How to Confront Anti-Semitism
If We Don't Grasp the Underlying Cause, We Can't Form a Healthy Response
By: Rabbi YY Jacobson
The Uniqueness of Jew-HatredHatred of the Jew has been universal, permanent and deep (1). Death for the Jews has been desired and plotted by the tyrants of every age. Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, the Turks, the Christians, the Muslims, Stalin, Hitler and almost every great power that ever lived and flourished, defined the Jew as a target for abuse or complete annihilation. Jews have been expelled from nearly every country in which they resided—England, France, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Italy, Greece, Lithuania, Spain, Portugal, Bohemia, Moravia, Russia, Poland and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, and of course, from their ancient homeland, Eretz Israel.
Throughout the centuries, many millions of Jews were murdered, including millions of infants and children. The Babylonians and Romans killed three million Jews. The Christians and the Muslims in their Crusades, inquisitions, conversion decrees, blood libels and general religious fervor over a span of 15 centuries slaughtered millions of Jews, often wiping out entire communities. Chmelnitzky and his bandits beheaded 300,000 Polish Jews during 1648-49, while Hitler put to death a third of our people, including one-and-a-half million children. In nearly every country, Jews have, at some time, been subjected to beatings, torture and murder, solely because they were Jewish.
And though many of us thought that the evil of anti-Semitism perished in a post-Auschwitz world, we have been rudely awakened during the last few years as it once again rears its ugly face, particularly among Arab nations and in Europe.
Why such hatred and fear of a people who never constituted more than a small minority? Why did almost every great culture and civilization see us as their ultimate enemy? Are we really such an evil people as to threaten the wellbeing of virtually every civilization for the past 4,000 years? Why is it that otherwise sophisticated and educated men and women of academia are filled with irrational hatred toward Israel for this or that wrong behavior, while ignoring the horrors perpetrated en masse by its Arab neighbors?
Most scholars and historians, including many Jews themselves, choose to view this ongoing obsession not as something uniquely connected to Jews or Judaism, but rather as a multitude of isolated events erupting as a result of distinct circumstances.
For example, why do millions of Arabs hate Jews today? Why are thousands of them inspired to burn Jewish babies alive? Because — the common explanation goes — we are occupiers occupying their country and they yearn for liberation. If Israel would only grant the Arabs independence and hope, the venom would dissipate.
But why did they kill us before the "occupation" of 1967? Why did six Arab countries try to destroy Israel at a time when there were no settlements or settlers? Because, during the War of Independence in 1948 between the newly created State of Israel and its Arab neighbors, hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled their homes and ended up in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. The Arabs were seeking to return to their homes inside pre-1967 Israel.
But why did the Arabs initiate this war against Israel in 1948 and thus create, through their own error, the refugee problem? Why did they not accept the United Nations' partition of Palestine and accept the reality of Jewish existence in the Jews' ancient homeland? And why were scores of Jews murdered during the 1920’s and 30’s? For this we must search for another explanation.
The attempt removes the notion of anti-Semitism from anything distinctly Jewish. The Germans, we are told, hated the Jews because they were scapegoats for a depressed economy, and so many Christians wanted the Jews dead because they claimed we killed their god. Stalin murdered Jews because he believed they were capitalists, while Europeans of the Middle Ages were repulsed by the Jew because of his economic success, and on and on.
Yet this approach is unconvincing. To deny that there is a single ultimate cause for all anti-Semitism, to reject that an underlying reason has sparked the hatred of billions of non-Jews for four millennia, contradicts both common sense and history.
Anti-Semitism has existed too long and in too many disparate cultures to tolerate a claim that each culture hated the Jews because of some distinct factor disconnected from being Jewish. To believe that Jew hatred is just another form of racial or religious bigotry, lunacy, ethnic hatred, lack of tolerance, xenophobia, resentment of affluence and professional success, is to turn a blind eye to the core cause of this unique loathing. Of course, various factors may exacerbate anti-Semitism and cause it to erupt at a given time, but these factors do not explain the origin and genesis of this hatred. In “Why the Jews?” Authors Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin put it well: Economic depressions do not account for gas chambers (2).
Haman's AttemptThe famous Purim story, recorded in the biblical Book of Esther and read during the upcoming Purim festival, relates one more attempt made some 2,400 years ago to reduce the Jewish people to a pile of ashes, this time by a Persian minister named Haman.
Haman approached the then-king of Persia, Achashverosh, and offered him a tremendous sum of money in exchange for permission to arrange a "Final Solution." He desired that every member of the Jewish nation, men, women and children, be put to death. The king responded (3): "The money is given to you (Haman), and the nation (of Israel) is yours to do with, as you see fit."
