Haman: The First Antisemite
This shiur was originally delivered at Yeshiva University on 2nd February 2014.
Thank you, President Joel for those lovely words. You’re absolutely right, I nearly died last night, this is a little bit of techiyas hameisim [resurrection of the dead], but, adam ki yamut be’ohel “you do not acquire Torah until you really lay down your life for it.” So thank you for teaching me the truth of that sentence, President Joel.
Friends, may I add my thanks personally to Rabbi and Mrs Arbesfeld for all you’ve done to make this whole programme possible. To Robyn and Shukie Grossman for sponsoring today, and thank you so very much for that. And to all of you, who are the ones from Englewood? Who are the ones from New Rochelle? I tell you guys, those are two of the most beautiful communities I have ever seen in the world, they are wonderful. And there has only been one delight greater than being in New Rochelle and in Englewood, and that is meeting the students of Yeshiva University, they are just… and the school and the college and all the others, sorry, I wasn’t excluding you – you’re definitely included, guys. I have seen on the faces of the YU students, the face of the Jewish future, and it is smiling. So let us be very, very proud of Yeshiva University, the greatest institution of Torah im derech eretz, Torah u’madda, Torah v’chochmah in the world, and President Joel, we salute your leadership, and we wish you and the Yeshiva blessings in the years to come.
I want to say a very, very special thank you to my beloved friend, Rabbi JJ Schachter. Thank you for that wonderful and very moving lecture and may Hashem send you nechamah in this sad year, and may I say that while you were speaking, forgive me if I say this, but I could just feel the presence of your late father, zecher tzaddik livrachah, listening to your shiur and schepping nachas. And may we all merit children who walk so beautifully in our ways.
Friends, before I begin – I hope Rabbi Schachter, you will forgive me if I just add three extremely tiny footnotes – written in such a small font size that you can’t really read them, but if I can just add three little footnotes. Number one, the tension of which you spoke is not only there in the Ramban and the Rav zt”l, it is the defining tension of Jewish life, and we find this set out so clearly in Josephus. When Josephus is talking about the difference between what he saw as the three sects in the late Second Temple age, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, and he says in both his Antiquities and Wars that the Sadducees did not believe in faith, they believed only in choice. History is what we make it. The Essenes did not believe in choice. History is written by God and we are actors in a play that He has already scripted.
The Pharisees are the ones who hold both to fate and to choice as he puts it in a wonderful metaphor. God is sitting presiding over the council chamber of fate, but we are admitted into the council chamber and our voice affects the verdict. So that is a defining tension of Jewish life. I would even argue, but I haven’t remotely the time, it’s a defining tension in Sefer Bereishit.
The second thing is just to defend the Ramban a little bit, because I know the Rav zt”l would have done so in his shiurim as well. The Ramban here, when he says that Avraham Avinu committed a sin for which his children were punished, is not denying freewill. The Ramban believed in freewill as much as everyone. Maybe Hasdai Crescas did not believe in freewill, but everyone else did. The Ramban is facing a specific textual difficulty.
If you read Sefer Bereishit, why did our ancestors go into slavery in Egypt, anyone know? A plain reading will be: a family that can sell one of their members into slavery has to experience being enslaved so that veger loh tilchatz ve’atem yadatem et nefesh hager ki gerim hayitem b’eretz mitzrayim (Shemot 23:9). It was to teach us never to who mistreat our brothers, because if we do, we will all be mistreated. That’s the plain way of reading Sefer Bereishit. But it fails to account for one major textual problem in Sefer Bereishit, which is that already in Bereishit chapter 15, before the birth even of the first Jewish child, Avraham is told already, yado’a teida ki ger yihyeh zar’acha be’eretz loh lahem (Bereshit 15:13). Now Avraham’s children have done nothing to deserve that fate and therefore Ramban has to locate the reason for that gezeirah [decree] in the acts of Avraham himself, in an act prior to chapter 15. So Ramban also believed in this tension between fate and freewill as Rabbi Schachter showed us in the passage of Jacob meeting Esau, but it was a very specific textual difficulty he was addressing here.
And third, the one thing that perhaps I want to mention is that there are not two shitot [approaches] here, one emphasising fate, one emphasising choice. There is a third shitah and the Ramban alludes to it, but he doesn’t chase it, when he quotes the Midrash which says: Avraham was told tzei u’kevosh et haderech “conquer the route.” What exactly does that mean? What it means is something else, it means that when Jews, as we all do, face dark times individually or collectively, we need not fear because we have been here before.
