Sadly, one could not have asked for better timing with this week’s Torah portion and the hateful remarks against the Jewish people on Greek national television from Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim to learn how history repeats itself from its biblical roots to today. From the moment that Pharaoh declared the Jewish people in Egypt a dangerous threat to national security to the political and religious leaders throughout history leading up to the most recent example of a Greek Orthodox Bishop railing against Israel and the international Zionist conspiracy as the cause for the collapse of the Greek economy. It is the same old song of hatred and how disappointing that a prominent Greek Orthodox Bishop would say these things as well as hold Jews responsible for promoting single parent families and homosexuality.
Talking about demonizing Jews, the people who listened to Pharaoh revered him as a God-like person. In the first chapter of Exodus, Pharaoh warned of the growing numbers of Jews in Egypt and the potential threat they posed to Egypt and how it was incumbent upon Pharaoh to devise a plan to contain them. This was the first time in Jewish history that we see a leader speaking of the Jewish conspiracy as a national threat We could not know what the Egyptians thought about Pharaoh’s warnings. Were they convinced on Pharaoh’s say so alone? Similarly, the Greek public may not have been swayed by the Bishop’s unrestrained hate speech, but, do not think for a minute that many citizens heard him and privately shook their heads in the affirmative.
Why is this moment in Israelite history significant for us today? The answer is that this passage became a precursor to a history of anti-Jewish leaders portraying us as the danger or the problem people. It is also important to recognize that from this historic experience we must be proactive in responding with our narrative when we see hate mongering and not fall prey to this kind of demonizing of other peoples. So tonight I want to explore the origin of this myth in the Torah and how one medieval commentator responded to it. Finally I will discuss the current events of how hate speech challenges us to respond and use wisdom in doing do so.
Pharaoh said in Exodus 1:9-10, “Look, the Israelite people have become too many and too strong for us.”
“Come; let us deal shrewdly with them
Lest they increase
And if war breaks out they will join our enemies,
And fight against us and leave the country.”
This is the first moment in Jewish history where we see the birth of the myth “the Jewish Problem.” We became the “Jewish Problem” people forever more and we still hear it in the words of Bishop Piraeus Seraphim. Let us tonight briefly review Jewish viewpoints throughout history. How does this verse play out in our consciousness today?
We see in this passage that Pharaoh was convinced that the growth of the Jewish people was potentially a real problem to Egypt’s national security. The text, at this point in the book of Exodus, does not tell us why this is so nor what he plans to do about it. Did he think about enslaving them or committing an act of extermination? We do not yet know the answer to these questions.
There is a difference of opinion in translation on an issue that relates to the intention of Pharaoh. In the phrase “the Israelite people have become too many and too strong for us,” there is a disagreement between Jewish and Christian translations. In the Septuagint and the Vulgate translations they translate the phrase mi menu as connoting “more than”. In other words these translations imply that Pharaoh believed that there were more Israelites than Egyptians. Jewish translations, on the other hand, from Mendelssohn, Hirsch, Buber-Rosenzweig translated it as they are too many and too powerful for us.” The Hebrew letter mem from me menu meaning “more than us” is one of relativeness. In other words Pharaoh is saying that the Israelites are getting too much for us to contend with. Does that mean politically, economically? We do not know the answer.
So then why does the Torah says in Pharaoh’s words, “Come let us deal shrewdly with them.” Why would Pharaoh feel so threatened? Surely he could have wiped them off the map of the earth? One commentator Ramban, Moses Nachmanides of 15th century Spain, believed that would be treason to smite all the Israelites without cause. He knew this was a people that had come to the land at the bidding of his royal predecessor. He could not reverse such a decree from his father. Pharaoh had to come up with a reason that he implemented through policy and not genocide. The second reason was that his subjects might not agree with expulsion or extermination. Finally, Pharaoh was concerned that the Israelites would resist and fight against him.
Nahmanides sees that the policy of levying harsh taxes against the Israelites foreigners not of money but of forced labor was the first stage in Pharaoh’s grand plan. That is the beginning of slavery. Then the policy of forcing midwives to turn over the Israelite first- born. When the midwives rebelled, and then came the final solution by Pharaoh which was to command all his people to kill every male child. Ramban’s view is that Pharaoh used a camouflaged policy of increasingly repressive and deceptive policies so as to make it look like he was using legitimate force to deal with this problem people. That is how Nachmanides understands the set up and strategy of Pharaoh coming out of the verse, “Come let us deal shrewdly with them.”
The shrewd one is Pharaoh because he knows he cannot compromise his reputation and authority as the God-like leader of Egypt by simply murdering everyone. He must utilize the legitimacy of his unchallenged role to portray himself not as the aggressor but as the defender of Egypt. That is the political language of framing the enemy as the demon people. That kind of thinking canonized the strategy that so many kingdoms and religions would adapt in their demonizing Jews over history.
The myth of the Jewish conspiracy was born then. It has followed us since ancient times. Besides the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion text in modern times, Hitler used the same strategy with the Nuremburg Laws before he sent us to the concentration camps. He was ridding Germany of this dangerous people who threatened to pollute German racial purity. But first he had to establish why doing so was in the national interest just like Pharaoh.
The really tragic aspect of this is when we read accounts of how Jews believed that a ruler would never expel us because we were so critical to the welfare of the state. Did the Jews in Spain think that way? We know that the Jews in modern German thought that they were so valuable to the German economy and country that Hitler would eventually get over his obsession with the Jews. We know how that situation worked out.
So that is why whenever we hear the same kinds of words portraying the perennial Jewish conspiracy mythos today, especially when it comes from a high ranking cleric, we would be wise to take it seriously. Bishop Seraphim is not Pharaoh. But he counts in the continuum of history’s anti-Semites with the same old obsessive fear and hatred that betrays the very foundation of faith and teaching that his Christian calling is supposed to model to his people and to the world. Certainly he brings shame to the Christian faith and to the culture of Christendom as a whole. And how sad as well as ironic is the timing of the Greek Orthodox Bishop’s remarks during the week leading up to Christmas.
I cannot help but mention that the recent decision of some municipal rabbis in Israel to issue an edict not to rent property to non-Jews is equally mean spirited. Condemned by the Israeli Prime Minister and many other prominent leaders, this kind of policy demonizes the Arab Israeli population which lives side by side with Jewish Israelis. It is another example of how we too are vulnerable to the same fears that underlie and promote policies of intolerance on all sides of the political spectrum-even the good guys.
If there is one lesson to be learned it is that we have to be swift to expose hate speech and policies that run against our own values. Second, we must be proactive in communicating our narrative to the public because we all know that there is a growing constituency out there in America and around the world who work hard at providing a completely different and false narrative about Israel’s existence and its role in the world. Finally, let’s not forget that our values and our history define us and no one else.