The antidote for today’s virulent incarnation of left-wing antisemitism lies, ironically, within Judaism itself.
As Bari Weiss has explained, the current antisemitism of the ideological left is based on the simple conviction that the powerless (e.g., Hamas) must be good, while the powerful (e.g., Israel) must be bad. Judaism, however, insists that the strong can and should be righteous – and the modern State of Israel embodies this idea.
The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England, famously asked why God chose for the Jewish people to be born in slavery in Egypt. He answered that love and caring for strangers (i.e., those who are unfamiliar and different) – which the Torah commands no less than 36 times – is so profoundly difficult that it cannot result from reason or emotion alone. Rather, it requires a formative experience. “Only those who know what it is to be slaves, understand at the core of their being why it is wrong to enslave others.” The Torah was the first document in human history to criticize slavery. Jews remind themselves of their escape from slavery twice a day, every day, in their prayers, and endeavor during the Passover meal to make themselves feel as if they are leaving Egypt in the present so that the Exodus is not a mere history lesson.
Centuries of these daily reminders prepared the Jewish community for a leadership role in the civil rights movement in the United States, and also birthed the deep sensitivity of Israelis to the plight of the Palestinians – even when Palestinian terrorists are on the attack. Many of the residents of the kibbutzim and other communities attacked by Hamas on October 7 were progressive peace activists who built social bridges with Gazans, hired and paid fair wages to Gazans, protested on behalf of Gazans, and helped Gazans secure life-saving medical treatment in Israel – all while under fire from Palestinian rockets countless times in recent years.
Israel was founded on equality – extending to its Arab citizens, in its Declaration of Independence, “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” Indeed, today almost 10% of Israel’s Members of Parliament are Arabs, and an Arab judge sits on Israel’s Supreme Court. Respect for what Rabbi Sacks called “the dignity of difference” is built into Jewish DNA.
In the current war, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have taken great pains to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians, achieving an impressive 2:1 ratio of civilian deaths to combatant deaths, despite facing an enemy that hides behind civilians. According to the United Nations, the overall average casualty ratio for other armies is a terrifying 9:1. Achieving a 2:1 ratio requires great risk to IDF soldiers, including forfeiting the element of surprise by announcing where the IDF will operate next so that civilians can evacuate. President Biden’s National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby recently admitted: “There are very few modern militaries in the world that would do that. I don’t know that we [the United States] would do that.”
But the IDF operates under a superior moral code. According to the IDF’s statement of values, The Spirit of the IDF, “An IDF soldier will only exercise their power or use their weapon in order to fulfill their mission and only when necessary. They will maintain their humanity during combat and routine times. The soldier will not use their weapon or power to harm uninvolved civilians and prisoners and will do everything in their power to prevent harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.”
While no army is perfect, mistakes made by the IDF are the exceptions that have proven the rule. For example, when IDF soldiers were recently found to have used a mosque’s microphone to broadcast Jewish prayers, Israel’s Chief Rabbi spoke out and the IDF promptly removed the soldiers from duty and announced that they would be punished. When IDF soldiers in Gaza spray-painted graffiti, top IDF officers ordered them to stop and, according to some reports, even required them to risk their lives by returning to clean the graffiti. The IDF’s high moral standards are a credit to the State of Israel.
But, as noted at the outset of this essay, there are those who remain uncomfortable with the idea of Jewish strength. Recently, First Gentleman Douglas Emhoff (himself Jewish) stated, in an erroneous, now-deleted social media post, that “In the Hanukkah story, the Jewish people were forced into hiding. No one thought they would survive or that the few drops of oil they had would last.” In fact, the real story is the opposite of hiding — a tiny Jewish force routed the much larger Greek army, which had forbidden Jews from practicing their religion, and liberated the Temple in Jerusalem through military might. That is where one day’s worth of oil miraculously lasted for eight.
It is possible that Mr. Emhoff’s mistake in retelling the Hanukkah story stems from a subconscious preference to view Jews as weak, which in today’s climate is considered a more virtuous position in the world.
But, what the ideological left needs to understand is that one can be powerful without forfeiting righteousness. This week’s Torah portion teaches that lesson beautifully. After having been sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph escapes and rises to a position of great power in Egypt. When famine sends his brothers to Egypt in search of food, they do not even recognize Joseph anymore. Eventually, Joseph cannot contain himself, and he cries out, revealing, “I am Joseph.” His brothers are stunned into silence, petrified that Joseph will take revenge on them for what they did. Joseph then repeats, “I am your brother, who you sold into Egypt.” The repetition is odd, since he had already announced his identity. My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Arie Strikovsky of blessed memory, taught that there are two ways to interpret Joseph’s second statement. One can imagine Joseph pounding the table and screaming it at them in anger. Or, one can imagine Joseph speaking gently, and explaining “I am your brother, the same one who you sold into Egypt.” In other words, while I was powerless then, and I am very powerful now, I remain the same person I always was. You need not fear me despite my newfound power.
Yes, Israel is a powerful country today. But its ideals and values remain the same. Israel will fight ferociously for its survival, but it will do so morally, and in the end it will once again seek peace with the Palestinians, as it has so many times before, because Jews are commanded to love the stranger.