The following commentary isn’t about Middle East peace. I really do sympathize with Gazans and all Palestinians who’ve faced such a deprived situation. I’m not suggesting Israel is to blame, but those growing up in the disputed territories can hardly be blamed for their hostile feelings towards Israel.
But this isn’t about Israel. It never was.
What is antisemitism?
Imagine that Nigeria was at war, and local African-Americans expressed pride over their heritage but weren’t particularly involved in the events overseas. How abhorrent would it be to see anyone targeting and beating them up across the country? So why is this happening to North American Jews?
Imagine if Native American reserves began shooting rockets at American cities and the liberal response was to point fingers at the indigenous population. While the situation may be debatable, the reaction is obviously off. Again, what’s happening to Jews?
Real atrocities occur worldwide. Yet we don’t see people of Chinese descent assaulted because of the purported ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs or Ethiopian expats attacked due to the Tigray conflict.
What’s behind the double standard toward Israel and Jews? Most of the world ignores facts and history. In her book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, former New York Times op-ed editor Bari Weiss covers the unique, multifaceted kind of hate Jews experience—not as typical bigotry but as a conspiracy theory. On the right, Jews are seen as manipulators, foreign invaders and elites who succeed at their expense. On the left, they’re perceived as privileged, capitalists and colonialists.
The excuses behind these tropes can be traced to a wide range of factors—from Jews mostly avoiding the Bubonic Plague due to their religious cleaning routine to their involvement in finance due to their inability to own land and to Christian religious laws barring them from doing so. These are all fine excuses, but poor reasons. What, then, causes Jew-hatred to continue rising?
History teaches an even more worrying lesson. Antisemitism is about scapegoating. It’s the indicator of a deeper societal pain. When it rears its ugly head, it almost always extends beyond Jews. Most recently, this happened with the Nazis, but the same pattern played out during the Spanish Inquisition and many other historical tragedies.
Today’s world is similarly in a deeply fragile state. The middle class has been gutted, while any semblance of a moral compass has disappeared. In a search for meaning, society has replaced morals with vast empty jargons of ‘isms’ and virtue-signaling. Movements consist of oversimplified messages, from systemic racism to socialism, and the demand for change pushes society to an ever-polarized brink.
What can we do about it?
This leads to two questions, the first philosophical and the other practical. First, all the excuses aside, what’s the actual reason Jews are scapegoated? Second, if Jews aren’t the cause, but rather the indicator of the times and society, how should they respond to anti-Semitism? There are two biblical episodes that shed light on the issue: the stories of Passover and Purim.
Passover marked the birth of the Jewish nation (1313 B.C. in Egypt). Jews were slaves for 210 years and saw their deliverance through plagues and miracles. Two thousand years later, (473 B.C.) in the days of Achashverosh (Xerxes I), Jews faced a decree of genocide. They were saved through Queen Esther, who through a series of events turned out to be Jewish herself and helped turn around the situation. At face value, these events have little in common. But they’re deeply intertwined.
The story of Purim begins with the Jews participating in the jubilee celebrations of King Achashverosh. At the time, joining in these festivities was controversial. But the pervading sentiment was that in order to avoid provoking ill-will, Jews instead attend and try to blend in; to be like everyone else. Passover begins similarly. After losing Joseph, their viceroy to Egypt, the Jewish people began to blend in, stopping short only of changing their names.
The Jews’ deliverance began with the opposite development: brazen acts of difference. G-d tells the Hebrews to slaughter a sheep, the deity of Egypt, and publicly display this act by painting their doorposts with the blood of the offering. It’s this act that the Bible attributes to saving them from the final plague, the death of the firstborn. Purim’s turnaround involves an equally dramatic event. Queen Esther requests to hold off confronting the king. Her cousin Mordechai, her spiritual guide, responds in a surprisingly harsh tone, “If you do not go now, the deliverance will come from another source.” Instead of the logical path of going in at the right time in a healthy state, he intimated that she explicitly enters at the wrong time, in her weakest state.
G-d intimates and Mordechai reaffirms that the tragedies of Jewish history began when the Jewish people deny their difference. What’s the takeaway here for us, the Jewish people? We should proudly embrace our uniqueness. When we don’t recall our mission, the nations of the world remind us of it. No matter how much we try to fit in, we aren’t the same. The excuses will always evolve, finding new life in whatever the pain of the day exists. When we as Jews don’t appreciate this reality—when we try to fit in and deny our differences—others will find those differences, highlight them, question them and blame us for them.
In troubling times, it’s natural to be afraid and to hide, but history teaches us to do the opposite. It is at times like these that we need to stand tall, recognize our identity and embrace our responsibility—to ourselves and to the world. We may have varying religious beliefs and associations, but we share one soul. We may not be able to control the beginning of the story, but together we can change the ending.
(Robert S. Reichmann is a Toronto-based entrepreneur and investor focused on building better real-world experiences for everyday people. He is the founder and co-CEO of Workmode, and president of the investment firm Consequential. His community efforts focus on Jewish continuity)