At the beginning of the book of Exodus, a new Pharaoh reigns over Egypt who, the text tells us, “did not know Joseph.” This does not mean that he did not know Joseph personally, but rather that he neither knew how Joseph had served Egypt nor did he know Joseph’s people, the Israelites. He expressed what may be the earliest record of an anti-Semitic statement:

“And he said to his people, 'Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’”

The Haggadah recognized that Pharaoh’s hatred of the Israelites was not unique. It tells us: “And not just one enemy has risen up against us to destroy us, to the contrary: in every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us.” Jewish history is much more than a saga of oppression, persecution and genocide, but anti-Semitism persists and it is therefore essential that we know what it is and what we can do to fight it.

What is anti-Semitism?

Anti-Semitism refers to beliefs or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish. It may take the form of religious teachings or racial ideologies that proclaim the inferiority of Jews and view them as a danger to society. It can be expressed by efforts to isolate, oppress or otherwise injure them, as well as hate speech, violence and acts of intimidation. It may also include prejudiced or stereotyped views about Jews.

Anti-Semitism is found all over the world, though the amount varies greatly from place to place. According to polling data, in the United States the number of those who hold anti-Semitic views has held steady at about 13 percent. In the last two years, however, there has been a significant rise in reports of anti-Semitic incidents, along with a rise in hate incidents against Muslims, LGBTQ people and others. In 2017 alone, ADL recorded 1,986 incidents of anti-Semitism, the largest single-year increase on record.

Is there a difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?

Criticism of the policies of the government of Israel, like that of any other country, is a legitimate part of public discourse. Criticism of Israel ceases to be legitimate, however, when it makes use of anti-Semitic stereotypes and images. Anti-Zionism, defined as prejudice against the Jewish movement for self-determination and the right to a homeland in the State of Israel, crosses the line to anti-Semitism when it uses traditional anti-Semitic imagery or stereotypes, blames all Jews for the actions of Israel or denies or questions Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and equal member of the global community.

Why should we worry about anti-Semitism when there is so much racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-immigrant bigotry, etc.?

No hatred should be tolerated and no one should suffer because of who they are. As long as Jews are targeted for terrorism, violence and hatred, all those who care about human rights and human dignity must fight anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, however, does not exist in a vacuum. Those who hate Jews usually hate others as well. Therefore, the fight is not only against anti-Semitism, but also about all forms of prejudice and hatred.

What can I do about anti-Semitism?

First, when you see it, name it and call it out. As has been pointed out often, the only thing necessary for evil to persist is for good people to say nothing. Second, if you or someone you know is the target of a hate incident or a hate crime, report it to your local police department, attorney general or ADL. Finally, support organizations that are working to combat anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry.

Written by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) New England for JewishBoston, March 2018.

haggadah Section: Commentary / Readings