This interaction seems quite understandable to me. Achashverosh, a no less miserable anti-Semite than Haman, happily embraces the idea of a world devoid of Jews. Yet the Talmud apparently feels it necessary to illustrate the situation by means of a parable.
A Mound and a DitchHere is the Talmud's parable (4):
"Achashverosh and Haman are compared to two people, one of whom had a mound of dirt in his field, and another one who had a ditch in his field. The owner of the ditch said to himself, 'How I wish the owner of the mound would give me his mound in exchange for money, so that I can fill my ditch.' And the owner of the mound said to himself, 'How I wish the owner of the ditch would sell me the use of his ditch, so that I can remove the mound of dirt from my field and dump it into his ditch.'
"After some time," relates the Talmud, "these two men encountered one another. The owner of the ditch said to the owner of the mound, 'Sell to me your mound!' The owner of the mound responded: 'Please, take it for free.'"
The Talmudic illustration is clear. Achashverosh is compared to the owner of the mound—the mound being a metaphor for the Jewish people who lived under his rule. He desperately seeks to get rid of it. Haman is seen as the owner of the ditch, eagerly attempting to obtain the mound. When Haman offers to purchase the "mound" for money, Achashverosh gladly gives it to him for no payment at all, enthusiastically consenting to the annihilation of the Jews.
But here is the question: Parables quoted in Talmudic literature are never meant as entertainment, but rather as tools to clarify and crystallize an abstract or complex concept. But what is so difficult to understand about a story of two people who despise the Jews with similar intensity and eagerly cooperate to destroy them? Why do we need a parable about a mound and a ditch to clarify the situation between Haman and Achashverosh (5)?
And even if there is some difficulty in understanding what transpired between Haman and Achashverosh, how is it explained by means of this seemingly simple and superficial parable of a mound and a ditch?
What is more, the parable doesn't even fit the story it is attempting to illustrate. In the parable, the owner of the mound is seeking to dispose of his mound while the owner of the ditch craves to obtain the mound and fill his ditch with it. In the actual story, however, both the owner of the "mound," Achashverosh, as well as the owner of the "ditch," Haman, wish to dispose of the "mound" — the Jewish people — and get rid of it completely. You can't fill a ditch with a mound that you crave to annihilate (6)!
Two Layers of Anti-SemitismWhat the Talmud is really attempting to convey via this parable is an answer to the question we raised at the onset of this essay: Why, nearly always and nearly everywhere, have Jews been hated? Why did Haman crave to kill every single Jew, down to an infant? Why would King Achashverosh be so eager to purge his country from all Jews? What have the Jews really done to attract such profound universal animosity?
It is this question — perhaps one of the great questions of history — that the Talmud is attempting to confront in this little passage.
Anti-Semitism, the Talmud is telling us, is multilayered; it contains a "body" and a "soul." The "body," or the outer, external layer of anti-Semitism personified by Achashverosh, sees Jews as a "mound." The inner, deeper and more complex layer of anti-Semitism personified by Haman views the Jew as the cause of a universal "ditch."
The external layer of anti-Semitism, harbored by many non-Jews throughout history, sees the Jew as a stranger in world history, a foreign creep, a "mound" that obstructs one’s free movement and enjoyment in his orchard. The Jew somehow “irks” him—and he is not even sure why. This Jew hater feels uncomfortable with the presence of the Jew. The Jew is a mount which does not belong here. The Jew may attempt to do everything possible to assuage the annoyance the anti-Semite feels toward him; he may sell himself, his soul, his people and his values, but it is usually to no avail: As long as the Jew is alive, he will remain, in many a non-Jewish eye, an irritable, cumbersome "mound." (6*)
But why? Why can’t they just see us as another ethnic group doing its own thing? This crude outer shell, or "body," of anti-Semitism, is born of a deeper and subtler space within the non-Jewish consciousness. Jewish existence opened a "ditch," a vacuum, in the heart of the human race, and every non-Jew, in one way or another, is aware of this inner void, causing him to look at the Jew either with admiration and affection, or with hate and repulsion, or with a mixture of the two.
Confronting a Ballad of Eternity"What is the meaning," asks the Talmud, "of the term Mount Sinai? Sinai, in Hebrew, means hatred. Sinai is the mountain that gave birth to Jew-hatred." (Talmud Tractate Shabbat (7)).
