The beginning of Sefer Shmot (the Book of Exodus) is a classic description of anti-Semitism, and of xenophobia in general. The new Pharaoh who “did not know Yosef” stirs fear of the Israelites among the general population. He says that they are “more stronger and more numerous than we are”, and that if good Egyptians don’t act soon, those Israelites might join Egypt’s enemies and go to war against Egypt! (1:10)  

This is a common move by a leader who wants to stir up popular hate towards a minority group. Pharaoh falsely brands the Israelites as a threat to the Egyptian people. Later anti-Semitic tropes are that the Jews are a secret cabal that controls the world’s banks, media, and governments. Hitler combined this idea with his ideas about race, saying that not only were we secretly controlling the world, but that we were an inferior race that sought to undermine and pollute the purity of the Aryans.  

Not that there is anything rational about branding an ethnic minority community a threat, but if one believes that those people are a threat, then it would seem to logically follow that their presence is not desirable. But Pharaoh tells his people: 

Let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land. 

Xenophobia is not a rational phenomenon. “We can’t let them stay here! They’re not like us! So don’t let them leave!” The Israeli writer, Amos Oz, describes the phenomenon perfectly in his novel A Tale of Love and Darkness: 

“‘Jews go back to Palestine’ the graffiti in 1930s Lithuania urged his family, so they went; then later the walls of Europe shout ‘Jews get out of Palestine’” 

As Pharaoh’s rhetoric paved the way for the enslavement of the Israelite people, what was the Israelite response that ultimately led to their ability to leave Egypt? A Midrash tells us: 

Rav Huna said in the name of Bar KaparaBecause of four things Israel was redeemed from Egypt: That they did not change their names, their language, they did not speak ill of others, and none of them was promiscuous.” (Vayikra Rabbah, 32, 5) 

Assimilation and loss of Jewish identity was no defense against anti-Semitism in Hitler’s time; anyone with a single Jewish grandparent was sent to the camps. Converting to Christianity did not provide much protection from the Spanish Inquisition; Jews who converted were suspected of “judaizing” in secret, whether they actually did or not. Rather, standing strong in our identities as Jews, maintaining dignity in the face of bigotry and oppression, are what led to our redemption from Egypt.  

Whether we live in relative safety or whether we face overt anti-Semitism, we must meet the lack of integrity of those who hate us without knowing us with integrity. We hold strongly to our values of Torah learning, of prayer as Jews with other Jews, and of gemilut chasadim, of acts of care and support of others. 

Shabbat shalom! 

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