INSIGHT

5769 - #20

BATTLING ANTI-SEMITISM

          The Academy Award winning movie, Gentleman’s Agreement, is often referred to as an important landmark in the battle against anti-Semitism. The message of the movie was very clear: it is wrong to discriminate against the Jews for, after all, they are just like everyone else. Yet, is that a goal to which we actually should aspire? Haman’s argument to Achashveirosh to grant him permission to institute his plan against the Jews was precisely that they were not like everyone else.1 T.B. Megilla 13b states that Haman was referring to the fact that Jews eat different foods, i.e. kosher, and will not intermarry. Furthermore, their Sabbath laws prevent them from meeting their communal obligations.2 These laws to which Haman was referring are, though, inherent to Jewishness. Furthermore, there are certain directions from the Halacha, clearly and specifically, intended to maintain and even communicate this distinction. The result, though, is the anti-Semitism of a Haman. The answer of Gentleman’s Agreement is to combat such anti-Semitism through arguing that Jews actually are not different; sadly, this may have been and still be true for the vast majority of Jews. This, though, cannot be the answer. We are supposed to be different. Is anti-Semitism thus simply a reality that we must continuously encounter if we are truly meeting our goal of being Jewish?

            The world, though, seems to have gone through at least some change as a result of the 1960s. Diversity has not only become the rule but, in many ways, desired. In Canada, for example, multiculturalism is not only the norm but the stated and advocated definition of Canadian society. In the world of Gentleman’s Agreement, the desire was conformity and the argument against anti-Semitism was that Jews can and do conform just like everyone else. After the 1960s, though, the desire is no longer conformity. There is a call to respect differences. Haman’s declaration that Jews are a problem because they are different would today fall upon many deaf ears. It is good to be different. Diversity adds to society. This is the new charge against anti-Semitism. Just because people are different doesn’t mean that we have to exclude them from the collective. We just need to expand our understanding of the group so that we can embrace this diversity. This, though, may still present a problem. If the call against anti-Semitism is to accept diversity, there is also a call upon us to similarly accept diversity. We are, though, to be a mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests,3 not influenced by others and influencing others.4 There is a limit to our tolerance. We cannot accept positions that challenge our basic values. If the fight against anti-Semitism demands of us to accept, in return, that which we cannot accept, we have a problem. We cannot accept every type of diversity. The truth is neither can any society.

            A group of any type must have something that binds them. One may be common actions. Another may be common values. A group in accepting diversity in action must still promote some common value upon which the group can crystallize. That is the challenge of modern society. Even as we accept diversity in action, which may also reflect some diversity in values, is there the necessary common, shared value upon which the group can grow? This is the further challenge presented by anti-Semitism today. It is not simply that today’s anti-Semite maintains hatred against Jews. Today’s anti-Semite may actually declare that he/she has no ill feelings against Jews. It is just that today’s anti-Semite wishes to maintain, as the common value that should serve as the basis of the collective, a value that necessarily challenges Jewish values. Today’s battle against anti-Semitism thus must include the need to show the greater society that the common value that should bind us cannot be one that challenges Jewish values. This is not solely because thereby Jews can remain part of the greater group. This battle must emerge from the recognition that any group’s common value that necessarily challenges Jewish values is not a good value upon which to form any group.

            This, in fact, is actually part of the lesson of Purim as well. Malbim, Esther 3:6 responds to the question why, in his anger and hatred of Mordechai, Haman turned against Mordechai’s nation. What did the Jewish nation do to him? Malbim answers that the courtly people around Haman told him that the reason that Mordechai did not bow down was because of the beliefs of Mordechai’s nation. Mordechai was a problem because he advocated for Jewish values. Thus Haman knew that, to achieve his desired goal, it would not be enough to rid himself of Mordechai, the man, but he must also rid the kingdom of this nation which promoted a value that was a challenge to him and the values upon which he wished to build the society.5 This would also explain why the Purim story had to conclude with the defeat and destruction of these forces, within Persian society, that would also promote such values. Even under a banner of tolerance and the acceptance of diversity, a common value that challenges the very essence of Jewish values cannot be tolerated. A common value that binds a group can only accept diversity that does not challenge it. Mordechai understood that those followers of Haman who would continue in his path would not only challenge Jews but also a common value that would be accepting of Jewish values. That is not only bad for the Jews. It is also bad for the greater society.

            The recognition of this principle is most important in our present society. Battling anti-Semitism is not simply about protecting and fighting for Jews. It is a battle for the very essence of our greater world communities. Every society, even and perhaps especially, as it accepts greater diversity, must define a common value upon which the society stands. Those who challenge Jews further contest Jewish values that would defy a common value that they wish for society. By battling such individuals we are also fighting for the recognition that any common value upon which a society can be positively formed must include a positive recognition of essential Jewish values.  

            Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

 


Footnotes

1 Esther 3:8.

2 Rashi, Megilla 13b, d.h. d’mafki. See, further, Torah Temima, Esther 3:8, note 19. Interestingly, see also Ben Ish Chai, Ben Yehoyada, Megilla 13b, d.h. d’mafki as he deals with the question as to why this would not only be an issue on Shabbat and holidays themselves but would affect the ability of the Jews to do work on other days as well.

3 Shemot 19:6.

4 See, further, Rashi and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch.

5. A distinction is often made between the anti-Semitism presented of Chanukah, which was a religious anti-Semitism, and that of Purim which was ethnic. This view of Malbim indicates that, while there is value in this distinction, it is not as simple as one may first think.

 (c) Nishma, 2009


 


 


 


 


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2006 NISHMA