Some 3,400 years ago, at the foot of a lone mountain, the Jewish people received a gift that transformed their life and destiny for eternity. No matter whether religious, secular or assimilated, that moment imbued Jewish life with a unique richness and nobility. The gift of Torah inculcated Jewish life with tremendous moral and spiritual responsibility, but it simultaneously granted the Jewish mind, the Jewish family and the Jewish community — rich and poor alike — a taste of heaven. The day to day life of the Jew became imbued with a depth of meaning and sense of purpose born of an appreciation of the Divine present in the heart of life, love, family, pain, values and money.
When the non-Jew encounters the Jew, he is, consciously or subconsciously, struck by a grandeur of spirit, a depth of living, a resonance of eternity and an echo of the Divine that is not easily described but very palpable. There is something about the Jew and Judaism that is larger than life and the non-Jew feels it, sometimes more acutely than the Jew.
The Jewish presence, challenging the world with a call from the infinite living moral G-d, opened a hole, a "ditch," a mental and emotional void, in the heart of humanity, craving the fullness and richness of life that the Torah has given the Jew. The Jewish people opened a profound wound in the civilization, causing it to wonder if the focus on the physical aspect of life was ultimately meaningless.
The non-Jewish response to this "ditch" exposed by the Jewish presence came—and still comes—in two different forms.
Many non-Jews, from various religions and cultures, responded by elevating their lifestyles to a higher plateau. They saw the Jew and his Jewishness as a model which they can, in their own way, emulate. They assuaged the feelings of emptiness by creating a life and value system grounded on the Torah's weltanschauung. The American nation is a great example of that. Founded on the Judaic ethic of respecting the liberty and individuality of every human being formed in the image of G-d, most of the Founding Fathers and so many of its citizens were and are authentic philo-Semites, cherishing and celebrating the Jew and his Jewishness.
John Adams wrote, "I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation." He wrote as a Christian, but added that even if he were an atheist and believed in chance, "I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization (8)."
Leo Tolstoy wrote: "The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illuminated with it the entire world. The Jew is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions."(8*)
This path, though, requires extraordinary discipline and sacrifice. Living with the G-d of the Torah is a tremendous burden. It demands that one challenge his or her ego, laziness and selfishness on a daily basis; it requires one to surrender many instincts, cravings, lusts and natural dispositions. It is rewarding and fulfilling, but not easy.
Sadly, most non-Jewish cultures and civilizations in the past opted for an easier and more instinctive method through which to "fill" their mental and psychological "ditch": Rid the world of the Jew, they said, and the void will be gone.
This is the "soul," or the deeper, spiritual layer, of anti-Semitism, engendered by the very existence of the Jew—it is a resentment and hostility directed toward the cause of a profound emptiness in life. Adolf Hitler once remarked that his mission in life was to "destroy the tyrannical G-d of the Jews" and His "life-denying Ten Commandments (9)."
This, parenthetically, means that anti-Semitism is not only a "Jewish problem," it is a disaster for every moral and decent non-Jew as well. "Watch how a nation, religion, a political movement treats Jews, and you have an early and deadly accurate picture of that group's intention toward others. Anti-Semites wish to destroy the perceived embodiment of that higher call to the good, the Jews. But they do not hate the Jews alone. They hate whatever and whoever represents a higher value, a moral challenge (2)." Anti-Semites begin with the Jews, but they never end with the Jews alone.
Haman's RageNot all anti-Semites were aware of the "soul" of their hatred. Some, like Achashverosh, were only cognizant of the "body" component of their Jew hatred, seeing the Jew as a "mound" that disturbs and obstructs. They were unaware of the underlying drives behind their hatred.
Haman, on the other hand, was aware of this truth. He understood that he despised the Jews because they generated a "ditch" in the depth of his heart. That is why when the entire Persian elite bowed to Haman daily, with the exclusion of one Jewish rabbi, Mordechai, the Bible tells us (10) that Haman "was filled with rage."
Why? Imagine thousands of people prostrating themselves before you on a daily basis, except one old ultra-religious man with a white beard. Big deal! Why was Haman so perturbed by the sight of one obstinate Jew not falling on his knees to worship him?
Because Haman, in a very deep place, knew that Mordechai had it right. Mordechai's behavior resonated in Haman's inner heart. It exposed the truth that Haman was not a demi-god.
He thus approached Achashverosh and said: I have a ditch in my heart, which I cannot bear anymore. I must rid the world from its Jewish presence. Achashverosh, a far less intelligent and complex person, responded: Great! The Jews, for some reason or another, always irked me regardless. I'd be more than happy if you can remove this cursed mound from my presence.
The ConclusionsOne of the many conclusions of the aforementioned idea is this. Appeasing and trying to bend over backwards to those who hate us will not supplant their hate with love. The animosity stems from too deep a place for it to be transformed through money or appeasement. It may be hard for us to accept, but the real Jew hater is driven by forces that are deeply powerful, as for him the Jew disturbs the core of his existence.