There is nothing that can take Jews by surprise, even the worst horrors of the Holocaust. Where, as it were, you open up the extraordinary vision of Ezekiel seeing the Jewish people reduced to a Valley of Dry Bones. And we know that out of that comes, as Ezekiel said, the return of the Jewish people to Eretz u’Medinat Yisrael. So, Jews are the people who never need fear the future, because whatever the future has to throw at us, we have been here before, and our ancestors were yotzim vekovshim et haderech, they were the ones who showed us how to get from here to there, from exile to the land and the promise. And that ultimately has to be the superscription of Jewish history. Gam ki eilech begei tzalmavet loh iyrah rah ki atah imadi (Psalms 23:4). I never will face the future alone, the experience of my ancestors and the Presence of my and their God will lead me from here to there.
Friends, now I come to my shiur. Here’s a problem, here’s a real problem. Chazal said ashrei mi she’bah vetorato beyado. “Happy is he who comes with his Torah in his hand.” The Chatam Sofer defines a Rav as a chamor nosei sefarim, you’re an ass laden with books. What they didn’t help me with is what happens if your luggage already exceeds the weight limits and you’re making your way to the United States, and somehow ashrei mi she’bah ve’iPad beyado doesn’t have the same ring to it. But that’s how I came with my velechtecha baderech app on my iPad. So all my sefarim are locked up in that little thing there, which means I can’t do a text-based shiur because I haven’t worked out how you get from there to my printer.
All I know is tefillah is our Bluetooth connection with God, that is the only Bluetooth connection I understand. So, forgive me, and here we are, let’s begin at the beginning. Or no, let’s begin in the middle. Here we are, 1930s, Vienna coffee house, two Jews are sitting having coffee in 1933 Vienna, and one of them is reading the local Jewish newspaper from Vienna and the other is reading Der Stürmer, the notoriously antisemitic journal, the rag that was full of libels against the Jews. And the first one turns to the second one and says, “how can you read that antisemitic dribble, how can you read it?” And the second one smiles and looks to the first one and says, “When you read the Jewish press, what do you read? Jews are arguing, they’re quarrelling, they’re separating, they’re out-marrying, they’re assimilating. You only get the bad news. When I read Der Stürmer, what do I read? Jews control the banks, they control the economy, they control the press. If you want the good news, always read the antisemites.”
But what I wanted to do, because antisemitism has returned, unbelievably within living memory of the Holocaust, because it has returned today in the Middle East, in parts of Asia, and sadly, but devastatingly, antisemitism has returned to Europe, I believe that this subject of Megillat Esther is of immense contemporary relevance, and I just want to talk you through it, because what we have in Megillat Esther is perhaps the first recorded incident of a declaration, of a verbal statement, of a phenomenon without parallel in human history, the world’s oldest hatred, antisemitism.
And we hear it in Haman’s words, yeshno am echad mefuzar umeforrad bein ha’amim vedateihem shonot mikol am. “There is a unique people scattered and dispersed through all the realms of your majesty’s realm and their laws are different from anyone else.” (Esther 3:8) And therefore, since they’re different and since they don’t accept the King’s laws, issue a decree, the first warrant for genocide: lehashmid laharog ule’abeid et kol hayehudim mina’ar ve’ad zakein taf venashim beyom echad. The chilling words: “destroy, to obliterate and to exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women in one day” (Esther 3:13).
Haman is really in a certain sense, the first antisemite. And I want to understand, what is this antisemitism? What is it, how does it happen, why does it happen? There are thousands upon thousands of books on antisemitism. The literature on this is absolutely vast, but all too little of it asks the questions, ‘Why does it happen, how does it happen, and how can we prevent it happening?’ It is extremely thin on those particular issues. So what I really want to do is just take you into this phenomenon and try and understand it from within.
Trying to understand antisemitism is incredibly difficult, why? Because it consists of a series of contradictions. Jews were hated because they were poor, and because they were rich, they were hated because they were capitalists, they were hated because they were communists, they were hated because they were clannish and kept to themselves. They were hated because they got everywhere and infiltrated everything. Voltaire hated Jews because, he said, they worship a primitive and superstitious faith. Stalin hated Jews because, he said, they were ruthless cosmopolitans who believed nothing.
