Why are the Jewish people persecuted, and why do we always survive?
Written by Rabbi Ben Volman, Leader of Kehillat Eytz Chaim / Tree of Life Congregation in Toronto
The secret of Jewish survival is buried among many secrets and many questions. Let me begin with a secret that took me more than thirty years to uncover.
After our son was born, my aunt, a Holocaust survivor, came to visit. Seeing the little boy reminded her of another child, the infant son of an older brother, Carchi. The child and his mother had been with her in Auschwitz. They had not survived, and she could only speak about them briefly because it was too painful to recall. I had never even heard of this child before.
A people of survival must cope with endless questions, stories of survival and tragedies of loss. One wonders how Israel has outlasted an endless parade of tyrants and despots, from ancient Haman to the modern-day Hamas.
Every generation of Jewish people has faced a new threat. In the 11th century, as the European Crusaders marched to the Holy Land, they tried to wipe out the Jewish communities in their midst, leaving a trail of horror and misery. Afterwards, Jews were blamed for spreading bubonic plague – suspicions that arose in part because the traditional hand-washing before meals protected them from the disease.
In those centuries, a monstrous lie called the “blood libel” accused Jews of requiring Christian blood for their feasts. Because of the libel, any rumor of a child missing or an unusual death brought vicious attacks on local Jewish homes and synagogues. By the 19th century, many Jews had migrated from Western Europe into “the Pale,” countries on the eastern edge of the Russian empire. Then the czars decided to reduce the Jewish population with brutal oppression that drove many to emigrate abroad. All this predates the Holocaust.
Our enemies continually claim that the Jewish people must be destroyed for some intolerable fault. But there is always something inexplicably persistent about this hate. The late Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim – a Holocaust survivor – used to ask, “How is it that the communists accuse us of being capitalists and the capitalists blame us for communism?” Jewish people were scorned for not fighting in previous generations. Today, Israel is charged with having too powerful an army.
The Psalmist described it all long ago: “They have taken crafty counsel against Your people, and consulted together against Your sheltered ones. They have said, ‘Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be remembered no more.’” (Psalm 83:3-4 – see also Psalm 74:8).
Behind these sinister acts is the hand of ungodly forces. An ancient rabbi, the Apostle Paul, warns us: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Here is the ultimate tragedy of Israel’s persecution: through Abraham’s descendants, God continues to fulfill His first covenant promise with humanity: “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). To attempt to destroy God’s people is to attack the promise of God’s covenant faithfulness.
I have read many explanations for the survival of the Jewish people, including devotion to Torah and brotherhood through the blood of Abraham. But if spiritual powers are against us, only One can save us. God has called Israel to be a light to the nations, and He will not let the light go out.
Yet this truth remains hidden. Consider the Book of Esther: Mordecai and Esther cry out to heaven, fasting and praying until they see the deliverance of Israel and their enemies vanquished. The name of God does not even appear in the book. His Name is hidden, but not His power.
The same power hidden in the book of Esther is behind the “mystery” that Paul speaks of in Romans 11:25 when he reveals that Israel’s divine destiny is not destruction, but salvation that will result in God’s praise.
One after another, the enemies of Israel end up in history’s “Where are they now?” file. Still, the tragedy of antisemitism continues today, with voices becoming more strident throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia and even South America, where Jews are once again being threatened in the streets and synagogues.
It seems that we are always faced by the same challenge raised by an urgent Mordecai to a young, innocent Esther: “Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Sometimes the questions are more important than answers.
What will we do today with our voice and our faith?