We can bend over backwards, but it will not change a thing. We can shorten our noses, we can assimilate, we can compromise—yet as long as we are alive, the anti-Semite will remain restless. There is nothing we can do or not do to change the anti-Semite. It is the anti-Semite who must change himself. It is he who must learn that as long as he lives with hate, he will deprive himself and his loved ones from a life of true happiness and nobility.
The proper method of dealing with Jew-hatred in all of its manifestations is not to attempt to eclipse or deny one's Jewishness and the unique role of the Jewish people in history. The gentile, instinctively and accurately, feels the "otherness" of the Jew; the non-Jew innately senses the holiness embedded within the Jewish soul. When the Jew denies this holiness, when the Jew, embarrassed by his Judaism, tells the world, "I am just like you," the non-Jew senses a lie, a secret conspiracy, and he despises the Jew even more. The world will forever dislike Jews who dislike themselves.
What can we do about anti-Semitism? We can and must stand guard against it. We must protect ourselves in every possible way. We must fight the hatred with unwavering determination, resolve, dignity and purpose. We must never duck or show weakness, which only intoxicates our haters into thinking they might prevail. We must never be ashamed with who we are and what stand for, as it is not our evil triggering the animosity; it is our goodness and holiness which drives our haters mad.
Most importantly, our primary and eternal hope remains in our relationship with G-d, the sole Master of the universe. As long as we are connected with the core of all reality, our existence is guaranteed.
That is why, when Mordechei and queen Esther learnt of Haman's decree, the first thing they did was engage in fasting, prayer, repentance and good deeds. Only after three days of fasting and introspection, did Esther use her position as the beautiful wife of the king and attempt to influence him, in the midst of a drinking party, to obliterate the decree against the Jews. Now, if Esther wished to impress her husband, she should have gone to a beauty-parlor not fast for three days!
The answer is, that Esther knew, as every Jew knows deep down in his heart, that salvation will not come from a man who sees the Jews as an eternal "mound." Salvation will come from G-d. Therefore, the first and foremost objective is to strengthen her relationship with G-d. Only afterward, are we called to follow the course of nature and attempt to influence world leaders to help secure the survival of the Jewish people.
Once we have secured our relationship with G-d, through the Torah and its Mitzvos, can we hope that G-d will manipulate the hearts of the Jew-haters to assist rather than destroy the Jews.
When the non-Jew encounters a Jew who is proud of his otherness, who cherishes and embraces his Jewishness and its unique role in history, more often than not the non-Jew is overtaken by sense of admiration and respect; he can begin to appreciate the Jew, learn from him and adore him. (11).
1) For a comprehensive discussion of this subject, the history and dynamics of antisemitism, as well as a convincing refutation of many of the popular reasons given for antisemitism, see Why The Jews? (Prager and Telushkin, Simon and Schuster, 1983.)
2) Ibid. p. 21.
3) Esther 3:11
4) Megilah 14a.
5) See Benayahoo to Talmud Megilah ibid. and Chasam Sofer - Toras Moshe L'Purim for their symbolic explanations of this parable.
6) Of course, one may answer that the parable is an imperfect one and it is just here to illustrate the point that the owner of the mound is willing to dispose of his mound without receiving payment. Yet anyone familiar with the Talmudic literature is aware of its extraordinary profundity and meticulousness. It is thus clear, that the comparison between Haman and an owner of a ditch seeking to fill it is precise and meaningful. Yet in the actual story, Haman's role is reversed, seeking to dispose of the mound and not have it remain in his territory?
6*) Perhaps we can add: The Mound represents significance & the dignity that Judaism confers upon all peoples; and that is why as a dictator who wanted to subjugate his populace he couldn't stand the Judaic disciple which affords such tremendous rights to all peoples.
7) Shabbas 89a. See Eyon Yaakov to Ein Yaakov ibid. -- The explanation for anti-Semitism that fallows has been articulated by Maimonidies in Igeres Taiman chapter 1.
8) For an elaborate discussion on this theme, See On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, (Michael Novak, 2001).
8*) Quoted in Radican Then, Radical Now (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, London 2000) p. 3 with reference noted there.
9) Quoted in Why The Jews? p. 30, see reference there. Cf Faith After the Holocaust (Eliezer Berkowitz, Ktav, 1973) pp. 114-127, where this point is brilliantly demonstrated.
10) Esther 3:5.
11) This essay is based on a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented on Purim 1965. (Sichos Kodesh 5725 pp. 444-454.)