Jacob and Esau: Antisemitism Is Not Inevitable

[Excerpted from Safety Through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism]

In 1991, the infamous “Crown Heights Riot,” ignited by a fatal car crash, highlighted some of the profound communal tensions between the largely white Hasidic residents of the neighborhood and their Afro-Caribbean and BIPOC neighbors, as well as the racial inequities simmering under the surface. For some pieces of the Jewish world, the riot’s antisemitic features seemed to confirm an old lesson: Gentiles simply were this way, and so Jews must fortify, protect and fight back.

As scholar Shaul Magid has recently observed, this logic draws on a lingering theological stream that lends antisemitism a God-decreed permanence: the biblical rivalry between Jacob and Esau. In the words of Shmuel Butman, a Lubavitch rabbi speaking at a commemorative event five years later:

The voice of the blood of our brother Yankel Rosenbaum … is screaming to us. After the

hands of Esau have committed this atrocious murder, on this very spot, the voice of Jacob — and in our case the voice of Jacob [the Americanized translation of Yankel] Rosenbaum — is calling out.

This concept has deep roots in some pieces of Jewish history. It has served as an explanation for the tensions that Jews have often found with their non-Jewish neighbors. It is a reality that became legendary and seeped deep into some corners of a theology that was desperate to make sense of the nonsensical: Where does antisemitism come from, and why does it always seem to return?

In the decades leading to Israel’s founding in 1948, much of the Zionist movement saw antisemitism as an inevitable feature of the Diaspora, and so shlilat hagolah, “the negation of the Diaspora,” they said, was a factor in revitalizing Jewish muscle. The Holocaust seemed to confirm for many that liberalism or left politics would not protect Jews against perennial antisemitism: only Jewish nationalism would. Today, the false notion that the Israel/Palestine conflict is caused, at root, by perennial antisemitism holds sway in many Jewish communities, clouding the kind of sober, grounded assessment that could light the way towards a just peace.

After the Holocaust, the idea of perennial antisemitism found renewed focus on the Zionist right. Meir Kahane was an American Orthodox rabbi who founded the far-right Jewish Defense League (JDL) in 1968 in an effort, he claimed, to defend impoverished urban Jews from neighboring antisemites. Kahane’s program hinged on anti-Blackness, aggressive anti-Communism and what evolved into a rabid form of anti-Diasporism that sought to build a “New Jew” on strength and survivalism.

Kahane helped perpetuate the idea that antisemitism was intrinsic to American gentiles, and that long-standing Jewish support for liberal and leftist politics left Jews vulnerable and misguided. As Magid explains in his 2021 study Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, in Kahane’s eyes,

Jewish liberalism was based … on the belief that Jewish integration into American society would decrease the depiction of the Jew as “other” and thus dismantle anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Kahane held, to the contrary, “that liberal Jews were fooling themselves into believing that anti-Semitism was not a constitutive part of gentile society.” His conviction, Magid writes elsewhere, was that “[antisemitism] was part of what it meant to be a gentile and living with anti-Semitism was part of what it meant to be a Jew.”

Instead, Kahane offered violence as an “ethic” for Jews in their relationship to gentiles. The JDL fought Black Power activists on the streets and attacked Jewish Left gatherings. Later, Kahane moved to Israel, won elected office, and led a movement calling for the wholesale expulsion of Palestinians, a formulation so extreme (at the time) that he was banned from serving in the Israeli Knesset in 1985. His legacy is explicitly celebrated by leaders of today’s fascist Israeli right, which has achieved a level of mainstream success that Kahane only dreamed of.

In Magid’s telling, while much of today’s American Jewish world has repudiated Kahane, his calculation is flourishing. “Tacitly, it seems like a lot of the conversation about antisemitism today is acknowledging Kahane’s basic approach,” Magid told us.

[People] writing these popular books about antisemitism, they identify this or that incident

of antisemitism — sort of like “the greatest hits of antisemitism.” But there’s never any real theorizing about why it happens or what it means. … I think underlying it is this ontological claim that they never want to actually make, which is that gentiles are always going to be antisemitic, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Leading anti-antisemitism pundits like Deborah Lipstadt, appointed as U.S. President Joe Biden’s special envoy to combat antisemitism in 2022, take what’s called an “eternalist” position: antisemitism is unique, distinct and forever. “Medication may alleviate the symptoms, but the infection itself lies dormant and may reemerge at an opportune moment in a new incarnation, a different ‘outer shell,’” writes Lipstadt in Antisemitism: Here and Now. She largely agrees with alarmist antisemitism scholar Robert Wistrich’s characterization of antisemitism as the “longest hatred.” Without a clear pathway to understand what antisemitism is, how it operates, and, ultimately, what to do about it, we are left with little more than echoes of biblical decree, the 614th commandment to make suspicion a mitzvah. What else could explain the “lethal obsession” or the “longest hatred”?

Many Jews interviewed for this book reported growing up with these messages. “The way I learned [about antisemitism] when I was growing up,” Jewish activist Morriah Kaplan told us, “is that it’s this ancient, baseless hatred, unconnected to anything. It’s irrational and indelible, and it’s a unique kind of hatred that is reserved for Jews.” Kaplan helps lead IfNotNow, a Jewish Palestine solidarity group that educates its members to understand antisemitism as part of rising white Christian nationalism and to fight it by developing solidarity among communities also harmed by the right’s advance.

