Civilisation, Shavuot and antisemitism.

When people think of great ancient civilisations, they often think of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, India, China, Greece and Rome.  Many of these civilisations developed along a great river – the Nile, Tigris/Euphrates, Yangtze, and Indus – or in lush mountains.  Great monuments were built and left behind – the Pyramids, Hanging Gardens, Great Wall of China, Pantheon, and Coliseum.

Also famous are the great monuments in other civilisations at Angkor Wat, in Zimbabwe in Africa, as well as those of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans in the Americas.

In bookshops and libraries, schools and universities, there are many books about the great civilisations of the world – ancient civilisations and their monuments, their armies and conquests, their gods and governments, and their great material achievements.

 However, one civilisation of lasting influence and impact on the world did not develop along a major river or amidst lush vegetation, but was born in an arid desert, in a no-man’s land, and was founded not by kings and conquerors but by pastoral nomads and runaway slaves.
This was a civilisation that left its imprint not so much in material achievements – monuments, buildings, military conquests and empire – but rather in the human heart and mind.
Receiving the Torah. credit: iCenter.

This is the civilisation of the Jewish people. Its principal achievements and lasting legacy have been in the realm of ideas, values, ethics, laws, and a vision for humanity.

This Judaic vision is based on the foundational concepts and values in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), given to the Jewish people at Sinai 3,500 years ago.  The Jewish festival of Shavuot (literally, “weeks”) celebrates the giving, and receiving, of the Torah.

Much is written about Greek and Roman culture as the foundation of Western civilisation. However, most ‘Western’, and increasingly most global, civilisational values and ideals, derive from Judaism, from Jewish values and Jewish laws. These were adopted and adapted by Christianity and Islam, the two daughter religions of Judaism, and spread by them.

Some of these Judaic values are becoming increasingly widespread, such as human rights; while others have only more recently started to gain ground, such as environmental protection and animal rights.

The Jews, through the Torah, brought these, and many other, unique and revolutionary concepts and values to the world:

  • ethical monotheism
  • brotherhood of humanity
  • the inviolable sanctity of human life
  • the dignity of each person
  • individual conscience
  • social responsibility
  • individual rights
  • equality before the law
  • a vision of a society founded on justice
  • universal peace as an ideal
credit: Wikipedia

The Jewish people brought the world the idea of the oneness of G-d and the corresponding oneness of humanity, together with the ethical principles of the Torah. These ethical principles are the foundation of what we today recognise as human rights, social justice, and the rule of law, conscience and morality. They include care for the poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable, the idea that all humanity are brothers and sisters under the parenthood of one universal G-d, and the vision of peace between peoples – all principles that were revolutionary in a pagan world, and are still considered revolutionary in most parts of the world.

The pagan world of 3,500 years ago was predominantly one where human life had no value, where it was normal for human beings, including children, to be sacrificed to pagan gods or deified kings, where some human beings (slaves) were considered to be mere property and “animated tools” (as Aristotle referred to them), and where some humans, such as the disabled or sickly children, and frequently female babies, were cast out from their homes and their families and left to die of exposure.

Although the earliest known civil law code in the world, the Code of Hammurabi (dated some 400 years before the Torah), enacted laws for commerce, property, criminal law and the like, the Code was aimed primarily at the protection of property, not of human beings. Mutilation and brutal forms of execution were the norms for property offences such as theft.

The Code of Hammurabi set out laws, and as advanced as many of them were for their day, people still lacked many basic human rights, and the Code lacked ethics and a universal moral vision.

The Torah is a blueprint of how to live and how to organise a just society. The verses “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) and “Love your neighbour [and] the stranger as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, 19:34) are pivotal.

Some of the other key ethical and practical commands within the Torah include: do not steal, lie or murder;  do not sacrifice your children; do not put a stumbling block before the blind;  do not stand by while your brother bleeds;  give to the poor and needy;  be honest in business;  pay your workers on time; judge fairly between people in their disputes;  leave the produce in the corner of your field for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-15).

Further, “if your brother becomes poor, and his means fail him, then you should strengthen him, whether he is a stranger or a fellow Israelite” (Leviticus 25:35).

The Jewish ethical and legal code includes rights and protections for children, women, workers, strangers (foreigners), and animals. Even the ecology is to be protected, “for the tree of the field is the life of man” (Deuteronomy 20:19).

In addition, the Hebrew prophets reinforced and reiterated the ideals and values in the Torah. Both Isaiah and Micah express the ideal of universal peace:

“and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation. They shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4).

