So after another year, here I am again, posting to my blog because I now have Something To Say. That Something also perhaps breaks a taboo I had set for myself here, which is: politics. Or things relating to politics. I’m not going to slam the Tory government for things it’s done, or go on about Scottish independence. Those are things that pundits that can write better and care more about these topics are paid for.
This is more personal, as it centres around a topic that affects me: antisemitism. I am a Jew, and to be Jewish means that you can comfortably assure yourself that even if you don’t know them personally, there are millions (even billions?) of people out there who hate you and the idea of your existence of vary many varying ideologies: Neo-Nazi, Islamist, Communist… these being some of the more prominent but it cuts across the political and ideological spectrum.
I started tweeting about it tonight, and it set off some interesting thoughts, but one I wrote down actually fascinated me:
Antisemitism is an inversion of the Exodus that casts the Jews as Pharaoh.
For some reason that popped into my head, and it encapsulates everything that I’ve ever thought about it. It crystallises everything. Everyone knows the story of Moses and the flight of the slaves from Egypt, but if you’ve never, ever heard it:
The Israelites came to Egypt, where Joseph had become the grand vizier of Pharaoh and things were good. But a new Pharaoh arose who “knew not Joseph” (i.e. hated the Israelites) and decided to enslave them. The suffering of the Israelites became so great that G-d (I type this if I’m talking about G-d in the Jewish religious sense) decided to send Moses (who had been raised in the Royal House of Egypt, and was cast as a Prince in the 90s animated film) to deliver the Israelites from their suffering with all of G-d’s miracles behind him (the Seven Plagues), which in the end resulted in Pharaoh allowing the Israelites to leave Egypt to wander in the desert.
In the desert, the Israelites wander until they come to Mount Sinai where G-d gives Moses the Commandments (613, to be precise, not just 10!) and makes a covenant with the Israelites for them to keep these commandments, and promises them a utopian land as a reward for this covenant.
Some schools of thought within Judaism cast this as the essential moment that the Israelites become the Jewish people we know today, and indeed if you’ve ever been to a Jewish Friday night supper (kiddush) you may well hear יציאת מצרים – ‘yetziat mitzraim’, ‘the Exodus from Egypt’ mentioned at least once in the prayers.
This story is powerful, and has resonated throughout history. Slave-owners in America gave their slaves Bibles with the Exodus heavily bowdlerized so they couldn’t hear of this meaning, the Pilgrims to America viewed themselves as the new Israel and their flight across the Atlantic to America as the Exodus, and many other oppressed groups throughout the world have looked to this story for inspiration and hope.
And now it strikes me that many antisemites actually are in effect rebooting the Exodus and casting themselves in the role of the people of Israel, and the Jews as Pharaoh. And because Pharaoh is an evil oppressor, you are allowed to bring down (or at least try to) the terror of G-d’s miracles on Pharaoh, which in antisemite world is a pogrom or in the modern day a Tweetstorm inspiring people to go out and shout such things as “Fuck the Jews, rape their daughters!” in a Jewish area.
By appropriating and rebooting the story of the Exodus with you as the Israelites, everything awful you want to do to or say about the Jews is koshered, blessed by the high powers you invoke (in some cases G-d, in the case of the Nazis science and somewhat depressingly in the case of certain conspiratorial sections of the modern left, ‘human rights’) giving you the perceived holy power and righteousness of the biblical Israel in your cause.
Indeed, the Nazis flatout said it on their belt buckles: Gott Mitt Uns (God is with us), another version of the of the name “Immanuel” from the book of Isiah, a sign that G-d will protect the House of David (from which the Jewish Messiah is said to come). There’s the distinct possibility they knew this and did it to mock the Jews, but perhaps not. They did, however, provide history with an excellent example of how antisemites think.
Indeed, if we look at the person who inspired this post, Kanye West, he gives another variation on Gott Mitt Uns:
“The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew [sic] also” is a reference to Black Hebrew Israelitism, a strain of thought that African Americans are the true descendants of the Biblical Israelites, and that White people have stolen this inheritance, called themselves the Jews and thus allows you to abuse and assault them.
Of course this erases the fact that there are also Black Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Indian Jews, Chinese Jews and many others, all of whom could not be said to be White. But then nuance, detail and careful thought is not usually the hallmark of anyone who is antisemitic. What West is saying here is that he’s the true heir to the biblical House of Israel, and thus G-d is with him. Gott Mitt Uns.
So thanks to Kanye and the Nazis, both antisemites, we can see the central message of antisemitism is: we have a Promised Land, and we have to get the Jews out of the way to get there. I could rattle off numerous other examples of this, but I’d need to go back to antiquity. It is indeed common across all of them.
My thoughts on religion are scattered and somewhat inconsistent: I occasionally attend Shabbat services, and I attend shul on High Holy Days. I also happen to have a fondness for pepperoni pizza. My belief in the supernatural is somewhat limited (aside from an occasional interest in unidentified aerial phenomena, but that’s for another time), but the endurance of antisemitism, and the endurance of the Jewish People throughout history give me some pause for thought.
Indeed, Hebrew is the only successful revival of what was thought to be an extinct language. It thrives today in Israel with many, many native speakers. Most dead languages stay dead, but not Hebrew. It’s indeed curious.
Another thing about antisemitism is ultimately is in the long run, indulging in it will without fail bring destruction to those who do so. The Nazis, the Soviet Union, the Roman Empire, all are gone and exist only in history books. Or more recently, you’ll probably end up a loser ranting on Twitter but ignored by society in general. See #ItWasAScam Twitter for many illuminating examples.
Antisemitism is exhausting, and I’d rather not see “Zionists” or “The Jews” trend on Twitter as invariably clicking on it will lead to depression and anger as thousands of people tweet bigotry and idiocy masquerading as righteousness. But another thought strikes me – perhaps they are in fact saying Mah Tovu to the Jews?
Mah Tovu is a prayer you will often hear at the start of a Jewish service – in English it translates roughly as “How Goodly” – the full first line being: How lovely are your tents, O Jacob; your encampments, O Israel!
The prayer is unique in that the traditional author of it is Balaam, a wizard sent to curse the Jews in the Book of Numbers. However, instead of uttering the curses, he is forced by G-d to offer a blessing, the titular Mah Tovu. In seeking to invert Exodus, perhaps actually antisemites are doing this. It’s often bloody and destructive, but maybe there is some sort of message in the fact that the hatred is so visceral and seemingly irrational – in their heads they sincerely believe that Jews possess some sort of supernatural power and desire to possess it. It is in many ways the ultimate backhanded compliment.
I don’t really have a cure or strategy for getting rid of antisemitism. I think as long as there are Jews it will be with us, and even if there were no Jews they would probably still believe there were secret Jews somewhere in the world, ruining their lives.
But for me the idea that slipped into my mind tonight, that antisemitism is an inversion of the Exodus does help in some ways, namely that perhaps when I find myself with thousands upon thousands of Twitter accounts seething about Zionist conspiracies and retweeting idiotic rappers all I’m really seeing is thousands of tweets of “!מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל”, albeit somewhat rephrased with misspellings and foul language.
However, still, on a fundamental level this reboot and recasting of The Prince of Egypt sucks massively. I wish we could find something new.