Eliezer Zalmanov

The Original Antisemite

Image by zirconicusso on Freepik
Image by zirconicusso on Freepik

When the Torah introduces us to the first documented antisemite, we’re told that his antisemitism was irrational. When Pharoah, king of Egypt, decided to enslave the Jewish people, the wording used to describe him is, “A new king, who did not know Joseph.” Joseph was the second in command of Egypt for more than half a century, and when he and his entire generation passed on, the Egyptians pretended that they never existed, erasing their contributions to Egyptian society.

However, when it came time for Moses to face Pharoah and demand that he release the Jewish nation from bondage, we don’t see that his argument was, “How can you forget all that we’ve done for you and your country?” He said nothing of Joseph saving Egypt’s economy during the years of famine, or about the great blessings Jacob brought to the agricultural industry.

All Moses said was, “The G-d of Israel demands that you let His people go!” Because antisemitism is irrational—they hate us because they hate us, not due to something we did or didn’t do—no logical argument will ever resolve it. When an antisemite points to a reason for his Jew hatred, it’s nothing more than an excuse. As soon as this issue is resolved, he’ll come up with something else.

The Talmud describes a conversation between two other historical antisemitic figures: Haman and King Achashverosh, from the Purim story. Although the Megillah, where the story’s origins are, is short on details, the Talmud elaborates on their discussion. Haman tells Achashverosh about a certain nation he wants to annihilate, and the king happily agrees, since the Jews were a thorn in his side too. Then the Talmud uses an analogy of a deal between two property owners to describe Haman’s offer: “I have a pit in my property that needs to be filled and you have a mound of excess dirt in your property you need to get rid of. How about I use the dirt from your property to fill my pit, and we will both benefit?” Achashverosh had a mound and Haman had a pit, and Achashverosh happily allowed Haman to get rid of his mound, i.e. the Jews, to fill his pit.

Why the need for an elaborate analogy to explain a simple deal? That’s because antisemitism comes in all forms. One Jew hater says the Jews are too influential, a mound, and the other says that it’s because they don’t contribute enough to society. But the common denominator is that they both hate Jews, and their reasons are mere excuses.

So is our reaction to antisemitism to become less influential in society? Of course not, because there will still be those that consider us a pit. And if we endeavor to become less dependent on others, that still won’t placate those that feel we’re too influential. Thus the cycle continues and doesn’t end by us changing who we are and what we do. They hate us because of who we are, and any justification for that hate can simply be replaced with another reason. Making the mound smaller or making the pit shallower will not make them hate us any less.

That’s why Moses didn’t use any logical argument with Pharoah, because there was no logic to his Jew-hatred.

And, similarly, for the Jewish people themselves, the sum of his message to them was, “G-d is with you, He heard your cry, and He sent me to lead you to freedom.” That’s it. There was no encouragement for them to remind the Egyptians of the Jewish contributions; no mention of how many Jewish Nobel Prize winners or Jewish doctors and lawyers there are. Moses emphasized to the Jews that they were G-d’s people and that is all that mattered. His message was, “Be proud of who you are as Jew because of who you are,” and any need for justification minimizes that message.

The stark parallel to today is that we too are sometimes tempted to compromise with antisemites, knowingly or unknowingly. Will being less in-your-face Jewish change how they think of us? Will parading around with placards suddenly make them love us? Obviously not. But being proud of who we are, not allowing the antisemites to dictate how we live as Jews, is how the Jewish nation survives this crisis, just as we did in the past.

And we’re still here. With G-d’s help.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov is co-director, along with his wife Chanie, of Chabad of Northwest Indiana. He is also a member of's Ask the Rabbi and social media teams.
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