Anti-Semitic incidents even in the relatively benign United States are on the rise. As an ancient people, we are well aware of the side effects of anti-Semitism. One of these is the allegation that Jews and Judaism treat non-Jews “differently” and we should therefore not be surprised when Jews are treated differently.
Before addressing this argument, it is important to note that with this very allegation, the discriminatory treatment has already begun.
The fact is, every religion treats believers in one way and non-believers in another. The thoroughness with which this aspect of Judaism is examined, relative to other religions, is highly disproportionate.
To scrutinize Judaism on its treatment of those who aren’t Jews isn’t just odd, it’s astonishing. Astonishing because no religion in the world treats non-adherents as well as Judaism does.
Judaism postulates that people who are not members of the religion have a share in the world to come (Sanhedrin 10:2).
Judaism mandates extending charity (tzedakah) and acts of loving kindness (chesed) to non-members (Vayikra 25:35).
Judaism was the first religion to teach that all humans are “beloved, for they have been created in the image of God” (Avot 3:14).
Considering all of the above – and much more – Judaism’s scorecard of tolerance and diversity is unquestionably excellent.
This does not change the fact that there are several passages in Jewish literature and law that treat Jews and non-Jews differently – something that poses no moral challenge for several reasons.
First, wherever Jews reside, they are required by Jewish law to follow the laws of the land (dina de’malchuta dina – Bava Kama 113a).
In addition to following the laws and expectations of local governments, Jews are expected to show non-Jews kindness and care, as required by Jewish law. The emphasis in Judaism on loving kindness, charity, and fairness toward all human beings has prompted Jews throughout the centuries to treat non-Jews with great respect and dignity.
Second, it is important to note that many early statements found in Jewish religious literature about non-Jews were written at a time when there were few if any nations in the world that treated Jews with decency and equality. Later Jewish leaders and halachic deciders – from the front line of Jewish scholarship and authority – have made it unequivocally clear that we must make sure to behave toward others with the utmost fairness. This is well known to anyone familiar with Jewish law.
Finally, we must look at track records. Jews have been accused for centuries of thinking less of non-Jews, treating them differently, not regarding them as equal, etc. This has been shown time and again to be untrue; Jews have treated, and continue to treat, their non-Jewish neighbors with exemplary fairness, equality, and kindness.
The most obvious modern-day example is Israel – a sovereign Jewish state with a Jewish majority. After millennia of persecution the Jewish people have become exemplars of how to treat others, giving non-Jewish minorities full protection and equality anchored in law and practice (similar to the Torah’s ger toshav).
Does this mean there are no passages in the vast corpus of Jewish religious literature that downplay the Jewish theme of recognizing God’s image in every human being? Of course there are such passages. But then, every body of literature has difficult outlying passages that clash with its main themes.
Should we apologize for these exceptions? Absolutely not. Ashkenazic Jewry apologized for these passages, explaining them and elaborating on them, for close to a thousand years. What did that get us? More hatred, more violence, more misinterpretation, and more scrutiny of our texts.
Jews in Arab countries, on the other hand, who never apologized for Judaism’s sacred texts, historically experienced far less persecution and violence, lived with more dignity, and maintained far more religious independence than their Ashkenazi counterparts.
As Jews we should feel nothing other than pride for our pioneering role in teaching that all men and women are created in God’s image and should never apologize for our sacred texts. When questioned about those texts, we must always remember: the haters will always hate.