Throughout the ages, antisemitism, a euphemism for Jew hatred, has often led to hardships and pain for the Jewish people. Antisemitism has existed in all generations and in all countries. This phenomenon began with the very first Jew, Abraham, who was sentenced to be killed by being thrown into a furnace because of his belief in one G-d. Fortunately, G-d saved him miraculously. This set the pattern that continued, in somewhat different form, in each generation, as mentioned at the Passover Seder. Even in countries where few or no Jews lived, antisemitism was present. For example, when Shakespeare wrote about the character Shylock (a caricature based on antisemitic rhetoric), there were no Jews living in England at the time. Even in recent times, antisemitism and accusations of control by Jews became an issue in the 1980’s political campaign in Poland when fewer than 5000 lived there. Similarly, a virulent antisemitic book became a big seller in Japan when fewer than 250 Jewish families were residents in the 1990’s. Thus, antisemitism exists in all places and all times, irrespective of circumstances. How can this phenomenon be understood? How can we explain why and how it occurs?
REASONS FOR ANTISEMITISM
Many explanations for antisemitic feelings and behavior have been offered. The best place to begin is in the Torah itself. Why was the first Jew, Abraham, hated so much as a Jew? The Midrash says that Abraham was called a Hebrew because the whole world was on one side and he was on the other side (Ever). Therefore, we see that because Abraham was different (in his belief) he was hated. This is somewhat understandable, as it is natural to be uncomfortable around anyone who is a little different. This natural reaction does not make it morally correct or justified, but understandable.
Being different is not unique to Abraham, but it has become a characteristic of the Jewish people of all ages. When most nations would assimilate after being conquered, the Jews held fast to their religion, by and large, even after they were forced to leave their homeland, the Land of Israel. This is most clearly expressed in the Purim Megillah when, at first, Mordechai was different by refusing to bow to Haman. Then, when convincing the King to destroy the Jewish people, Haman’s argument was that the Jew’s laws and religion was different from any other religion. The fact is that the Jewish people are supposed to remain different, (see chapter on “Being Jewish and Being Different”) which naturally engendered much anger and hostility by the surrounding non-Jewish community.
A second reason that can be seen in the Torah as well as in many countries today is jealousy. Non-Jews jealous of success of the Jews tend to hate them for this success. This was first seen in the blessings given by Isaac to his son. Not only was Esau angry because Jacob “stole” the blessings, but he was also jealous that Jacob somehow always got ahead (that is the meaning of the Hebrew name for Jacob-Yaakov) and that Jacob would now get much merit while he, Esau, would get less. Esau felt outwitted, according to Rashi. According to most commentaries, the stories of Jacob and Esau are prototypes for what will transpire in all generations between Jew and non-Jew.
A third possible reason explaining antisemitism is that Jews tended to live separately from others around them. This began when the Jews came down to Egypt and asked to live apart in the land of Goshen. (The excuse that a place was needed for cattle was merely a ruse, as Joseph had instructed them to say this.) Of course, there are reasons why Jews throughout the generations tended to live isolated. Firstly, all people like to live in neighborhoods with people who are culturally similar to them. That is why blacks tend to live in black neighborhoods, Italian-Americans in Italian-American neighborhoods, etc. Furthermore, because of the necessity of walking to the synagogue on Shabbat, traditional Jews always had to live in close proximity to the centrally located synagogue, since they had to walk there on Shabbat. While this explains why Jews grouped together, non-Jews tended to dislike Jews anyway because it appeared that the Jews did not want to live with them, as if the non-Jews were “not good enough.”
A fourth reason, whose roots are again found in the Torah, is fear. Pharaoh was afraid the Jews would become too numerous and eventually rebel against the natives. This phenomenon continued, as Jews were always perceived as foreigners who might one day rebel against the government and cause difficulties. Non-Jews feared a loyalty to G-d or to the Land of Israel and not to the country in which the Jews lived. That is why Napoleon made the Jews sign an oath of loyalty to him. Even today in the United States, the most tolerant country in history, Jews are often accused of dual loyalty whenever any kind of friction occurs between the United States and the State of Israel.
In their recent book, “Why the Jews?,” Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin suggest yet another reason. It is because the Jews gave the world a code of ethical behavior, they are hated. Even though the world has, by and large, accepted the Torah’s code of ethical behavior as morally correct, the Jews still face resentment because of it. It is like the child who resents his or her parent who tells the child what to do. Even though the child knows it is right, the child still resents the parent for imposing the restrictions (accept the message and shoot the messenger?). This concept can be seen in the Talmud in a play on words, when it says that Sinai caused the hatred (Sinah) by non-Jews.
Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel currently works with Rabbi Berel Wein and the Destiny Foundation as the Director of Education, whose mission is “to bring Jewish history to life in an exciting, entertaining and interactive way.” Rabbi Amsel has also served as a teacher, a school principal, and an adjunct professor. He has also taught over 2000 educators how to teach more effectively. Rabbi Amsel has worked in all areas of formal and informal Jewish education and has developed numerous curricula including a methodology how to teach Jewish Values using mass media. Recently, he founded the STARS Program (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers), where more than 3000 students in 12 Russian speaking countries learn about their Jewish heritage for five hours weekly. Rabbi Amsel previously served as the Educational Director of Hillel in the Former Soviet Union. He lives Jerusalem with his wife and has four children and three grandchildren.
This essay is reprinted from the book, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values” published by Urim, or the upcoming books, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to Man” or “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to G-d” to be published in the future. This essay is not intended as a source of practical halachic (legal) rulings. For matters of halachah, please consult a qualified posek (rabbi).