by Rabbi Daniel Friedman
(EJNews) – “Given his latest travel ban imposed on seven specific nations, who here believes Donald Trump is anti-Muslim?” I recently posed that question to a room full of mainline Christians and quite a number of Muslims at a panel discussion in St. Albert on the topic of religious violence. All the hands in the room shot up.
“Why do you think he’s anti-Muslim?” I asked, “The ban said nothing about Islam or Muslims! But, of course, we all know that while he didn’t mention Muslims explicitly, the fact is that all the banned states happen to be Muslim-majority countries. In other words, whether intentionally or unintentionally, he has singled out Muslims for biased treatment. And therefore, by definition he is anti-Muslim. Right?” Every head in the room nodded in unison.
The very first mitzvah given to the nation of Israel was the duty to sanctify the month of Nisan and celebrate the Exodus. That’s why we make such a big deal of our emancipation from Egypt. There’s hardly a Jewish family that doesn’t have a Passover seder and indeed we’re exhorted to remember the Exodus every single day. And yet, if it’s so important, why is it not right at the beginning of the Torah?
That’s Rashi’s very first question on the Book of Genesis: the Torah isn’t a storybook; it’s a book of instruction. If the first mitzvah is the sanctification of the month of Nisan and the laws relating to the Exodus, why did Hashem find it necessary to begin with the creation narrative? Listen to his powerful answer: When the nations of the world say to Israel, ‘You are robbers, because you took the land of the seven nations,’ Israel will respond, ‘The entire world belongs to Hashem. He created it and gave it to whom He pleased.’
Now when you think about it, what did Rashi know about the nations of the world calling us robbers? He didn’t live in a world with a United Nations – a body that never ceases to vilify Israel and single out the Jewish state for opprobrium in the face of terrible human rights abuses throughout the world! This year alone, the UN Human Rights Council initiated five anti-Israel resolutions (with no other country receiving more than a single critique). What’s more, Israel is the only country in the world with a standing annual agenda item dealing with its human rights improprieties! The good news is that finally other countries (besides Canada and the US) are waking up to this anti-Semitic nonsense – the UK just announced that it was putting the UN ‘on notice’ and Australia protested the singling out of Israel in the Security Council (a resolution the US chose to abstain from).
So how did Rashi, living in eleventh century France, know about the UN’s twentieth and twenty-first century anti-Semitism? Well, he probably never imagined a United Nations. But what he did know was that around his time, the Jews were expelled from France and ended up in England. They were subsequently expelled from England and moved back to France. In the Middle Ages, this persecution and exile took place half a dozen times – when the economy picked up, our mediaeval gentile neighbours started accusing the Jews of stealing their money. And so they expelled us and appropriated our homes and businesses. And then when the economy took a downturn, they ‘invited’ us back. Only to kick us out mere decades later.
Rashi is sitting there in mediaeval France, watching this all unfold, and he says to himself: If this is the way they’re treating us when we’ve clearly built up their economies and earned our money as honourable residents of these countries, can you imagine what they’ll say when the Almighty eventually brings us back to the Promised Land? Sure there are Jews there (we’ve always had a continuous presence in Israel), but we’re most certainly a minority. If Jews return there en masse, they will undoubtedly accuse us of thievery! That’s why I’m making it clear to any reader of the Bible that Hashem created the world and it’s His choice to whom to give which country!
Let’s return to my panel discussion in St. Albert. As you’ll recall, I had suggested to the crowd that President Trump’s choice of countries for his travel ban suggested an anti-Muslim bias.
“Let’s talk about Israel for a minute,” I continued, “despite genocide and egregious human rights abuses taking place around the world, from Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iran to Venezuela, somehow the UN and world media seem to focus most of their attention on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Is Israel perfect? No, neither is Canada, or any country for that matter. Now, listen carefully: some people will tell you that there’s nothing anti-Semitic about picking on Israel. But if Israel just happens to be the only Jewish country and it’s the one country you’re singling out for criticism, then you’ve just admitted that you’re being anti-Semitic. Just like Trump doesn’t need to say anything about Muslims for us to know that a ban on Muslim countries implies an anti-Muslim prejudice, you don’t need to openly admit to being an anti-Semite. When you criticize Israel, you show your anti-Semitic colours loud and clear for all to see.”
At the Seder, we will sing Vehi she’amda, which serves as a reminder to every generation that we have Pharaohs seeking to annihilate us. Baruch Hashem, today we live in an age when we have experienced national Exodus from the Diaspora and gained sovereignty over our very own country. But that doesn’t mean the Pharaohs have given up their goal of annihilation. May we be ever vigilant in calling out the enemies of our people on their anti-Semitism, whether they couch their hatred in the language of deicide, Aryanism, or the latest trend: human rights.
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is Rabbi at the Beth Israel Synagogue in Edmonton AB.