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Antisemitism at its deepest root

The Jew informs all of the nations of the world that we are all “aliens” from another realm, and this is not our true home.

“Abraham Sacrifices the Ram Instead of Isaac,” oil on canvas painting by Jan Lievens, circa 1638. Credit: Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Braunschweig via Wikimedia Commons.
“Abraham Sacrifices the Ram Instead of Isaac,” oil on canvas painting by Jan Lievens, circa 1638. Credit: Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Braunschweig via Wikimedia Commons.
Pinny Arnon. Credit: Courtesy.
Pinny Arnon
Pinny Arnon is the author of Pnei Hashem, an introduction to the depths of human experience based on the esoteric teaching of Torah.

As antisemitic incidents have skyrocketed 500% in the past two months, it’s time to clarify the underlying cause of this malignant bigotry so it can be treated at is core. Rabbis, scholars, philosophers and commoners—both Jewish and gentile—have opined and theorized for millennia on the root of this oldest of hatreds. A variety of social, cultural, historical and theological factors have been identified, and there are certainly a number of issues at play. Yet the deepest and most fundamental origin of antisemitism can be found in the most simple of places. That is, in the very first word by which the Jewish people were described, and by which their language and culture continue to this day to be known: “Hebrew.”

The term Jew/“Yehudi” is derived from Judah/“Yehuda,” one of the 12 sons of Jacob. The term Israel/“Yisrael” was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with an angel. But generations earlier, Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, was the first of the Patriarchs and the first in the line of those who would later be called both Jews and the Children of Israel. Abraham was known simply as ha’ivri (Genesis 14:13). The term is translated as “the Hebrew,” but it literally means one who comes from “the other side.”

The rabbis teach that on the simple level, Abraham was referred to as the ivri because he came to the land of Canaan from Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), which was on the “other side” of the Jordan River. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yehuda elaborated that the term was a reference not only to Abraham’s geographic origin but to his philosophical difference and distance. While all of the world at the time believed in many gods, Abraham recognized only One God and therefore stood on the “other side” of the ideological spectrum from everyone he encountered.

After Abraham, the term ivri/“Hebrew” does not appear again in the Torah for four generations until it is used to describe his great-grandson, Joseph, when he is imprisoned in Egypt. Pharaoh has had troubling dreams that none of his advisers can interpret. Finally, his wine-butler comes forward and mentions that years earlier he had been in prison and his dreams had been interpreted by a naar ivri/“Hebrew youth” (Genesis 41:12). The sages explain that this is a term of disparagement. Yes, he can interpret dreams, the wine-butler was saying, but he is merely a “youth,” unworthy of high position. Furthermore, he is an ivri, a foreigner from the “other side” of the river who is not like us and is not to be trusted.

Joseph had shown kindness to the wine-butler when they were in prison together and had comforted him by interpreting his troubling dreams. Yet the wine-butler did not want to reciprocate with kindness or assistance. He told Pharaoh about Joseph only begrudgingly, and he included subtle insults to ensure that Joseph would not receive preferential treatment. Why? What is the cause of the wine-butler’s ingratitude, and why does he repay Joseph’s generosity with animosity?

One of the earliest records of antisemitism, this story is emblematic of the nature of this bigotry in so many periods and places throughout history. In spite of the Jew’s contribution to the lands, s/he comes to inhabit, s/he is mistrusted, hated and often assailed. Why? The answer is alluded to by the very specific term with which Joseph is identified by the wine-butler: ivri/“Hebrew,” the one from the other side.

On the simplest level, antisemitism can be a function of plain xenophobia, fear or hatred of the foreigner. The Jew is not native to most of the places s/he resides, so s/he is always the other, from across the river or the border. S/he is not from the same place as us, not like us, and therefore not liked or trusted by us.

But as Rabbi Yehuda asserted, this foreignness is not simply a matter of geography. If this is all it were, it would theoretically decrease and dwindle over the centuries. In many countries where Jews have lived for generations and even centuries, antisemitism is just as virulent as ever. Why can other cultures and nationalities eventually blend in and be accepted, but the Jew is always the Jew, no matter how long s/he has been here and no matter how assimilated s/he becomes?

