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Antidote to antisemitism is Jewish pride



There are few societal ills as ancient and as virulent as antisemitism. It has been ever present, and it merely mutates as we traverse the passage of time.

We have a tradition that the first time something, a word or a concept, appears in the Torah is the paradigm that describes the essence of that item. I heard once from local scholar Cecil Steinhauer that the first time we encounter systemic antisemitism in the Torah is in the context of the slavery of Egypt. Pharoah somehow manages to convince the Egyptian people that their successful and fully enculturated Jewish Egyptians neighbours are a threat to national security. He claims that should Egypt be attacked by foreign invaders, the Jews would join forces with the enemies and revolt against the Egyptians. Why in the world would patriotic Egyptian Jews turn on their country of birth after 200 years of naturalisation? They wouldn’t. And so is born the essence of antisemitism – Illogical to the core. Rationale defying, and simply beyond any reasonability.

There’s no logic. Jews have done more to advance their countries of sojourn in the diaspora than any other minority in the history of mankind. Our impact far surpasses our meagre numbers. One would assume we would be praised and thanked, not derided and reviled. Yet that remains the pattern, even today.

Some Jewish rabbis and scholars suggest that antisemitism exists as Hashem’s values-clarification mechanism. When we stray from our traditions and heritage or when we hate one another, Hashem reminds us who we are and who our real enemies are. Sometimes we fight one another over politics, religion, tradition, and even good old baseless faribels. Those who hate us are sent as a stark reminder about who the real enemies are.

If that’s the case, then the real antidote to antisemitism is a mindful and deliberate increase in Jewish identity and pride. Our default position would be to run and hide our Jewishness, to be more like everyone else, but the opposite it true. Just as the Maccabees fought bravely against the ancient Greeks – who weren’t trying to physically destroy us but to Hellenise us and disconnect us from our religious practise. They fought for Judaism. They fought for their identity, and united the people in doing so.

There has been a moving image circulating of a woman lighting her Chanukah candles before the outbreak of World War II in Germany. The Nazis had just risen to power, and in the background to the picture, a swastika flag is draped over the new Nazi headquarters. On the photograph to her family she has inscribed the powerful words, “’Judah shall die’ – thus says the flag. ‘Judah shall live’ – thus says the candles.”

Antisemitism is a virus. It rears its head to shock us into action and sometimes with tragic results, but it never defeats us. Pretending it doesn’t exist, or hiding our identity doesn’t inoculate us from its effects.

The events of 7 October have shaken global Jewry to the core. A brazen attack on Jews, just because they are Jews. A modern-day pogrom. Alliances and friends of old have quickly turned, and the narrative against Israel has strengthened in disturbing ways. While civilian death is completely tragic, the rationale for this war seems lost on most and, once again, global Jewry is feeling increasingly isolated. We can be assured that the longer the war drags on, the further the events of 7 October will retreat and disappear in global consciousness.

The position taken by our government and the openly antisemitic rhetoric is jarring for our community and our children. It’s illogical, as the Torah defines it to be. Our children are seeing it all online – there are no secrets and it can be intimidating and scary. I believe our message to them should be resounding and unequivocal. You have nothing to be ashamed of, and everything to be proud of. As John Adams, the second president of the United States said, “I’ll insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilise men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilising the nations. They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe, and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.”

We have to hear this, and so do our kids. Be proud. Know who you are. Our unity and Jewish pride and practise is our best defence and our greatest weapon against this ancient baseless hatred.

  • Rabbi Ricky Seeff is the general director of the South African Jewish Board of Education and former principal of King David Primary School Victory Park.

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