The precariousness of Jewish life in the Diaspora


The precariousness of Jewish life in the Diaspora

Here's an interesting perspective relating current events to the parasha, written by Rabbi David Harbater.
Shabbat Shalom and Besorot Tovot!

---------- Forwarded message ---------

The precariousness of Jewish life in the Diaspora - lessons from Joseph

By David Harbater

I grew up in Philadelphia and then lived in New York City for ten years before moving to Israel in 1992. I take great pride in the fact that I never personally encountered antisemitism in any form during my years in America. Indeed, for most Jews growing up at that time and until recently, America has been the land of endless opportunity. Jews have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and success and have risen to the upper echelons of society in the realm of politics and law, culture and the arts, business and technology, the media and entertainment, and science and academia.

Nevertheless, as we have all become acutely aware, there has been a dramatic shift in the attitude toward Jews in America since October 7th. The ADL has reported a 337 percent increase in antisemitic vandalism, harassment, intimidation, and violence - including 400 antisemitic incidents on college campuses, and although Jews constitute only 2 percent of the population, they are subject to 60 percent of the religion-based hate crimes. And, of course, we are all familiar by now with the disgraceful display of moral bankruptcy by presidents of three of the most prestigious universities who said that it is a matter of "context" as to whether calls for genocide against the Jewish people violate campus rules regarding harassment.

Unfortunately, the Jews in Europe have not fared much better. In Germany, there has been a 240 percent increase in antisemitic incidents and the percentage is even higher in France and the U.K. Furthermore, it is not just the number of incidents, but also the pride with which they are expressed. One example is a video that went viral of passengers on the Paris Métro chanting, “F— the Jews and f— your mother, long live Palestine, we are Nazis and proud of it” and another is the infamous chant "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free".

This unfortunate situation has led many Diaspora Jews to be more cautious about public displays of Jewishness and some are beginning to ask whether there is a future for Jewish life in the Diaspora at all.

While there is no simple answer to this question, I believe we may gain some insight from the story of Joseph that appears in the Torah portions that we read at this time. The Torah tells us that after his brothers threw him into a pit, Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar, a courtier of the Egyptian Pharaoh, and his chief steward. Nevertheless, when Potiphar soon saw that God was with him "and lent success to everything he undertook" he decided to put Joseph in charge of his household and of all that he owned. Joseph's rapid rise to power in Egypt, however, was cut short when Potiphar's wife falsely accused him of seducing her. Enraged by this betrayal, Potiphar sent Joseph to prison where he remained for two years until his fate took a turn for the better, once again. After Joseph, who had established a reputation as a master of interpreting dreams, successfully interpreted Pharaoh's dreams, he was promoted to the second-in-command, behind only Pharaoh himself. In recognition of this lofty position, Joseph was fitted with a signet ring, dressed in Egyptian garb, given an Egyptian wife, and assigned the Egyptian name Zaphenath-paneah, which means "the creator/sustainer of life". Joseph, in other words, had "made it" in Egypt.

Although Joseph had acquired enormous power, and had gained a worldwide reputation for his astute management of Egypt's economy during the seven years of abundance, he never abandoned his Jewish roots. When his brothers came to Egypt from Canaan in search of food, and after putting them through a series of tests, Joseph revealed himself as their long-lost brother. He then declared that his rise to power was part of God's plan to ensure their survival. He told them to bring their father Jacob, along with the entire family, from Canaan, whereupon he settled them in Goshen, "the choicest part of the land of Egypt". The Torah tells us that Joseph continued to look out for their welfare, that he enabled them to acquire holdings in Goshen, and as a result, the people of Israel were "fertile and increased greatly".

The Joseph story, thus, would seem to be a wonderful paradigm for the way in which Diaspora Jews may reach the heights of integration into gentile society without relinquishing their identity as Jews. If Joseph and his family could live comfortably as minorities in a foreign land, so could their descendants in future generations. Such a conclusion would, indeed, be warranted if the story were to conclude at this point. Unfortunately, it does not.

In the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Torah tells us "A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8), which soon led to the decision to oppress the Israelite people, subject them to harsh labor, and ultimately to the killing of all the male newborns. Although the Rabbis debate whether the term "new king" refers to the emergence of a new and cruel Pharaoh or to the same Pharaoh who, at some point, decided to turn against the Jews, I believe there is truth in both views. Sometimes the fate of Jews living as minorities can change for the worse with a change in the leadership, and sometimes it can change when the same leaders encounter new attitudes, cultures, and ideologies that develop within the larger society. Either way, it was not until God took the people of Israel out of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land where they would then establish their own sovereign state, that they were able to express their religious and ethnic identity with pride and confidence.

Thus, rather than showing how it is possible for Jews to live safely and comfortably in the Diaspora, the Joseph story illustrates how precarious and fleeting Diaspora life can be.

While the Joseph story is only one among many, and while we should never make decisions based solely on our experiences of the past, I believe that there are valuable lessons to be learned from this story as we grapple with the challenges of Jewish life in the Diaspora in the future.

If you are interested in more articles of this nature, please follow me on Facebook:


More Community