Because the river that divides the Jew’s root and source from the rest of the world is not one that flows with mere physical water. It is a metaphoric boundary that separates between this world and the “other world.” The Jew is not just from another country, s/he is from another plane of existence. S/he is not just an alien in the legal sense of nation-states and immigration, s/he is an alien from outer space, and by “outer,” we mean not merely out of the earth’s atmosphere but outside of the realm of this physical creation.

The Jew is from the spiritual world, and so s/he will never be at home here. This is why the state of the Jew is exile, and why s/he is always wandering. No matter how s/he tries to assimilate, and no matter how long s/he lives here, s/he will never fit in because s/he did not come here to fit in. S/he came to this world to tell all of its inhabitants a monumental secret: that they are not from this world either! The Jew informs all of the nations of the world that we are all “aliens” from another realm, and this is not our true home.

This is an overwhelming, potentially frightening and frequently unwelcome message, and yet it is the primary message of the Torah: Every human being is a foreigner in this earthly realm.

Not only is this information difficult to comprehend, but it is a direct challenge to those who are committed to the earthly delights and powers that this world provides them. It is an absolute threat to those who insist that we are merely physical beings who can do nothing better than satisfy our material desires and gratify our animal urges.

The ivri/“Hebrew” says I have come here, and indeed, we all have come here from another realm in order to elevate and perfect this place. We are holy and Godly beings with immense potential and power. That proclamation can be incredibly inspiring to many, but it is incredibly vexing to others because it challenges their complacent and/or indulgent lifestyle. The suggestion that we can do better means that we should do better. The fact that we are inherently holy means that we have a responsibility to try to act and be holy. And that is no easy task. It is deeply rewarding, but it requires discipline and significant effort.

In this sense, antisemitism can be understood not merely as a xenophobic reaction to a foreign other but as a deep phobia of one’s spiritual potential and responsibility. The hatred of the ivri/“Hebrew” is the resistance to that “other side” within us. For those of us who live primarily on the outside, the interior realm is a mysterious, uncharted territory. The “aliens” that come from there are not of the world that we know and comprehend. Antisemitism, we come to realize, is a fear of our own deepest core.

The antidote to this antisemitism is recognizing the fact that the Jew is not different from you or foreign to you. No one is! At our essence, we are all One and the same. The Jew is no better and no worse; s/he is simply the one who is amplifying the voice that speaks daily from within you. Why was the Jew chosen for this task? Because the first Hebrew, Abraham, was the one who, in a world of pagan worship and polytheism, came to recognize the “other side.” He perceived that there was One God who created and comprised all of this. He saw the unity that underlies all multiplicity, and he devoted himself to spreading this awareness throughout the creation and through the ages.

Abraham passed the knowledge of God’s Oneness to his offspring. They were then given the Torah, a scripture that encapsulates this inner wisdom. This is the gift that the Jews bring to the world through every land that they inhabit. But it is this gift that renders them the perpetual foreigner. We are not from here, the Jew insists. You are not from here, the Jew reminds. We and you come from a place far beyond this limited realm, and we have the potential, together, to transform this world into a heaven on earth.

This is the goal of the Jew. Abraham the ivri/“Hebrew” did not cross the river in order to conquer the land, to colonize it, or to convert its inhabitants. He came from that “other side”—the realm of the spirit and the world of truth, in order to unite all of God’s children in the awareness that Hashem echad, “God is One.”

This universal Oneness can be threatening to those who refuse to recognize the inherent holiness of every human being. This is why antisemitism is most pronounced in individuals and regimes who insist on their own supremacy. They resent and oppose the Jew throughout the ages because it is s/he who denies their false hierarchical divisions.

When antisemitism surges, Jews are not the only victims. History has shown that Jews are the “canary in the coal mine.” If the atmosphere is damaging to the Jew, then it is growing toxic for all others as well. At such a moment, it is vital to listen to the message of the ivri/“Hebrew.” We are not of this world, and therefore, we are not bound by its divisions and limitations. We are one, God is One, and together, we have the ability to transcend our differences, and to transform the current darkness into a brilliant and all-encompassing light.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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