“The Ancient Origins and Practice of Anti-Semitism”
(updated and revised from Toledot 2000-5761)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we learn that Isaac follows in the footsteps of his father Abraham and, as Abraham did when there was a famine in Canaan, Isaac too goes down to the Philistines in Gerar.

The Torah, in Genesis 26:6, records Isaac’s move: וַיֵּשֶׁב יִצְחָק בִּגְרָר , and Isaac dwells in Gerar. And, as his father Abraham had done before him with Sarah his wife (Genesis 12:10-14), Isaac also tells the local people that Rebecca is his sister rather than his wife.

Because of the plague that struck the royal household when Abimelch had abducted Sarah (Genesis 12:17), the King is much more cautious with Isaac and Rebecca. His caution is justified when he sees Isaac (Genesis 26:8), “sporting” with his wife Rebecca. Abimelech reproves Isaac for deceiving him, but allows Isaac and his family to remain in Gerar. It is significant to note how carefully the Jews are “watched” in their new country.

Scripture reports that Isaac was enormously successful in Gerar (Genesis 26:13): וַיִּגְדַּל הָאִישׁ, וַיֵּלֶךְ הָלוֹךְ וְגָדֵל, עַד כִּי גָדַל מְאֹד, The man [Isaac] became great and kept becoming greater until he was very great. The  Midrash Sechel Tov,  notes that the term “great” is repeated in this verse three times because Isaac became great not only in wealth, but also in fame and in good deeds as well. In fact, Isaac was held in such high esteem by the people of Gerar, that the Midrash Rabbah, (Genesis Rabbah 64:7) says, that the local people would exclaim: “Better the manure of Isaac’s animals, than the money in the coffers of Abimelech, king of Gerar.”

Literally, anything that Isaac touched turned to gold.

The Torah tells us, in Genesis 26:14, that Isaac acquired flocks and herds and owned many enterprises. The unfortunate result was: וַיְקַנְאוּ אֹתוֹ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, the Philistines envied Isaac, resulting in one of the earliest acts of recorded anti-Semitism. Genesis 26:15, relates that all the wells that Abraham’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham, the Philistines stopped up and filled with earth.

It is very likely that the reason that the Philistines had access to the wells was because the wells that Abraham had dug were common wells, open to the general public. Nevertheless, the Philistines, who desperately needed water themselves in this arid land, filled them up for spite, just to make certain that Isaac and his family could not use them.

We find a similar pattern of such spiteful anti-Semitic behavior with Pharaoh as well. Pharaoh commands (Exodus 1:22), “Any male child that is born shall be cast into the river,” implying that all male children, even newborn Egyptian children, should be thrown into the river because some Jewish child might be disguised as an Egyptian child in order to escape the decree. Pharaoh wanted to be certain to kill every last Jewish child, even if it meant killing Egypt’s own children.

Similarly, Hitler‘s war effort urgently needed trains to transport troops and armaments to the front, but he diverted them to the killing camps even at the last desperate stages of the war, most likely contributing to losing the war.

The Philistines were determined to injure Isaac by making certain that Isaac’s flocks had no water, even though there would be no water for the Philistines and their flocks.

The Siftei Chachamim suggests another reason why the wells of Abraham were rendered inoperable. The wells were covered up because the local people were sure that Isaac would sense their enmity and leave Gerar. When King Abimelech saw that Isaac was staying put, he finally told Isaac clearly: Genesis 26:16, לֵךְ מֵעִמָּנוּ, כִּי עָצַמְתָּ מִמֶּנּוּ מְאֹד , “Leave us! You are expelled, because you have become much too great for us.” The words כִּי עָצַמְתָּ מִמֶּנּוּ ,“You have become too great for us,” also implies that it is because of us, meaning at our expense, that you have become great.

Isaac departs and settles in a new location, Nachal Gerar, and is once again confronted with Philistine attacks on his new wells. Isaac moves even further away, to Rechovot, where he is finally able to settle and live in peace.

Some time elapses, and before long, Abimelech, the king of Gerar, together with Achuzat, his friend, and Phicol, the general of his legion, go to visit and negotiate with Isaac. Bringing Pichol the general along with him perhaps implies that if Isaac makes peace, fine. But, if Isaac rejects Abimelech’s overtures, they will then confront Isaac physically. Isaac is perplexed. He asks, Genesis 26:27-29, “Why have you come to me? You hate me and drove me away from you.” Abimelech responds, “We have indeed seen that G-d is with you, and we said, ‘Let the oath between ourselves now be between us and you, and let us make a covenant with you…Now you, O’ Blessed of G-d.’”

Notice how the anti-Semites, who seek to weaken, impoverish and destroy the Jewish people, don’t really succeed. In fact, quite the contrary, it is often the Jew who succeeds unexpectedly in the face of adversity. Abimelech had already seen this when Isaac was in Gerar. The Torah reports in Genesis 26:12, וַיִּזְרַע יִצְחָק בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא, וַיִּמְצָא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִוא מֵאָה שְׁעָרִים, וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ השׁם, and Isaac planted in that land. In that year, the year of the famine, Isaac reaped one hundred fold! It was clear that G-d was with Isaac and had blessed him. Bear in mind that Isaac was now living further away, deeper in the wilderness, yet, wherever he dug his wells, he finds water.

As we see in contemporary times, and have seen throughout Jewish history, the Jews have endured many threats of annihilation and expulsion. While our people have suffered greatly during those harmful actions, the countries that sought to harm them have often suffered great reversals. In fact, throughout Jewish history, many the nations who have tried to destroy the Jews have ceased to exist: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persian, the Greeks, the Romans. Those who expel the Jews seem to go into an almost immediate nose-dive and economic decline: England (1290), France (1306), Hungary (1349), Austria (1421), Spain (1492), Portugal (1496)…

The only major exception to this unwritten rule is contemporary Germany, which would have suffered a similar decline had not the Allied forces and the Marshall Plan rebuilt Germany. But, how ironic is it, that after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Germany took the unprecedented steps to invite Jews who had any previous connection to Germany, to settle in the former East Germany, which was economically weak, in the hope that Jewish economic prowess would help revive the economy.

Let’s face it, there is no escaping Jewish destiny; there is no escaping Jewish history.

May you be blessed.