3,200 years ago, an Egyptian Pharoah wrote about the people of Israel. His writing, etched on a granite stone, is widely considered to be the first reference to the people of Israel outside the bible. You can still see it to this day, in a museum in Cairo. It stands as evidence that the people of Israel have existed in an everchanging and unbroken line across more than three millennia. There is pride in that.
At the same time, this Pharaoh, Merneptah, did not celebrate that people’s existence. To the contrary, the 1213 BCE Merneptah Stele standing in Cairo holds that the people of Israel are “wasted, bare of seed.” Pharaoh Merneptah celebrated either the destruction of, or the desire to destroy, the people of Israel. He didn’t succeed.
History is riddled with similar stories, all centered around the thought that the Jewish people needed to be destroyed because they were a threat to power. Cicero claimed Jews were too influential in public assemblies and only fit to be slaves in 59 BCE. But just a decade before, the Romans had ejected the Jews from both Judea and Rome. It seems strange that the most famous of all Roman orators would be spending time denigrating Jews, a supposedly defeated people. Yet there it is, Cicero’s perception of Jewish power on the one hand and the need to crush the Jews on the other.
In the centuries that followed, the dual nature of Jewish survival and the parallel of hatred remained a constant. On one side of the coin, as Jews lived in diaspora, they built communities and worked to support and better the kingdoms and regimes in which they resided. Look at Maimonides as an example of that duality. The author of the Guide for the Perplexed also served as the personal physician to Saladin.
At the same time, hatred and superstition were heaped upon the Jews. From claims of deicide, to ritual murder, to thievery, to satanic worship and witchcraft, no conspiracy was spared. As reformist ideals swept through Europe, there was hope that a new age of acceptance would grow. But by 1545, Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, declared in his work The Jews and their Lies, that the Jews steal Christian children and poison Christian wells. He argued that Jews’ homes and synagogues be burned to the ground.
Time and again this cycle repeats. Jews came to England on invitation from William the Conqueror in 1066 only to be expelled by James I in 1290 in an economic crisis. In Spain, for the better part of 800 years, Jews lived under both Christian and Muslim rule, building flourishing societies either tolerated or formally accepted. This was until they were massacred in the late 1300s, forced to convert, and expelled in 1492. The Holocaust of the 1930s and 40s grew because Jews were a convenient target for the ills confronting a post World War I Germany and fodder for xenophobic nationalism. From Poland to Portugal, from Babylon to Germany, Jews have always been part of the society that grew to hate them.
Against that three-thousand year backdrop, Jewish experience in America should be placed in perspective. Jews survived expulsions, forced conversions, diaspora, pogroms and the holocaust and despite all that, thrived. Here in America, there is no question Jews have flourished. Jews have risen to every level of society, culture and government in a land of acceptance, but the old tropes are here in America too. A little more than 100 years ago, Ulysses S. Grant, hero the Civil War and 18th President of the United States put more Jews in office than any other president before. He was the first president to attend a synagogue service and the first to openly condemn the rising antisemitism in Europe in the 1870s. But he is also the author of General Order 11, which, during the Civil War, expelled all the Jews from Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. Down the road in Paducah, the Order resulted in the forced march and rough treatment of all the Jews there.
Cue up the old song for today. In October, Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye, let us know what it means to be Jewish again by claiming the Jews controlled the media. White nationalists grabbed the 405 highway in California to proclaim Kanye was right. Kyrie Irving shared a movie without explanation that, among other tropes, blames Jews for the North American slave trade and, by extension, racism in America. At the same moment, supremacists espoused that Jews are the architects for the “Great Replacement Theory;” a nonsense whereby the Jews are conspiring to replace one race with another as part of a vast conspiracy. Here in our city, flyers were distributed blaming Jews for COVID. Pick a problem and someone is going to blame the Jews.
So what does a person do with that knowledge?
First, gain more knowledge. There are any number of sources on understanding antisemitism and ways to continue the struggle against it. If you go to the JCRC website at
jewishlouisville.org/jcrc we have posted a number of different resources and materials that may help further your understanding. Feel free to reach out to me at the JCRC to discuss any antisemitism you experience or to stand with you if need help. Jews make up only 2% of the national population and 0.2% of the world population. In our metropolitan area of nearly a million, about 14,000 people are believed to be Jewish with another 4,000 or so living in Jewish households. What this means is that most people will have never met a Jew or talked to a Jew about being Jewish. This places a particular responsibility on us to educate our community against antisemitism and “arm” ourselves with knowledge.
Second, and this may be a controversial point, but do not be afraid to participate in Jewish institutions. Synagogues, the Federation, the JCRC, Jewish Family and Career Services, Hillel and other distinctly Jewish organizations locally and nationally regularly combat antisemitism and offer programming and support as part of an ongoing community effort. You will find just about every Rabbi, lay leader, or volunteer willing to stand with you. Organized Jewish communities work through their institutions and broaden support for Jews in the places Jews live. An intended consequence of organizational participation is the strengthening of the ability of Jewish institutions to serve the broader community’s needs. As we fight for ourselves, we fight for others too.
Third, do not be afraid to have pride in being Jewish.The fact is, Jews have survived because of their connection to a religion and way of life that has outlived empires. That way of life includes, at its core, the requirement to protect the least among a society—the widow, the orphan and the stranger. That willingness to stand up to power is likely why the Jews are hated by the powerful. As Mark Twain wrote, “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.” The fact that the people of Israel “remain” is nothing short of a miracle. It is ok to “kvell” on that. I have always thought the saddest line in the Torah was, “a new Pharoah arose that did not know Joseph.”Exodus 1:8. It is a stark reminder that no matter what a Jewish person can do, no matter how far they may go in society, some new king, dictator, leader or now celebrity will forget their contributions and try and tear them down in the whim of a moment. The Pharoah Mereptah was of that ilk. So are the nationalists, supremacists and xenophobes of today. At the same time, the people of Israel have survived the centuries by combatting superstition with knowledge, by building strong institutions internally and externally, and by loving a religion and way of life in the face of hate.
For more than 3,000 years we have played the long game. Even with all the hate going on in the world today, I still like our chances.
Matt Golden is a lawyer and the Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. In his opinion, the JCRC is the most august body in the Jewish Community, seeking justice and doing tikkun olam. He is admittedly very partial and biased in this regard. He invites comments, suggestions or airing of grievances at firstname.lastname@example.org.