So if antisemitism is a stirah minei uvei [an internal contradiction], how will we understand it? And many years ago I said, the best way to understand it is to think of it as a virus. I didn’t really realise that you have to be very careful how you speak when you’re talking to a frum group, because I said antisemitism is a virus, and they all got up and said, ”avairos…?”[Yiddish] Sorry, I hope you understand that, it’s hard to understand Yiddish in an English accent.
What does a virus do? A virus is a disease of the body politic that attacks individuals or societies and corrupts them from within. Now, the human body has the most sophisticated defence against viruses. Viruses are very clever things and they pretend to be like you, and you let them in, and then they start destroying you. So the human body has the most sophisticated mechanism of all to detect and prevent viruses, it’s called the human immune system and it learns to recognise something that doesn’t really belong here even though it’s pretending to, and it provides antibodies to viruses. How then do viruses survive? And the answer is: they mutate. And that is really what happened to antisemitism – it mutated. It has a beginning in time, it underwent in 2,300 years or 400 years, three mutations, and we are currently living through the fourth mutation. Where do you begin?
Obviously if we’re thinking in traditional terms, some would begin with Mitzrayim [Egypt],with the attempt to destroy Am Yisrael. Others would identify it with Amalek’s irrational hatred. Some would trace it even earlier, to Eisav: vayitrotz-tzu habanim bekirbah vatomer im kein lamah zeh anochi (Bereishit 25:22). You know, the twins struggling in the womb, to which God tells Rivka, shnei goyim bevitneich ushnei le’umim mimei’ayich yipareidu ule’om millom ye’ematz verav ya’avod tza’ir (Bereishit 25:23), that there will be an eternal conflict between Jacob and Eisav.
So in typological time, you can date it back even before Haman. However, if you step outside of Tanach, we know that the first antisemitic literature we discover is in Egypt under the Ptolemies, in the third century before Christianity, third century BCE. There’s an Egyptian historian called Manetho who writes the first antisemitic tract, it is a retelling of Yetziat Mitzrayim. Manetho says there were Jews in Egypt, they left Egypt, why? Because they were lepers and Pharaoh gathered them all together and expelled them from Egypt.
And from that moment onwards, since Egypt is under Greek rule, that antisemitism of Manetho spreads into Greek culture, and you get a number of antisemitic Greek writers, and then Latin writers, and by and large, the hellenistic literature is critical of Jews. Number one, I mean, pashut [simply], the Greeks and the Romans just couldn’t understand the Jews. They could not understand Shabbos.
You know this, the Gemara says, Gemara in Megillah says when they sent the 72 Elders to translate the Bible into Greek, which was the hardest day for Israel, et cetera, et cetera, there were certain sentences, or phrases, that they deliberately mistranslated, one of which was, Vayechal Elokim bayom hashevi’i melachto asher assah (Bereishit 2:2). And they translated that as “God finished on the sixth day, all the work that He has created.” Why? Because they knew the Greeks can understand a God who creates the world. What they couldn’t understand is rest is creative. That they couldn’t understand.
That, incidentally, is why ancient Greece burned out and why the Jewish people never burned out. It’s very, very important. They, couldn’t understand Shabbos. They said Jews keep Shabbos because they’re lazy, it was the only interpretation they could give, and so on and so forth.
So, antisemitism was born in Alexandria, where there was a very Hellenised Jewish community and so on and so forth. And in general we find among the Greeks, despite the fact that they held themselves to be very cosmopolitan and very inclusive, sometimes the people who claim most to be ultra-tolerant are actually the least tolerant of all. I love it, there’s a great atheist friend of mine, called Richard Dawkins, who always complains that religion is intolerant, about which I had to say, at least we’re not as intolerant as Richard Dawkins. So it’s very often the secular individuals who claim to have overcome religious prejudice who are guilty of an even more tenacious, secular prejudice. And that is where antisemitism began, and that is its birthplace historically outside of Tanach.
However, with the Greeks and even the Romans, antisemitism was a form of xenophobia. It was hatred of the outsider, the one not like us, and it was not specifically directed against Jews. It was directed against anyone who wasn’t a Hellenist. They called the non-Greeks ‘barbarians’ because they thought they were sheep. You know, they go ‘baa baa’ and, you know, just a load of sheep. (I once said, the Lord is our Shepherd, but no Jew was ever a sheep.) But they couldn’t understand this, and so they were generally critical.
