Joseph in Egypt is an American Jewish dream gone bad

Joseph in Egypt is an American Jewish dream gone bad


Joseph came to the new country destitute, without a trade, education or family, yet rose to the highest level of influence, power, wealth and fame.

WAS IT a misguided dream? / (photo credit: REUTERS)

The story of Joseph, which we have just completed in our Shabbat synagogue reading, is seen by many as the classic success story for the Jewish experience in North America.

Joseph came to the new country destitute, without a trade, education or family, yet rose to the highest level of influence, power, wealth and fame.

Like those who came to America over a century ago, Joseph wanted more than anything, to belong to the New World, to fit in.

Thus, like the Jews in America and in early 20th-century Germany, he was super-patriotic and strove to contribute far more than the expected. He didn’t just save Egypt from famine: He deliberately built and strengthened Pharaoh’s governmental authority and wealth.

Wanting so desperately to belong, Joseph scrupulously paid respect to the elite. He married into it and protected it, making sure to exempt the clergy from taxation and interference. Joseph changed his name, dressed as an Egyptian and conformed to all society’s customs and deportment. His own brothers could not recognize him, and his father could not identify his sons as Hebrews.

Yet, despite all these efforts to belong, Joseph never really made it in Egyptian society. He remained “loathsome” to many Egyptians. He could never escape being the “Hebrew.”

This was when the economy was healthy, the markets were strengthening, and the upper classes were prospering. And then came the “new king.”

If before Joseph and his brethren were publicly tolerated and privately detested, now the Hebrews were declared public enemy number one and it was open season for abuse and defilement. What happened?

Egypt had become urbanized, and the Hebrews, having left the Goshen ghetto, were dispersed throughout the land. They were very rich (because of Joseph’s preferential treatment, no doubt) and they saw themselves as Egyptians!

It was not their prior acculturation that evoked this new, government led pogrom. This had happened generations earlier. Rather, as the Bible describes their situation under the new king, there were too many Hebrews and they were ubiquitous, dispersed and everywhere assimilated among the Egyptian people. What the new king saw was not a separate group of Hebrews succeeding, but their absorption into Egyptian society freed from their label. It was their efforts to become Egyptians, to socially assimilate and to abandon their identity as Hebrews that stirred the Egyptians’ fear of perfidy and domination.

Theodore Herzl believed that it was the destitute, ghetto Jew who looked so foreign and different that excited virulent antisemitism. The story of Joseph teaches a different lesson. While the ghetto Jew is often the first to be physically attacked, the actual tripwire for the scourge is the acculturated Jews’ efforts to wholly assimilate into the fabric of society. This is when violent antisemitism breaks out in the lower classes and when sophisticated strategies of delegitimization are aggressively promoted among the more educated and cultured.

IT IS WHEN the Jews seem to be everywhere – especially within their own families – that many become unhinged from the restraints of reason, culture and common sense.

This happened in Egypt and then again in Persia, in Spain and in Germany.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I had lunch with US friends from many decades ago. Proud Jews, they came to Israel with 15 family members to celebrate their grandson’s bar mitzvah. Both of their children are intermarried, and the grandchildren seemed to identify, in part, as Jews, largely because of their grandparents.

We know the US intermarriage statistics, but now we felt it. Our friends confided that this year was the first time they were afraid to place a Hanukkah menorah in their window! They live near Silicon Valley, not exactly the boondocks. I hope their fears are exaggerated, but they are real.

Another friend told me he feels anxious when traveling in a NYC subway wearing a kippah, and that to show up there with tzitzit (ritual fringes) exposed, is to tempt fate.

Still another friend told me about hearing openly antisemitic chatter on a public bus with the driver participating.

I hope and sincerely believe that what happened to us in the past elsewhere is not happening in the US. I believe in American exceptionalism. America was founded by adherents of the Hebrew Scriptures who admired and identified with the Jews and who saw the new continent as their “promised land.” America was built as a haven for all.

America was accepting, respectful, decent. In America, People are presumed good until they prove otherwise. Jews were generally accepted as equals from the very beginning. Not in every period (the 1930s, for example), not everywhere, but consistently and broadly.

Yet the rampant assimilation and intermarriage we see today does not portend well for those Jews who remain true to their identity. Anti-Israel invective is a key tool of today’s aggression, but I think most thoughtful observers long ago concluded that opposition to a Jewish state – any Jewish state in any format, in any borders – is merely the latest formulation of the oldest hate, the same hate inflicted on the Hebrews 3,800 years ago.

As in Egypt, the Jews of America are dispersed throughout society. As in Egypt, we are seen as economically advantaged, sometimes scandalously attributed (with historical resonance) to our cunning and single-minded avarice. And as in Egypt we are assimilating on a massive scale. Not surprisingly, today as then, we are being attacked as a people, a nationality, the “nation of Israel,” and not just as a religion.

Joseph’s story in Egypt did not turn out well. It was not a dream. What is happening today in the US, within and without the American Jewish community, must awaken us all to its danger. Assimilation never ends well for us.

The writer made aliyah from the US with his family and practices law in Israel and the US. He is the founding president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies.

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