Last week, I mentioned the importance of the Netziv’s She’ar Yisrael as a guidepost as we continue to grapple with the age-old problem of anti-Semitism. The Netziv prefaces his work by saying that it is based on Tanach and Chazal, so it is no surprise that his view on this issue reflects that of other Torah authorities. But he is unique in his extensive presentation of anti-Semitism as a central theme of galus, as well as in his vision for our success in exile.
To fully understand the relationship between Jew and non-Jew, the Netziv turns to the Haggadah shel Pesach, where we are told to “go and learn” from Lavan’s attempts to “uproot” Yaakov Avinu. Evidently, says the Netziv, the showdown between Yaakov Avinu and Lavan holds the secret of antisemitism for the ages.
On the surface, it seems simple enough—Lavan watches Yaakov’s fortunes grow, suspecting theft and deceit. When Yaakov slips away, Lavan pursues him and unleashes a barrage of accusations. If that was all there was to it, Lavan’s ire should have been directed only at Yaakov, not at the rest of his family! But Chazal tell us that Lavan wanted to “uproot everything,” a reference to Judaism itself.
Why? Because Lavan was convinced that Yaakov’s “crimes” were supported by his religious beliefs.
The Netziv explains that this is typical anti-Semitic behavior. One of the oldest canards against the Jews has been the accusation of financial corruption, which has taken on various guises over time. This alone is dangerous, but it takes on an entirely new threat level when our enemies conflate it with Judaism itself, as Lavan did.
But that’s not all. Even after Yaakov presented a clear picture of how he had earned every penny despite Lavan’s chicanery, his words fell on deaf ears; Lavan responded by repeating the same outrageous claim.
Fast-forward a few thousand years, and it’s amazing how little things have changed. Recently, Congress passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, spurred primarily by the spike in harassment of Jewish students on campus. I hate to be pessimistic, but I find it hard to believe that any legislation could temper the world’s oldest hatred.
The Netziv’s thorough approach to anti-Semitism makes one thing very clear: it’s not about them, it’s about us. Of course, those who attempt to harm us should be held fully accountable, and we must also take proper steps to ensure our own safety. However, I believe that history has proven that trying to change world opinion is an exercise in futility; it’s like asking a leopard to change its spots.
A story told by Lt. Meyer Birnbaum illustrates how irrational antisemitism can be. He faced many challenges as an American serviceman in World War II, but his non-Jewish buddy, Mojo, was his fierce supporter. One night, Lt. Birnbaum entered his barracks in the midst of a drunken party. He watched in horror as Mojo erupted in a hate-filled rant against Jews. The other soldiers were surprised too, and one of them said, “Mojo, your best buddy is a Jew!”
“Oh, him!” blurted Mojo. “He’s different!”
At that point, Lt. Birnbaum knew he was witnessing antisemitism in its purest form. Hard evidence and convincing arguments will always fall flat against blind hatred.
So what are we to do? The Netziv acknowledges that there is a hidden element to Hashem’s plan, so we cannot expect our positive behavior to guarantee tranquility in galus. Nor can we explain individual incidents, like the occasional spiteful neighbor or brainwashed coworker.
Rather, the Netziv addresses our mission as a nation, which is to uphold and embody the principles of our Torah. Not only will this help stem the tide of assimilation by preserving our Jewish identity, we will also earn the admiration of those around us when we live up to our own religious standards.
To explain how we can be different yet respected, the Netziv compares galus to the relationship between fire and water. The former’s qualities are in direct conflict with the latter’s, yet fire can be used to heat water for cooking, for washing and for other productive purposes. However, that’s only with the use of a barrier such as a pot or kettle. When there is direct contact, the water will extinguish the fire, leaving a plume of smoke and ash.
The Jewish people are like the fire, and we can interact positively with water—the rest of the world. Only when we are firmly rooted in the ways of Torah and mitzvos are we ready to stand tall in our role as a light unto the nations.