They were actually racists, and racism really began in ancient Greece and a Jewish historian has written a very interesting book about this. However, you remember what the Mafia say to you just before they take you out, before they, how do they put it, before they make you sleep with the fishes? You know what they say to you? “Nothing personal, nothing personal, strictly business.”
Okay, so with the Greeks, they hated Jews, but it was nothing personal. Okay. So that is how antisemitism begins in Alexandria, and from there passes to Hellenistic culture, which is what takes us to the first great mutation.
The first great mutation was the birth of Christianity, and this is one of the real tragedies of history. The first Christians were Jews, they believed that Jews would convert en masse to their faith, recognise that the Moshiach had come. And when they didn’t, they made Jews pay a terrible price. Jews were blamed for the death of the Moshiach and, in particular, in order not to blame the Romans, because the Romans would have been merciless with the Christians, if they found the Christians were blaming them for the death of their Messiah, they shifted the blame to Jews.
Antisemitism is present in Christianity almost from the beginning, that’s the very sad thing. It appears in the Gospel of Matthew, it gets worse in Luke and John. It is there throughout the Church Fathers. And one of the most important events in modern history was when a French historian, Jules Isaac, who lived through the Holocaust, wrote a series of books about the history of antisemitism in Christianity, and they were read by one of the tzaddikim of umos ha’olam, Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s. And John suddenly realised his Church had been guilty of this horrendous antisemitism and set in motion the thing that changed the Catholic Church’s attitude to the Jews, which was called Nostra Aetate (1965) by then he was no longer alive, but so on and so forth.
And there was an entire literature that Jules Isaac has documented called the Adversus Judaeos literature, an entire literature dedicated to attacking the Jews. And that was mutation number one, when antisemitism ceased to become generalised hostility to people not like us, and became up close and personal, specifically to Jews who did not recognise the Messiah came from their ranks. That was the first mutation.
The second mutation we can date reasonably, approximately, to 1096, to the start of the first Crusade, when those on their way to liberate Jerusalem for Christianity, stopped on the way, went out of their way to massacre Jewish communities in Worms, Mainz, and Speyer, we still remember those in the kinnot that we say on Tisha B’Av, and so on.
Until then, Jews had been hated because they weren’t Christians. But from the 11th century, we begin to find Jews hated, not just as non-Christians, but as a demonic force of evil, the Satan, the antichrist, and Jews are, in some mystical way, responsible for every bad thing that happens in the world for desecrating the Host, poisoning wells, spreading the Plague. And worst of all, the Blood Libel: if a child was found missing dead, Jews were blamed for killing children, to use their blood to make matzos for Pesach.
I have sadly to acknowledge that the first Blood Libel happened in England. England was the birthplace of the Blood Libel, from where it spread to the world. The first Blood Libel was in Norwich in 1144, and it continued, and sadly, really sadly, tragically, in the early 19th century, Christian antisemitism was taken, and infected Islam.
And it happened in this way: in the early 19th century, Maronite and Coptic Christians took the Blood Libel to Egypt and to Syria. There were several Blood Libels in the early 19th century in Egypt, but the most famous was in Syria. It was the Damascus blood libel of 1840. And it continues to this day. In 1983, the Syrian Defence Minister, Mustafa Tlass, published a book called The Matzah of Zion, the Syrian Defence Minister, saying that Israelis kill Arab children to use their blood to make matzah on Pesach. And it was and remains to this day a bestseller. And that of course came into Islam through Christianity.
And that was the second mutation, from seeing Jews as not Christians, and bad because of that, to seeing Jews as responsible for all the evil of the world.
Mutation three, again we can date quite precisely. In 1879, a German journalist, Wilhelm Marr, coins a new word. Does anyone know what word he coined? Antisemitism. Extraordinary. If we think antisemitism comes all the way from Haman or Manetho, how come nobody had a word for it before? And the answer is quite simple, because antisemitism was, in a very real sense, a new phenomenon. That’s what I mean by calling it a mutation. What was it? Jews were no longer hated because of their religion, they were now hated because of their race. And that was the terrifying thing.
We find this emerging in the 19th century in France, in Germany, in Austria, Jews hated because of their race. Had this ever happened before? Anyone know? It’s very interesting, it had happened very briefly before. It was an extraordinary story. You know that Spain had its Kristallnacht in 1391. it expelled Jews in 1492. So for 101 years, Jews in Spain lived under the most horrendous persecution. And some Jews converted, that’s the terrible thing, they became the Conversos or the Anusim, the Spanish called them the Marranos [an offensive term possibly derived from the Spanish word for swine].
