How to deal with Antisemitism, Racism and Prejudice

The Jewish people have suffered greatly throughout history and nevertheless have not succumbed to hatred of the other.

The State of Israel has tried very hard to include the Arab co-residents of Israel in its social fabric. As a result, Israeli Arab citizens are found in every profession in the country, including the government and the army, notwithstanding the Palestinian calumny that Israel practices “apartheid” and “colonialism”.

Israel continues to be the first to arrive with medical supplies and assistance at every natural national tragedy, anywhere globally and has been exceptionally generous in sharing her medical and scientific achievements.

Jewish texts and Rabbis advise:

  1. That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others *1
  2. Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt *2
  3. Care for the widow and the orphan *3
  4. Do not bear a grudge against your neighbour *4

Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence Book by Jonathan Sacks, Baron Sacks

In his book, Not in God’s Name, Rabbi Sacks *5, analyzes several biblical stories that he claims have been misread, such as the stories of sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Isaac and Ishmael Esau, Joseph, and his brothers. And, he demonstrates the underlying premise of the Hebrew Bible that God, the Creator of all humans, loves and cares for each of us equally and wants us to imitate Him and care for each other as brothers.

He posits that although the roots of antisemitism may be part of our basic instincts as human beings, the remedy is character development that focuses on brotherly love.

How does one achieve this kind of education?

We can look at Rabbis of the last several millennia and their deep understanding of how education can be both meaningful and transformational. Rabbinic teaching uses every educational tool available to achieve its aims, to educate for a life of brotherly love, including narrative, questioning, analysis, and repetition. These tools are embedded in every aspect of Jewish life and daily practice, and there is no better template for Jewish education than the Passover Holiday Seder, which is celebrated annually by Jews all over the world and illustrates how these principles are put into practice. Let’s look at how this works by analyzing the Passover seder.

A Seder table setting

A Seder table setting

  1. Jewish education begins with the children, and it starts in the home. Naturally, therefore, everything about the seder is geared so that children will notice and ask questions from the traditional “four questions,” which are to be asked by the youngest participant at the table, to every other detail of the evening.
  2. The Passover seder is experiential learning. You tell the story with props and reminders for young and old. For example, God instructed Jews to consume only unleavened bread – matzah – during the seven-day Passover feast. At the seder table, we point to the matzah and say, “This is the poor bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt.”

Matzo

The matzo serves as a reminder to remember what it was like to be a slave in Egypt and have no control over one’s life. Through tasting the Marror, the bitter herb, often horseradish, also present on the seder plate, we taste the bitterness of slavery and oppression several times during the evening. We recite the Ten Plagues visited on Egypt while dipping a finger in the wine and removing a drop for each plague to remind us that we also feel for the distress of the Egyptians who suffered those plagues and drowned at sea. They, too, are G-ds’ children and God, and we weep for them as well.

3. You then explain how this is not someone else’s story but your own.

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. And the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched forearm. And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” (Haggadah text)

4. You repeat the ritual every year, regardless of circumstances, whether you are in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 or Montreal amid a pandemic. The Haggadah text states:

“Even if we were all sages, all discerning, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, it would be incumbent upon us to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And anyone who adds and spends extra time telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, behold he is praiseworthy.”

The Torah

Magically, studying this text on seder night and reviewing it year after year, the reading comes alive for each one of us in a different way that connects to our imaginations at every stage of life and to our particular circumstances, every year of our lives.

At my own family’s seder table, every year, we shared our family story of having survived the Holocaust in Hungary and fled Soviet Hungary to rebuild our lives in the safety of Montreal. So no doubt you, too, have your escape from slavery story.

I genuinely believe, If everyone in the world could experience a Passover seder night, the hatreds of the world would disappear into thin air.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Hillel, Talmud Shabbat 31A
  2. Do not oppress the stranger, Exodus Ch 22:20
  3. Care for the widow and the orphan, Exodus Ch 22: 21-22
  4. Do not bear a grudge against your neighbour,  Leviticus ch. 19-18
  5. Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, by Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Schocken Books, 2015

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