Rabbi Lau: Anti-Semitism - International Mental Illness

Former Chief Rabbi Lau says that anti-Semitism is an "international mental illness" - but he feels he may have found its root cause.

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Hillel Fendel,

Rabbi Lau
Rabbi Lau

Former Chief Rabbi Lau says that anti-Semitism is an "international mental illness" - but he feels he may have found its root cause.


Tel Aviv's Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel and a Holocaust survivor, spoke on Monday at the Fourth Annual Jerusalem Conference.  The prestigious B'Sheva-sponsored conference's first session dealt with issues of anti-Semitism around the world, particularly in Europe and the Islamic world.


Rabbi Lau cited the Talmudic saying of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai - "A law: It is known that Esau hates Jacob" - and asked, "Why the unusual phraseology? What type of law can this be? It sounds very fatalistic, as if nothing can change it." Rabbi Lau then explained, in the name of some commentators, that the phenomenon of anti-Semitism described by Rabbi Shimon is "akin to a law taught to Moses at Sinai, which also uses this word 'law.' It is something that has no explanation and is not in dispute, such as the fact that tefillin must be black and square.  It is the same with anti-Semitism: you can look for reasons for it, but in the end, it's just an axiom. This hatred is a given, permanent phenomenon."


"For instance," Rabbi Lau continued, "some 200 years ago, and at other times, the Maskilim said that to get rid of anti-Semitism, we have to change our mores and be like the nations.  It was said that the Jews dress differently, speak differently, and have different culture and the like, and that causes their persecution.  'If we are like them, they'll learn to appreciate us,' it was said. They said this in Poland and in Hungary and in many other places.  But of course we know that in Germany in the last century, we were not different in anything - not in clothing nor in language nor in arts nor in politics.  The only thing that stood out very nicely was our genius, from Albert Einstein to the present Foreign Minister - but did it work? Did anti-Semitism disappear? Did they begin to like us?  Of course not. Instead, they said, 'Aaah, so you're trying to be like us? Have you come to live here and then judge us? - Just like they said in Sodom [Gen. 19,9] ...  So we see that it's not the differences and not the sameness that brings about anti-Semitism...


"So then we were told that one of the reasons they hate us is because we were temporary residents in their land, that we don't have a home of our own.  They told us to leave and go to Palestine, and that once we have our own country, they won't hate us.  How ironic - for we did that, and of course they still hate us.  As the phrase goes: Sorry for winning...  They hate us when we don't have a home, and they hates us when we do have a home... So what's the reason?


"I once heard an Arab man address a forum.  He did not deny the Holocaust, but he said that as a Palestinian, he is the real victim of the Holocaust, because it caused him to be displaced by the Jews and now he does not have a home.  So he said that the Jews should go back to Europe and there will no longer be a problem between Jews and Arabs.  But what about the pogrom in Hevron in 1929, and the killings in Motza and elsewhere in the 30s, which happened way before the problem of the refugees of 1948; what, they had prophecy regarding what would happen later?  


"I am really trying to understand.  This anti-Semitism is like an international mental illness, a genuine plague like leprosy - no matter how we try to treat it, it doesn't work. If we're strong, it's no good; if we're weak, for sure it's not good. So what is it?


"In 1982, I was in Melbourne, Australia, walking with a rabbi/lawyer on a nice street in a Jewish neighborhood.  We were waiting for the light to change, and a nice car stops with two well-dressed men in their 40s, and one of them screams out loudly, 'Jews! Did you pay the bill for the gas you used in the chambers?!'  I was shocked.  I tried to think: What kind of problem do we have with the Australians? We have no border dispute with them, we have no refugees issues, no Golan Heights, nothing.  What did we ever do to them? 

"This is what Jacob said to Laban: What do you want from me? What did I do to you?  Those who thought that we should be Jews at home but men outside and thought this would solve the problem - they were mistaken and misled others.  Because the answer is that when little Srulik [nickname for Yisrael] brings the world the 10 commandments and tells them how to live - even though he is right, and even though he's bringing the truth, the fact is that no one wants to hear a little kid telling him what to do..."