Some of them kept Judaism in private. And that is why the Inquisition was started, to check that nobody was practising Judaism in private. However, others actually became Christian. They didn’t keep Judaism in private. They became what were known as the New Christians. Now, what happens if a population of Jews is suddenly introduced into a population? Within a few years, they’re running all the businesses, top jobs, the doctors, the judges, you know, they all went to the ‘Yeshiva University’ at the time, they knew how to learn, and you know, so all of a sudden the old Christians say, ‘What have we done? We let all these Jews in!’ And they started distinguishing between Old Christians and New Christians on the basis of race, and they passed a group of legislative acts, called Limpieza de sangre purity of blood, to discriminate against Jews on racial grounds. So, it had briefly appeared before in Spain, but now became the foundation of a new antisemitism in Europe and its epicentres in the 19th century weren’t just Germany, its real epicentres were in Paris, and in Vienna.
In Paris, there was of course the Dreyfuss Trial. But even before the Dreyfuss Trial in 1880, a writer called Édouard Drumont had published a book called La France Juive saying ‘the Jews are running France’, and it became a bestseller and remained a bestseller until 1945. And as you probably read in your papers two weeks ago, Sunday two weeks ago, there was a riot, a mass demonstration in France, in Paris, in support of the comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, in which yet again was heard in Paris, ‘Jews, don’t think you control France’. Or, the fact that everyone else gets away with insulting everyone else, but this guy insults Jews and he suddenly gets banned, that is a ‘proof that Jews are running France’. So, if there is one thing we learned from history, it is that we learn nothing from history. And of course in Vienna, in the late 19th century and early 20th century where there was a deeply antisemitic Mayor called Karl Lueger, and it was in Vienna that Hitler learned his antisemitism, not in Germany. And again, we ask, well, et cetera, et cetera.
We are now living through the fourth mutation. And what makes this antisemitism different from other antisemitisms? The answer is it focuses not on religion, not on race, it focuses on nation. It is directed against the Jews as a sovereign nation in the land and State of Israel. That is something new, anti-Zionism is the new antisemitism. Not every criticism of Israel is anti-Zionism, but anti-Zionism is the form of the new antisemitism. Second, its epicentre is not in Europe, it’s in the Middle East, but third, and this is the really difficult one: what is different is the logic given for the new anti-Semite? And here I have to explain something, it’s quite difficult to understand. You and I may think it’s easy to hate someone, and it is easy to hate someone, but it is very difficult indeed to publicly justify hating someone. And it is so difficult, that in order to justify hating Jews, people have always, in every historical period without exception, needed to appeal to the highest source of authority in the culture of the age, because only that would justify hatred of Jews.
What was the highest form of authority in the Middle Ages? The Church, religion, and that is why in the Middle Ages, antisemitism was religious anti-Judaism.
What was the highest source of authority in the 19th century? The highest source of authority in the 19th century was science. Ever since Newton in the 17th century, the highest authority was science. And although we find it hard to believe now, if you go back and read the antisemites of the 19th and 20th century, including the writings of Hitler, and all of his acolytes, you will find that antisemitism is justified by them on the basis of two sciences that we now know not to be sciences at all. Number one, the so-called scientific study of race. That’s how anthropology was done in the 19th century, that humanity is irretrievably divided into races, some of whom are better than others. And number two, the so-called science of social Darwinism. Namely that society runs according to the same rules as biology, and just as in biology, the strong survived by eliminating the weak, so races survive by eliminating the weak. And that is why the 19th century antisemitism was racial. Today, we’re scientific. Today, what is the highest form of authority? Pardon?
[Audience members answer: The media?]
The highest form of authority today, since the Holocaust, since the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, the highest source of authority is human rights. There’s no question. You want to justify something, you have to justify it by reference to human rights. That is why in the notorious United Nations Conference Against (in inverted commas) Racism held in Durban, one week before 9/11, the State of Israel was singled out by human rights NGOs for the five cardinal sins against human rights – apartheid, racism, attempted genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Those five sins one, I mean, and they’re all mad, they’re completely and absolutely mad. But if you want to justify hatred, you have to do it by reference to the highest source of authority, and therefore you have to justify by reference to human rights.
