The Biblical Paradigm for Anti-Semitism throughout History

Warning: may cause some Jews to experience discomfort, irritation and in rare cases anger. Endless volumes have been written tracing the roots, causes and manifestations of classical, modern as well as the “new” antisemitism from every social and scientific perspective possible. My intention here is simply to demonstrate the startling correlation between the recurring patterns of antisemitism throughout history with the paradigm provided in the Torah.

Parshat Vayeitzei begins with Yaakov fleeing from his brother Esav. He finds refuge in Haran and takes up residence at Lavan’s house. We soon discover that Lavan, who appears to act with warmth and hospitality, is actually driven by ulterior motives. Hashem’s blessing, accompanied by Yaakov’s tenacity and years of hard work brings good fortune to Lavan’s entire household, a fact not lost on Lavan himself, who becomes ever more exploitative of Yaakov’s success.

As the years pass, Yaakov becomes a wealthy man. Lavan’s son’s grow envious of the outsider who, having arrived empty-handed has now amassed a small fortune. As their envy turns to disdain, they begin making false accusations against Yaakov, charging that he stole from their father. At the same time, Lavan himself, frustrated by setbacks and faced with Yaakov’s success, grows increasingly hostile. Yaakov begins to sense the change taking place in his adopted land but remains complacent as hostility turns to hatred.

Hashem then intervenes, commanding Yaakov to return to his home, the Land of Israel. Yaakov proceeds to discuss the matter with his wives, who seem to have a more intuitive understanding of the growing danger they all face. The wives exhort Yaakov to act in accordance with Hashem’s will and the entire family flees in haste.

Every Pesach, in celebrating our national liberation from spiritual, cultural and physical bondage, we read the following passage from the Haggadah: “Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males whereas Laban sought to destroy everything.” Are we really to believe that Yaakov suffered greater persecution during his 20 years at Lavan’s house than did the entire Jewish nation, enslaved for over two hundred years in Egypt? Amalek was no more brutal than any other nation that went to war against Israel. Yet they are singled out by the Torah because they were the first to attack, weakening the deterrence afforded the Jewish nation through G-D’s destruction of Egypt. In the same way, Lavan is singled out not for being the most brutal but for being the first. Lavan was the prototype and his exploitation of Yaakov set the pattern for all subsequent Jewish history.

The cycle of defenselessness, dependence and persecution began the very first time the Jews left Israel. From that point forward, whenever having to escape persecution, they would find refuge in yet another foreign country whose government and people at first appeared genuine in their welcome.

וַיְהִי כִשְׁמֹעַ לָבָן אֶת שֵׁמַע | יַעֲקֹב בֶּן אֲחֹתוֹ וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבֶּק לוֹ וַיְנַשֶּׁק לוֹ וַיְבִיאֵהוּ אֶל בֵּיתוֹ


Now it came to pass when Laban heard the report of Jacob, his sister’s son, that he ran towards him, and he embraced him, and he kissed him, and he brought him into his house. (Vayeitzei 29:13)

The only alteration to this pattern, I would like to point out, is that of post-Enlightenment Europe and beyond. From that point forward Jews have been offered the opportunity for acceptance as equals with individual rights ‘protected’ by law. This comes, however, at the expense of having to shed any outward sign of distinctiveness (more so the higher one wishes to climb within the social hierarchy) and embrace near complete assimilation. It was this modern phenomenon that gave rise to the desire to be more “German than the Germans.” This is the only exception to the overall pattern, yet even this aspect of exile and antisemitism was foreshadowed by Yaakov’s experience with Lavan; “and Laban said to him, ‘indeed, you are my bone and my flesh.’ And so he stayed with him.” Vayeitzei 29:14)

In most cases the Jewish people as a whole arrive at their new destination empty-handed and impoverished. Hashem’s blessing, coupled with the focus on education, hard work and self-improvement leads the Jewish minority to eventually achieve prosperity within their new home. The host country at first acknowledges and even celebrates Jewish success and contribution to society.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו נִחַשְׁתִּי וַיְבָרֲכֵנִי יְהֹוָה בִּגְלָלֶךָ


And Laban said to him, “I see the Lord has blessed me for your sake.” (Vayeitzei 30:27)

In the next stage, prosperity and acceptance causes the Jewish people to stop longing to return to their true homeland. Material comfort leads to complacency, a belief that the current exile is permanent and the mentality of “it could never happen here…this time it’s different.”

וַיִּפְרֹץ הָאִישׁ מְאֹד מְאֹד וַיְהִי לוֹ צֹאן רַבּוֹת וּשְׁפָחוֹת וַעֲבָדִים וּגְמַלִּים וַחֲמֹרִים


And the man became exceedingly wealthy, and he had prolific animals, and maidservants and manservants, and camels and donkeys. (Vayeitzei 30:43)

As time passes, envy of the disproportionately successful minority surfaces. Despite (and in some cases because of) all efforts to ingratiate, blend in, display genuine loyalty and keep a low profile, awareness grows among the general population that there is an outsider living among them. Depending on the culture (and very often the economic situation), this is predictably followed the next stage, which is characterized by some form of demonization, false accusations, conspiracy theories, scapegoating and outright antisemitism.

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת דִּבְרֵי בְנֵי לָבָן לֵאמֹר לָקַח יַעֲקֹב אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ וּמֵאֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ עָשָׂה אֵת כָּל הַכָּבֹד הַזֶּה. וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב אֶת פְּנֵי לָבָן וְהִנֵּה אֵינֶנּוּ עִמּוֹ כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם


And he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, “Jacob has taken all that belonged to our father, and from what belonged to our father, he has amassed this entire fortune.” And Jacob saw Laban’s countenance, that he was not disposed toward him as (he had been) yesterday and the day before. (Vayeitzei 30:44-31:2)

The Jewish people refuse to recognize the changing current, disregard the warning signs, and fail to consider the possibility of returning home, believing as always that “this time it’s different.” Finally, Hashem must ‘tell’ us to leave – usually in the form of religious or physical persecution. With a bit of foresight, some Jews may leave early, proud and of their own free will. The majority however, realizing the inevitable only at the last moment, are forced to flee in haste and humility, assuming they are able to get out at all.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל יַעֲקֹב שׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּךָ וְאֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ


And the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your forefathers and to your birthplace, and I will be with you.” (Vayeitzei 31:3)


וַיִּגְנֹב יַעֲקֹב אֶת לֵב לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי עַל בְּלִי הִגִּיד לוֹ כִּי בֹרֵחַ הוּא. וַיִּבְרַח הוּא וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לו


And Jacob concealed from Laban the Aramean by not telling him that he was fleeing. So he and all that were his fled. (Vayeitzei 31:20-21)

The cycle then begins anew. There is, however, one major difference today. As it was during Yaakov’s lifetime, our generation has been blessed (and challenged) with a rare opportunity to break the cycle…returning to our own land is once again a viable and realistic option.


For a thorough listing of expulsions, massacres, forced conversion, pogroms and attempted genocide in the common era;

About the Author
Mike Kavitsky made aliya from the United States in 2005. He is married and has four small children.
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