Tradition Today: Rejecting racism

We find ourselves in the strange position in which some Jews look upon non-Jews in a way similar to how non-Jews related to Jews for centuries.

Demonstrators gather outside the Prime Minister’s Residence protesting against racist ‘Price Tag’ attacks in May, 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Demonstrators gather outside the Prime Minister’s Residence protesting against racist ‘Price Tag’ attacks in May, 2014.
Is Judaism racist? Does it teach that non-Jews are inferior to Jews, and discriminate against them? Does it encourage Jews to treat non-Jews differently, to harm them and their property in the name of Judaism? The answer to these questions is and must be a resounding “No!” Yet we find individuals, groups and even rabbis who act as if the defense of Judaism requires disdain and worse for non-Jews – especially, but not exclusively, for Arabs.
We then find ourselves in the strange position in which some Jews look upon non-Jews in a way similar to how non-Jews related to Jews for centuries.
Recently, we have seen members of a group that supposedly works against assimilation torch a school in which Jews and Arabs learn together. Of course, this was nothing compared to an earlier event in which an Arab youth was burned alive for no reason other than that he was an Arab.
Then there has been the so-called “price-tag” events which have included defacement of buildings with such slogans as “Death to Arabs,” setting fires in mosques, destroying vehicles and so forth.
Nor can we forget official, government-appointed rabbis who have given legal decisions discriminating against Arabs, to say nothing of the teachings in such books as Torat Hamelech, which permit the killing of innocent non-Jewish children; or Baruch Hagever, which praises the slaughterer of Muslims at prayer.
All of this in the name of Judaism.
Even a cursory glance at the basic works of Judaism, especially the Torah and other sections of the Bible, makes it very clear that Judaism stands diametrically opposed to all of these actions and beliefs. The Torah teaches clearly that all human beings were created by God in the divine image, and therefore all human life is sacrosanct (Genesis 1:27; 9:6).
Furthermore, all humans are descended from the one primal human pair and share the divine image. As the rabbis later taught and enshrined in the Mishna, this was this case so no one should be able to say, “My father is greater than your father!”(Sanhedrin 4:9) How does this fit in with the selection of Israel as God’s treasured people, kingdom of priests, God’s “firstborn son”? Unfortunately, many take this to mean that Jews are superior to others – but that is not so. This status gives Israel both privileges and responsibilities, but does not imply racial superiority. The prophet Amos was clear about this when he taught, “‘To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians’ – declares the Lord. ‘True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir’”(Amos 9:7).
That the special relationship of God and Israel in no way contradicts the equality of human beings in the sight of God was summed up by a teaching of the great sage Rabbi Akiva, found in Avot 3:18. The first part concerns the great love shown to humans by God: “Beloved is man for he was created in the Image; greater still was the love in that it was made known to him that he was created in the Image of God, as it is written, ‘For in His image did God make man’” (Genesis 9:6).
His teaching then continues by proclaiming that “Beloved is Israel,” describing the great love shown by God to Israel in that “they are called God’s children,” and that this was made known to them in the verse “You are the children of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1).
Both are true: All human beings are beloved by God, and Israel is beloved by God as His children. There is no conflict between the two.
It is no accident that non-Jews are depicted positively in the Bible, as being moral and God-fearing. This message of human equality is all-pervasive in the Book of Jonah. It is the king of Nineveh, a pagan, who proclaims a fast and calls upon the people to abandon their evil ways (3:8). The non-Hebrew sailors are depicted as extremely concerned not to injure Jonah, and are termed “God-fearing” (1:16) – the same expression used to describe the righteous midwives who saved the Hebrew infants (Exodus 1:21). Both Job and Ruth have similar depictions of righteous gentiles.
The Torah also goes out of its way to command that the ger – the non-Israelite living in the Land of Israel – must be treated well. “You shall not wrong a stranger [ger] or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). This is repeated again even more explicitly in the very next chapter: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
In both cases, proper treatment of the stranger is predicated upon the experience of having been strangers in Egypt. Having experienced what the stranger suffers, we should learn to never inflict that treatment upon others.
Leviticus, which commands us to love our fellow, goes even further and makes a special provision for the stranger – who is really not our fellow.
He is “the other.” “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
When the theme of the stranger is taken up by Deuteronomy, it requires the judicial system to protect the rights of the stranger: “… decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger” (1:16). “For the Lord your God… upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:17-19). Here too the stranger is listed with others who require the protection of God because they are otherwise defenseless, but here too the stranger is singled out from the group and mention is made of the special reason for treating him well – our experience as strangers in Egypt.
This speaks loudly to us today when we have our own land. How do we deal with the stranger, the non-Jew who dwells with us? Do we love him, or do we wrong him? It is time that we reject totally the teachings of those who teach hatred of others and encourage violence toward them. They are the ones who pervert the teachings of Judaism.
Instead, we should adopt as our motto the beautiful saying of the midrash: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses: The Holy Spirit rests upon each person according to the deeds of each individual, whether that person be non-Jew or Jew, man or woman, manservant or maidservant” (Seder Eliyahu Raba 9).