SHEMOT: The birth of the Jewish People and the Beginnings of Antisemitism

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We have just finished the book of Bereshit, Genesis. Bereshit is not a book of laws. It is a book that tells us how humanity began and particularly how the “family” of Israel (Bene Israel) was formed. And in Shemot, in the first chapter, we see that the “family” of Israel was transformed into the “people” of Israel. In our Parasha we find for the first time the word, עם ‘am: people, nation, to define “Israel”.

These words הנה עם בני ישראל “here is a people, the children of Israel” is mentioned for the first time by Pharaoh, and in a very particular context. Pharaoh refers to the people of Israel in a negative, hostile tone. Today we would say in an “anti-Semitic” way. Pharaoh speaks to his people convincing them that the Jewish people are a great threat to Egypt, and presents them with a plan for the elimination of the Jews. Is it not ironic, and incredible, that the anti-Semitic message of the “final solution” appears in the first and same scene in which “the Jewish people” is born?

How did anti-Semitism start in Egypt? What did the Yehudim do wrong to deserve this treatment from Pharaoh?

There are several and diverse answers to this question. Following one of these interpretations, we could say that this is a fairly common political phenomenon.

In Shemot 1:8 the Tora gives us the first clues: “And a new Pharaoh arose in Egypt, who did not know [=deliberately ignored] Yosef.” Who was this new Pharaoh, and why would he choose to ignore Yosef and his enormous contribution to saving Egypt? When a new government, say “the opposition,” assumes the presidency, it is natural that all allies of the previous government automatically become antagonistic to the new government. Example: In a few hours the United States will have a new president, Donald Trump, and it is possible that the countries that President Obama privileged, for example: Iran, will not enjoy the same privileges with President Trump. Something similar, but in the opposite direction, I believe, will take place with Israel, BH.

Back to our Parasha. Imagine that a new Pharaonic dynasty emerged in Egypt, or as some commentators such as Rabbi Shemuel D. Luzzato (Shadal) said: the Egyptians regained the power that had been usurped by the Hyksos two centuries before. In any of these cases, it would be logical that the Jewish people, loved by the previous government, would now be seen with animosity and suspicion by the new government. This hypothesis allows us to learn an enormous lesson about anti-Semitism. Hatred toward Jews does not necessarily happen because of something wrong that we Jews have done. The causes of anti-Semitism are not always the same. For Hitler י”ש, Jews were the worst because we were communists; for Stalin because we were capitalists, etc. Anti-Semitism arises for reasons that are far beyond what Jews are, were, do or avoid doing. When we are in exile, and a government treats us well, it does not mean that the next government will automatically treat us well, even if we do not do anything wrong to deserve to be mistreated. This happened hundreds of times in the history of the Jewish people in exile. We lived in peace, tranquility and relative prosperity in Spain until 1492. Something similar happened in Germany before 1938. Until a new Pharaoh emerged in Spain, Germany, England, France, etc.
It is also interesting to see (and compare with the present) how anti-Semitic propaganda is developed, that is, how the tyrant justifies his desire to eliminate the Jewish people.
The Tora tells us that the new Pharaoh לא ידע את יוסף “did not know [= chose to ignore] Yosef”: The first thing the tyrant does to justify his animosity is to ignore the contributions of the Jewish people. And the more important these contributions have been, the more effort the sovereign will make to ignore them. The Nazi government ignored the participation and loyalty of the Jews who fought for the “motherland” Germany during the First World War. They ignored the contribution of Jewish scientists and doctors and other men of science and the arts who contributed greatly to the pre-Nazi Germany being one of the most advanced countries in Europe. The Spanish kings ignored the contribution of the Jews in the medical fields, think of Lorenzo Badoz, the doctor who saved the life of Queen Isabel, astronomy and navigation, the studies and inventions of Rabbi Abraham Zacuto, which allowed Columbus to reach America, etc.  Today, the world systematically ignores the enormous contributions of the state of Israel to the modern world. Israel stands out in the fields of medicine, technology, agriculture, computing, optics, irrigation, etc., as you can see in this chart:

And instead of Israel being the most admired country in the world, for its incredible contributions to mankind despite being a country in constant war, and the only country in the world whose existence is threatened, Israel – the Jew among the nations – was considered by the BBC in 2016 as the country that most “threatens world peace.”

Anti-Semitic propaganda did not change. In any case, it became more sophisticated.

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