish state.

Today, the Jewish community is engaging in a fundamental struggle of values over the question of whether to attempt to gain access to the new administration, despite its anti-Semitic undertones, or whether to resist it. As Joseph and so many Jewish communities have learned throughout history, collaboration with an oppressive ruling class never protects us in the end. But alliances with diverse communities for a just, equitable, and democratic society offers the promise of security and liberation for us all.

About the Author
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes a network of 1800 rabbis and our Jewish communities to protect and advance human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories.
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