In this week’s Torah reading, the enslaved Joseph is falsely accused of attempting to ravish the wife of his master, Potiphar, when it is she who lusts after the Hebrew, denouncing him when her advances are spurned. Seizing Joseph’s robe as he flees her clutches, Potiphar’s wife displays the garment to the servants she has mustered, declaring: “Look, he [Potiphar} had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us.” Thus, we are introduced for the first time, but hardly the last, to the plight of the Jew wrongfully accused. It is a theme that has followed us through history: From Persia to the medieval court Jews, to the modern crucibles of Alfred Dreyfus, Mendel Beilis and Leo Frank, up to our own time with the demonization of George Soros.
The thrust of the Egyptian wife’s calumny is that she faced sexual violation, at the hands of an outsider no less, and only her cries saved her honor. In referring to Joseph as “a Hebrew” she has isolated him not simply as a usurper but an alien. And by asserting that he sought not only to seduce her but “to dally with us,” she has enlisted the servants in her own behalf against a foreign intruder. Joseph’s offense is not simply an assault on a woman, but on Egypt.
The motif of wrongful accusation against a vulnerable alien has been a constant of Jewish affliction for the past 2,000 years. A staple of this theme is the charge of Jewish lust for Gentile women and its consequent retribution, depicted most explicitly in the film “Jew Suss.” The Nazis exacted severe penalties for racial mixing, directed against Jewish men who dared to dilute the pure blood of Aryan women. The threat of sexual profanation was used to proscribe, prosecute and, eventually, eliminate Jews.
The stigma of racial predation is a timeworn device that is universal, utilized as a strategy to intimidate and persecute vulnerable minorities. In the US it has been used from America’s earliest days as a tactic to keep blacks submerged during slavery, under Jim Crow and up till our own time.
Critical to the Southern “Redemption” that unraveled the political gains of Reconstruction after the Civil War was an unholy alliance between Patricians and Plebeians in a racial “equality” that excluded blacks. Racism was the “democracy” of planter domination, in which the passions of race trumped the realities of class. The brief efforts of early populists to unite blacks and whites against a plantocracy that exploited both, foundered on the rocks of caste.
Central to enforcing this hegemony was the fear of black predators menacing the virtue of white womanhood. It was a commonplace of southern culture, found in the newspaper caricatures that depicted ape-like Negroes stalking virginal white females, and popularized in such films as “Birth of a Nation.” The only fitting justice for such perceived offenses was the swift extralegal retribution of the rope. While any infraction could stir the ire of white vigilantes, reprisal for alleged sexual abuses by black offenders infused the mob with particular animus. Photos of white crowds at a lynching depict a carnival atmosphere of gaiety, as if the participants were enjoying a public entertainment, which it often was.
When Cindy Hyde-Smith — who this week defeated a black man to represent Mississippi in the US Senate — remarked during her campaign that, if invited, she’d be “willing to attend a public hanging,” she knew her audience — her begrudging disclaimers notwithstanding. During the worst Jim Crow years from 1882 to 1968, Mississippi led the nation in black lynchings with 581. Among the most infamous was the murder of the young teenager Emmet Till who was brutally slain for allegedly “wolf-whistling” at a white woman. His killers were acquitted by an all-white jury. This was followed seven years later by the election of Governor Ross Barnett, famous for his defiant words: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He was elected with the largest popular vote in the state’s history. In keeping with the spirit of Barnett, Hyde-Smith attended a segregated academy and, for good measure, sent her daughter to one as well. Given this history, there is little doubt as to her not-so-coded message attesting to her willingness to attend a public hanging, whose nature leaves little to the imagination.
With this in mind, we should remember that the story of Potiphar’s wife is not a thing of the past. Rather, it is a cautionary tale playing on timeless human emotions that are as real today as they were in the distant past. To be sure, the tale has many meanings, but the one we should be most mindful of in our own day is the potency of employing the innate prejudice of the majority to condemn the stranger as predator, parasite or both. At a moment when an American president conjures up the image of “Mexican rapists” to vilify a community that is overwhelmingly law-abiding, the story of Potiphar’s wife still rings true. The lady may be gone, but the malice that inspired her, sadly, still haunts us.