I therefore lived through this situation. I was a Chief Rabbi in those days, what a relief it is no longer to be a Chief Rabbi! I had to face this, and I had to be very honest. I had to be very, very honest indeed, because you know we persuaded Romano Prodi already in early 2003 to hold a conference on antisemitism in the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels. And I didn’t think they were getting it at all. And I made a speech then, which went as follows: Jews cannot fight antisemitism alone. The victim cannot cure the crime. The hated cannot cure the hate. It’s not our problem, we’re not the antisemites. It’s your problem. And that is why I said: I lead the fight so that Christians can be free to live their life as Christians anywhere in the world. I need you Christians to fight for the right of Jews to live without fear anywhere in the world. I lead the fight and I really did. We started this in 2002, I got the Jewish students in Britain to lead the fight against Islamophobia. I said, we will lead the fighting against Islamophobia, but we need you Muslims to lead the fight against Judeophobia. And indeed out of that speech came an organisation called The Coexistence Trust, which is Jews and Muslims fighting Islamophobia and antisemitism together.
But I really had to find a way of talking about antisemitism that speaks to non-Jews as much as to Jews. That’s the problem, because we know the problem, but we cannot solve the problem. And if we try to solve the problem, we will make the most horrendous mistake. Let me tell you, 19th century Jewry collectively made a mistake that is terrifying. If we had been there, we probably would have made the same mistake. Listen carefully: in the 19th century, Jews began to believe that Jews are the cause of antisemitism. And Jews are not the cause of antisemitism, Jews are the objects of antisemitism, and those are two very different things.
Jews in Germany said, why are we hated? Because we are different. So let’s stop being different. We’re different, we eat different foods, let’s abolish the dietary laws. We keep Shabbos on a different day. Let’s move Shabbos to Sunday. We get married and divorced in a different way, let’s abolish the whole of Even HaEzer. Let’s just be like everyone else. And the result was, antisemitism was not diminished one millimetre and Jews lost their own inner strength to resist. So we must never, ever believe that Jews are the cause of antisemitism.
However, if we want to go back and understand antisemitism, then the answer lies within the verse with which I began, yeshno am echad mefuzar umefurad bein ha’amim… vedateihem shonot mikol am, “There is a certain people who are different from everyone else.” That is why Jews are hated, because we are different. Antisemitism is the paradigm case of dislike of the unlike. And you will say, ‘But everyone’s different, every nation is different’, and it’s true, every nation is different, but only Jews throughout history consistently insisted on the right to be different, the duty to be different, the dignity of difference. They were the only people over the long haul of history who refused to assimilate to the dominant culture or convert to the dominant faith.
And now we have to take a further move, and that is this: difference is what makes us human. Never was this put better than Chazal in the Mishnah in the fourth chapter of Sanhedrin when they said, “when a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God makes us all in the same image, His image, and we all come out different.” It is our differences that mean that every one of us is unique, none of us is exactly like anyone else, even genetically identical twins only have 50% of their attributes in common. And because each of us is unique, none can be substituted for anyone else. That is what makes every nefesh echat ke’olam malei, That is what makes each of us a universe, because we are irreplaceable, and that is what makes human life sacred, the fundamental axiom of Judaism. And that is why – I had to explain this to non-Jews – an assault on Jews is an assault on our humanity. A country or a world that doesn’t have room for Jews doesn’t have room for humanity.
And that frankly is why we were hated. Let me be very blunt with you: if we believe that every single human being is sacred, then we will never abandon our difference in order to fit in. So, when there were tyrannies and totalitarianisms, it was the Jews who stood up against them and insisted on the right of freedom and the dignity of the individual. And that led to some of our worst habits and some of our highest virtues. We’re going to read, in two weeks’ time, parshas Ki Tissa and Moshe Rabbeinu is going up the mountain to pray for forgiveness for the Golden Calf. He utters the most inexplicable sentence in the whole of Tanach, he says the following, he says… anyone, remember what he says? Because my notes…
Im na matzati chein be’einecha, “If I found favour in Your eyes, yelech na hashem bekirbeinu,“please be in our midst” ki am k’shei oref hu, “because this is a stiff-necked people.” Vesalachta la’avoneinu u’lechattateinu u’nechaltanu, “therefore forgive us.” (Shemot 34:9). Now work it out: is the fact that we’re a stiff-necked people a reason to forgive us? It’s a reason not to forgive us. He should have said af al pi, despite the fact that we’re a stiff-necked people, forgive us. Nonetheless, and of course some people say that’s what the word ki means in that verse. The Ramban says Moshe Rabbeinu delivered a really chutzpadik speech, saying Ribbono Shel Olam, if you’re away for one minute we’ll be killing each other and making idolatry. Because we’re so difficult, we need the teacher to be in the class the whole time, so please be close to us because we need you. Nobody else can control us.