In short, the Torah is composed of laws upholding the sanctity of human life, laws protecting the integrity of the family, laws of economic justice, laws for social justice, laws of dealing fairly and justly with our fellow humans, laws to protect animals, and laws of environmental protection. It encourages and exhorts people to act with integrity and justice and compassion, in their personal and family lives, and in their professional and communal lives, as a means towards bringing about a society and world built on fairness and cooperation.

It is for affirming these principles of right and justice in a damaged world beset by the worst of human passions that the Jews have been the target of the most persistent, intense and vicious hatred known to humanity. Yet, Jews are simply the messengers of the message to humanity contained within the Torah: that there is a better way to live, both as individuals and as a society.

This message is so profound and so powerful, that those who prefer to live by brute force will oppose it and try to destroy it at all costs. They cannot destroy Torah, they cannot destroy an idea, this message, so they target the messengers, the Jews, as the bearers of Torah.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his book “Radical Then, Radical Now: on Being Jewish”, writes:

“The Jewish people in its very being constitutes a living protest against a world of hatred, violence and war. […] it is a protest against the world that is, in the name of the world that ought to be. From this refusal-to-accept eventually emerged the most sustained of all man’s attempts to create a social order based on individual freedom and collective grace, a society of equal access to dignity and hope. Judaism is an ongoing moral revolution that began by challenging the great empires of the ancient world.”

It is this “moral revolution” that antisemites cannot stand. They want to maintain the freedom to conquer and kill, to dominate, exploit and oppress, to recreate a world where might is right and where power and brute force are the idols to be worshipped.  They oppose a world where individual human life has meaning and value, where coexistence and cooperation are norms, and where the ideals of social justice and a common humanity are pursued.

Across the span of history, these objectors rise and fall, leaving in their wake a world bloodied by hatred and violence.  Whether they are the conquerors of old, or supersessionist religions, or in more recent times, the adherents of totalitarian and supremacist ideologies of fascism, communism, Nazism, or Islamism, they are manifestations of the same evil.

Antisemitic artwork. Photo: Facebook.

Antisemitism targets Jews. Despite the propaganda, Jews are not targeted for being rich or poor, secular or religious, integrated or segregated, too numerous or too few, being convenient scapegoats, being different, or for any of the other reasons that are often put forward. False accusations about Jews drinking gentile blood or conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the finance, governments and the media of the world are simply the propaganda bait and tools used by antisemites to entice and inflame people to their cause.   Individual Jews often fail to live up to the Torah’s ethical values, but even this failure is not the true cause of antisemitism.

As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager noted in their book “Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism” Jews are targeted because they are the bearers of these values, the living affirmation of a universal message of a humanitarian and ethical world. Antisemitism therefore does not only affect Jews; antisemitism has ramifications for the whole of a society. Behind the antisemite is a mindset that, in essence, targets all human beings, and all hopes and dreams and aspirations for a better and decent world.

It is that mindset that targets the Jews first, before moving on to others. Once it is acceptable to target Jews, the door opens to target others, along a sliding scale of those whose lives are deemed in the name of whatever cause, religion or ideology to be increasingly forfeit – the political or religious opponent, gays, the disabled, women, other races, and on and on, until only the ‘acceptable human being’ subject to dictator or ideology is left alive, but cowering. The result is a humanity trapped in wretchedness and pain.

Antisemitism is rooted in opposition to the values and ideals of the Torah, in a totalitarian mindset that asserts that a religion or a race or an ideology or a nation or even a royal dynasty must dominate and rule, and that individuals are therefore expendable for the so-called ‘greater good’ or in the interests of a state, a religion, a race or an ideology.

Jews are the “canary in the coalmine”.  Whenever antisemitism takes hold, whether by a few individuals, a government or a society, when Jews are being targeted and attacked, that is the first sign that a sickness is seeping into a society.  It is the flashing light, the warning siren that those who seek to destroy the humanitarian and egalitarian values of the Torah are rising up to dominate, control and exploit others.  It is incumbent upon all who cherish human rights and a society based on individual dignity and social justice to recognise the signs and act to counter them.

Julie Nathan is the Research Officer for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry

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4 comments

  1. While the article is interesting some of Julie Nathan’s contentions are not reflective of the true situation. For instance, she writes “… most global, civilisational values and ideals, derive from Judaism, from Jewish values and Jewish laws. These were adopted and adapted by Christianity and Islam, the two daughter religions of Judaism, and spread by them.”

    If it were indeed the case that Jewish values on the sanctity of life and human rights were adopted by the two daughter religions – and whether Islam is a daughter religion is debatable – then surely we would not be experiencing the spate of worldwide terror attacks.

    She lists universal peace as an ideal, but we know that it is not the ideal of all cultures.