Dove Kent is a senior strategy officer at Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice. When Kent attended Hebrew school, her character was commended on her report card as the “strength of a [Holocaust] survivor.” The school’s approach, she told us, was that “our Jewish past can be summed up in the Holocaust, and what we learned from that is ‘don’t trust any non-Jews.’ That our neighbors will always turn on us … .” Leading Jewish historian Salo W. Baron warned against the “lachrymose story of Jewish history,” the tendency to see little more in the Jewish past than a long, unending string of persecution.

If we take the lachrymose narrative as our guide, we create a monster so overpowering that nothing can defeat it, and we never get closer to protecting Jews or addressing the root causes of oppression. “Nobody is born antisemitic,” Chabad Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone told us, sitting in a popular kosher burger joint in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., a few blocks from where the riot began 30 years ago. “It’s an effect of the brokenness of our world, the same brokenness that leads to all negativity and oppression.”

Antisemitism remains an everyday part of the life of the Hasidim walking the neighborhood, he said, something they all have experienced as visible Jews. But it is far from inevitable, and Lightstone remained hopeful that by connecting with their non-Jewish neighbors to promote understanding and address shared concerns like communal disinvestment, progress could be made. “You can work across our different communities to solve these problems,” he offered, “but it certainly is difficult.”


But the “lachrymose” narrative isn’t the only one available to Jews seeking to understand and counter antisemitism. Throughout the centuries, Jews have proposed interpretations of the biblical rivalry between Jacob and Esau that stress not the inevitability of antisemitism but the possibility of collective liberation. Grounding in these traditions can help break the deadlock and light a way forward.

One tradition associates Esau not with gentiles as a whole but with powerful, oppressive state tyrants (sometimes, Rome, in particular). According to the rabbis, Esau was the ancestor of the ancient tribe of the Edomites, who eventually became the Roman Empire — the imperial force that destroyed the Second Temple, exiled Jews from the Holy Land, and attempted, in other ways, to force Jews to give up their distinct identity and assimilate into the dominant culture.

Throughout the centuries, Jews have proposed interpretations of the biblical rivalry between Jacob and Esau that stress not the inevitability of antisemitism, but the possibility of collective liberation.

“Why is [Rome/Edom] compared to a pig?” ask the rabbis in one of many passages associating the empire with the non-kosher animal. “Because, just as a pig when he lies down, displays his cloven hooves as if to say, ‘I’m ritually clean,’ so this wicked kingdom steals and commits violence, yet it appears as if they establish courts of law.” For an animal to be kosher according to Jewish law, it must have split hooves and chew its cud. Just as a pig pretends to be kosher on the outside (by displaying split hooves) but inside, it is not (since it does not chew its cud), so the Roman Empire’s systems of “justice,” the rabbis charged, were ultimately hollow, a mask for structural injustice.

Rabbinic polemics against Edom, in the first centuries of the Common Era, served as proxy critiques of broader human traits of cruelty and exploitation, greed and enforced assimilation. Edom’s wrath was a core obstacle holding back the coming of the Messianic Era, a vision that preserved hope of human redemption, peace and justice for Jews and all people. As the Roman Empire steadily Christianized after the conversion of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century C.E. and anti-Jewish persecution took on a more foundational and brutal edge, rabbinic polemics increasingly identified “Edom” with Western Christianity.

In the 18th century, Hasidic leader Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl wrote in Me’or Einayim, his homilies on the Torah, of Esau’s symbolism for the spiritual darkness in the universe:

In order to lift something up, one has to lower oneself to go down to the place where it lies and grab hold of it. [Jacob and Esau] had to be joined together to a single source with great intimacy, so that Jacob could raise up that holiness which lay in Esau.

Instead of being divorced from the Jewish people, Esau was ultimately bound to them through his brotherhood with Jacob. Esau’s story is a call to confront the difficult places in all of us and to elevate our community towards justice.

For Chabad mystic Shmuel Alexandrov, writing in 1905, Esau represented the world of systemic violence and state power, while Jacob was Jewish spirituality, transforming swords into plowshares. Giving in to only an exclusivist nationalism, one that pulls us away from relationship with other peoples, would abandon the revolutionary revelation of Judaism, which Alexandrov saw as a cosmopolitan union of all people working for a better world.

The struggle against antisemitism puts Jews into a shared mission with everyone fighting for a more just world.

This is part of a deeper current in Jewish thought that uplifts the emancipatory potential of ethical monotheism against the brutal machinations of Empire, colonialism and militarism, as well as the profit-driven forces of greed and corruption. Seen in this light, the Esau and Jacob story is not about the inevitability of community tensions but about how we can meet oppression with liberation, the act of freeing ourselves and others. Instead of a purely particularist reading — one that pits Jews against gentiles in an eternal dispute — this story has larger ramifications: the struggle of people to be free from systems of oppression that seem to be passed down between generations as an inheritance. The struggle against antisemitism puts Jews into a shared mission with everyone fighting for a more just world.

Helplessness acts as a barrier to a new future, so the “eternal antisemitism” thesis leaves little room to actually address the problem. Instead, we can build a social movement that invites both Jews and gentiles to actually confront the issue, taking part in a veritable “healing of the world.” In building this movement, we can draw on earlier histories of left struggle against antisemitism, as well as the entire social movement playbook.

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