There was a wonderful Rabbi who was in the Warsaw Ghetto, who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. His name was Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, and he said, this is what Moshe Rabbeinu said to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, he said: Ribbono Shel Olam, what is today the Jewish people’s greatest vice will one day become their greatest virtue. They may find it hard to bow down to You, even when You’ve showered everything on them. But in future, when conquerors and tyrants and emperors want them to bow down to them, Jews will never bow. Because if you have a stiff neck, let me tell you guys, you shouldn’t have a stiff neck, it’s terrible, I have one, it’s very hard to bow down.
And that of course is the story of Purim, which began with the phrase, U’Mordechai lo yichra velo yishtachaveh (Esther 3:2). Mordechai was the one guy who wouldn’t bow down to Haman. And if there is to be freedom in this world, the world needs the nation that taught us that every life is sacred, that God gives us, each culture and each religion, the right to be different. And that we must never bow down to those who would set themselves up in God’s place. And that is why we were hated, but that is why the world needs us.
Therefore, since antisemitism is hatred of difference, and since difference is essential to our humanity, antisemitism always begins with Jews, but it never ends with Jews. It wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Hitler, it wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Stalin, and it will not be Jews alone who suffer under the theocratic Republic of Iran. We are the front guard of humanity and antisemitism is not a crime against Jews. It is a crime against humanity. And that has been my case for the last ten years in Britain.
And that is how Britain became the first country where the fight against antisemitism is led by non-Jews, by British parliamentarians, by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities, and by the Prime Minister. And every Prime Minister since the beginning of this round of antisemitism, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, has got up in front of thousands of people and said these words, “Jews will never be left to fight antisemitism alone.” And we have taken this message so far into Britain, not just at the top, but at the bottom also, that in Britain, uniquely, the government provides the funding for every single school in Britain, without exception, secular school, Christian school, Jewish school, Muslim school, to send two children and one teacher to Auschwitz, and every school in Britain observes Holocaust Memorial Day on January the 27th.
So we have the fight against antisemitism led by non-Jews because it is not Jews who cause antisemitism, it is antisemites who cause antisemitism, and that is the responsibility of society as a whole.
There is one question left, and I end with this story. What should we do as Jews to fight antisemitism? I am going to give you an unexpected answer, but it’s a very important one. And I learned this from a charedi Rav in Manchester (actually Manchester just is charedi, but it’s a very holy city and it does some wonderful things…)
I know the young people here won’t remember this at all, (but na’ar hayitti gam zakanti, I remember this…) in the late 1980s when the former Soviet Union was beginning to open up, it was the era of perestroika and glasnost, for the first time in 70 years Jews were free to be Jews. But it had a downside because antisemites, for the first time in 70 years, were free to be antisemites. And antisemitism began to reappear in Russia at the end of the 80s. And one of our Rabbanim from Manchester was out in Moscow helping to rebuild Jewish life. And while he was there, a young girl came to see him, in her late teens, and she was shaking, and she told the Rabbi, “All my life, I never spoke about being Jewish, nobody thought I was Jewish, we didn’t discuss it, and nobody said anything. Now, because I’m Jewish, when I go in the street, people shout at me, еврей, еврей, “Jew”. What shall I do?”
The Rabbi had a big beard and a big black hat and a long kapota. He turned to the young lady and said, “The way I look, people probably don’t mistake me for an Episcopalian.”
“And yet,” he said, “in all these months I’ve been here, no one ever shouted out еврей, еврей. [Jew! Jew!] Why do you think that is?”
And the young lady thought for a bit and gave this answer, and it is so true. She said, “Because they know if they shout out the word ‘Jew’ at me, I will take that as an insult. But if they shout out the word ‘Jew’ to you, they know you will take that as a compliment.”
If we want to fight antisemitism, let us walk tall and proud as Jews, and let us work with all humanity to banish hatred forever. Amen.