    When talking about the cause of antisemitism, she mentions those who ” want to maintain the freedom to conquer and kill, to dominate, exploit and oppress”. Yet by failing to elaborate who “those” are, she omits o mention the main driver of antisemitism today.

    We do not have the luxury of such obfuscation. As Jews, we are enjoined to tell the truth, however painful that truth may be.

    • With respect Pam I do not think it would be appropriate for the ” Research Officer for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry” to declare open war on the Wahabbi inspired Salifist driven and Gulf Coalition Council funded war on the west and Israel.

      You and I can say that. The rest of the world can start to understand that. Starting to understand that no matter how liberal your love of humanity is and how supportive you are of BDS, and how much you despise Israel…….you can still end up in a hospital stretcher with stab wounds from someone who believes you are at best part of the dar-ul-harb (lands of enmity) at worst the dar-ul-kufr (lands of unbelief)….and therefore a valid target.

      Jews Down Under is definitely not the place to obfuscate…..ever!!

  2. Arthur Pilkington

    It is the first time I have visited your site, and came across the above article by chance. First some brief, but relevant background information about myself. I grew up as a Catholic in the west of Scotland,and was sufficiently devout that I considered training to become a priest at puberty. I became an atheist at university, and after many years have returned to the fold in that I strongly believe in God, an all loving, compassionate one. I am not, however, a practitioner of any particular religion although I have great respect for those that are provided they do not use their religion to exert control over others and espouse intolerant views. My Norwegian wife has Jewish blood on her mother´s side of the family – great, great grandmother. She and my two children are very proud of this fact.

    Back to the article. I found the analysis interesting, but flawed. It would have been more convincing if it was trying to explain the historical basis for anti.semitism, but it falls short in providing a rationale for today´s anti-semitism, and therefore does an injustice to Jews trying to understand the world around them. It is always dangerous to generalise, but in this short commentary I believe anti-semites can be split into two distinct groups, although sometimes they will overlap. The first group is those anti-semites who fear and dislike Jewish exclusivity. In my experience they are often uneducated. My understanding of your religion is that it actively discourages practising Jews marrying Gentiles. In this it is analogous to the Catholic faith, perhaps more so. As a Catholic in the west of Scotland I was in a small minority. The west of Scotland is or at least was ( I haven´t lived there for 34 years ) a microcosm of Northern Ireland. Attitudes to Catholics from many, but thankfully not all, in the Protestant majority ranged from hostility to prejudice. One of the ways of ferreting out Catholics, if your name did not give you away, was to ask what school you went to. After I graduated in law and was seeking a position as a trainee lawyer, and despite graduating from a top university, this school question was always asked. I was rejected by all the Protestant firms, and ended up working for a Catholic company. I don´t think much can be done about this kind of prejudice or in the Jewish context this kind of anti-semitism. Further, prejudice based on exclusivity is not just a religious thing. During World War 1 about five thousand Belgian refugees were evacuated to a small town in England. They were at first welcomed with open arms, but over time hostility from the local population grew. The Belgians kept to themselves, did not try to integrate, did little to learn English and were eventually seen as an alien group. If it is any consolation to Jews, I think the first group of anti-semites, thankfully, is in a small minority globally.

    It is the second group which Jews should be more worried about. These anti-semites are what I would describe as political. They range from hardliners in the Arabic world who have a visceral hatred of Jews to those in the west who are vehemently opposed to Israel´s policies in the Palestinian conflict, and end up becoming anti-semitic. The current BDS movement is a good example of this. Its main goal is the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel by relying on Resolution 194 of the UN General Assembly. Leaving aside that General Assembly Resolutions are not binding in international law, unlike those from the Security Council, due to demographics a right of return or more properly a wish to return, if granted, would put Israeli Jews in the minority. It would ultimately mean the end of the Jewish State. Anyone knowingly supporting such an outcome in my view is anti-semitic. I don´t wish to get into the minefield of that conflict, but the day there is a fair and equitable peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians most of the political anti-semitism which one sees in the world today will evaporate. Until that happens the expansion of existing settlements in the Occupied Territories or the building of new ones only fans the flames of political anti-semitism.

    • Hello Arthur,

      Yes…..I can identify with you; very much so, as to the religious bigotry that existed, and still does to some extent, between the various Christian devotees….Catholics and Protestants. I too was baptised into the Catholic faith. I have been non-practising and non subscribing for at least 50 odd years…probably of the whole Christian concept…without saying I am not a believer… in an initial, and there after Creator…just not though as the Christian Churches have adorned/dressed up this Creator…and without, in anyway… being hostile towards Christians per see.

