Antisemitism is Not Inevitable

A D’var Torah for Parshat VaEt’chanan by Sophie Ellman-Golan


When Moses and the Israelites left Egypt, they did not imagine they were embarking on a journey that would last 40 years. They had no clear idea of where they were going — no one enslaved in Egypt had ever been to Canaan — or by what route, or for how long. But they probably expected they would personally complete the journey.

As we know, that wasn’t the case. The generation that left Egypt was not the generation that arrived in Canaan. As for Moses, although he led both generations the entire time, he was not permitted to enter the promised land: “I must die on this land,” he tells the Israelites, “I shall not cross the Jordan. But you will cross and take possession of that good land.” (Deut 4:22)

It is towards the end of the journey — the start of the 40th year — when Moses learns this for the first time. For 39 years, he guides his people through the desert under the impression that he will lead them all the way to ha’aretz ha’tovah, the good land. But in the 39th year, God tells Moses that he will not be permitted to enter. Moses’ small failure to sanctify God properly at the Waters of Meribah (Num 20:2-13) is, apparently, a sin too great for a leader to make. Nevertheless, he continues onward, committed to the project whose fulfillment he will not get to enjoy.

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Moses was an organizer and presumably an extremely skilled one, given his ability to keep people with him — and not at each other’s throats — for four decades, across thousands of miles. His acceptance earlier in Deuteronomy of the fact that he will not live to reap the benefits of his work is one every organizer comes to at some point or another (usually earlier than 39 years in).

People who live and breathe movement work know that we are unlikely to make it through the desert ourselves. The radical changes we work towards will take longer than 40 years to complete. The promised land towards which progressive movements journey is a just society, where everyone has what they need to thrive. Getting there will likely take longer than the individual lifetimes of everyone alive today trying to achieve that future.

In Pirkei Avot 2:16 we are reminded: “you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” When it comes to fights against nebulous problems like antisemitism and white supremacy, too often the interpretation is that the work will never be complete. For many Jews, antisemitism is regarded as an existential and inevitable reality. We allude to this in the Passover seder in Vehi Sh’amda: “In every generation they rise up to destroy us.” The predominant message is that antisemitism has always been with us and always will be. We speak about it as if it is naturally sourced — “in the air we breathe,” “the water we swim in.”

I believe, however, that antisemitism is not eternal or inevitable. It is something we can overcome, if we understand it properly. Common references to antisemitism as “the world’s oldest hatred” obscure the ways that it actually functions and who it benefits.

One of the functions of antisemitism is to provide a simple explanation for inequality and oppression. It serves a specific function for people who rely on division and fear to maintain power because it is used to obscure the real systems responsible for inequality. Antisemitism can stop people from interrogating why those systems exist in the first place. Questions about structural inequality and the inequitable allocations of resources can be easily quashed with answers about a small group viewed as uniquely powerful — a global cabal controlling government, social movements, the economy — people powerful enough even to kill God, according to early Christian theology. In concert with racism and xenophobia, antisemitism is an essential part of the machinery of division, economic exploitation, and overall oppression.

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Machines can be dismantled, just as deserts can be crossed. The Israelites would not have kept walking for 40 years if they did not believe they were walking towards something better. Even those who knew they were unlikely to complete the entire journey knew that they had to keep moving so that their children would reach the promised land. This required a significant degree of faith — faith we must hold onto today.

This is a hard task when tackling issues that feel insurmountable. It is especially hard in an era when people with real political power have a clear commitment to using the machinery of fear and division to maintain that power, and have demonstrated just how effective that strategy is. And yet we have to believe our work can dismantle the machine and that it will get us closer to a world free from oppression. We have to believe that someone, even if it is not us, will get to live in the just society that ha’aretz ha’tovah represents.

I do not expect to complete the work. I may not reach the promised land of a truly just society. But I believe others will get to. I believe I am obligated to complete whatever stretch of the journey I can so that others can carry on after me. I know I am only able to do that because of people who came before me and who completed their own stretch. And I have faith that we — not me, not you, but the big “we” that is humanity — will get there.

Sophie Ellman-Golan is the Director of an offensive campaign organizing Jews and allies against antisemitism and white nationalism in the Republican Party. She is a member leader at Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), where she supports organizing to combat police violence and anti-Jewish oppression. The Forward named her one of the nation’s 50 most influential Jews in 2017, The Jewish Week named her on their list of 36 Under 36 in 2018, and JTA named her one of 50 Jews to follow on Twitter in 2019.