      Yes, many is the afternoon I came charging home from school with bloodied welts from a right thumping the Protestants/State School kids had dished out to me…along with being told my face didn’t fit in then controlled Masonic/Protestant employment situations…advancement/promotion! I could rattle on with a near endless litany of Catholic/Protestant bigotry….though won’t….other than to say, to my way of thinking, every bit as degrading, destructive and physically dangerous as anti-Semitism.

      For this reason, I also saw, see and experienced a physical form of the ‘herd mentality’ that anti-Semitism rains down on those of the Jewish faith…and occasionally think, that is life, that is your fellow humans doing what they do best…..being absolute non educated, non cultured swines….a throw back to hunter/gatherer savagery….i.e. it won’t kill you, but makes for an absolute hell of a life…..as encompassed in your first distinction.

      Your second distinction I also clearly understand….political, religious and cultural anti-Semitism…and the methods and purpose of same….e.g., Blood Libel Pogroms, Christ Killers, Usury Percentage Thieves, Economic Manipulators, Social engineers…ad infinitum…..as to incite the absolute genocidal destruction of Jewish people…hence all of Jewish custom and culture, to fit the savages ‘better’ end.

      If I tip the sugar bowl over….it must…has to be the Jews fault…that form of craziness….which is becoming so prevalent again…among the ‘civilised peoples’!

      Sadly, it is the more informed, and more educated of ‘humanity’ that drives, and uses the ignorant ‘herd’ to achieve their uncivilised economic and political ends…..(Just saying).

      I truly believe that envy is at the base line of it. Undisputedly, Jews brought civilised behaviour to mankind’s dinner table! A lot, within the framework Christian European ancestry, can never come to understand, or get their heads around that one irrefutable fact.

      The Jew didn’t have to be building conquering Empires to introduce and sustain his worth to humanity. He/she had given the best, that the remainder of humanity had to live up to….civilised conduct. (It does take some research to arrive at this belief….or at least, it did in my case.)

      At this point we differ Arthur. anti-Semitism will never evaporate….and definitely not for the reason of reaching a ‘peace agreement’ over the Jews G-d given land of Israel. Western ignorance….bog ignorance, is now set too deeply in it’s DNA….to see any change in any foreseeable future.

      Islamic hatred of Jews…and Gentiles, is taught and fanned from the womb to the tomb. Islamic doctrine, along with its’ Quran and Hadiths, SOLELY enables this hatred. Islam is not about to reform any time soon. They do not SOLELY need Israel to vent their homicidal beliefs and doctrine. (Just my opinion Arthur…based on a small measure of experience)

      I have visited Israel on two occasions now….more so to answer a lot of my own inner questions. I have walked the Patriarch’s Way, visited umpteen settlement villages, along with established Israeli towns and cities. Kicked the same gibbers as Jews would have 3500 years ago in the Judea/Samarian hills…walked the perimeter of what was once Shiloh, stood close to umpteen excavations of former Jewish life and existence…in various parts of what we now know as Israel. It is Jewish land…G-d given land…Fullstop!

      I use my own time line yard stick to arrive at this conclusion. Jews were in ‘residence’ in what we now call Israel,for a good 1500 to 2000 years before Christ was walking on water, or we ever heard of a Christian faith, and every bit of 2500 years before Mohammed sighted his first Camel, or we ever heard of Islam. This is irrefutable….the EXISTING physical evidence dictates such. No amount of academic rigour or consuming Islamic nationalist fervor can claim, or say otherwise.

      Even the term ‘Palestine’ is a furphy…of gigantic proportion. It is no more that a creation of the 20th and 21 centuries. No such thing or people have ever existed. Arabs…who subscribe to the Islamic faith, are the only people currently swatting on Israeli land…outside of Jews, and their various guests….Christian Gentiles and Islamic Arabs.

      For my part, Israel should reclaim more of their historic and heritage endowed home land….west of the Jordon River. Only Arabs who are prepared to live by Israel’s civilised laws, and are prepared to swear allegiance to Israel, should be allowed as guest residents….(Only my opinion… again)

      If Israel does have a fault….to my way of thinking….is that it needs to get its’ finger out and exercise sole sovereign governance autonomy over every inch of the current Israeli land mass. Jewish Parliaments have an annoying habit of being too passive at times.

      As said earlier….Israel has no bearing on the current proliferation of anti-Semitism…or minimal at least. Aggrieved Islamic Arabs swatting in had no bearing on the anti-Semitism that has flourished for the past 2000 years…..in just about every corner of what were then recognised population centres/countries. I won’t insult you by giving you a run down of Jewish persecution over the past two millennia…..other than two say….’Palestine’ had no bearing on such.

      I enjoyed your posted comment…you are obviously a thinker. Regards