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Friday, January 13, 2012

Parashat Shemot: A Case-Study in Demagoguery

“And [Pharaoh] said to his people: Behold, a nation—the Children of Israel—are more numerous and mightier than we.  Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply…for when it happens that a war befalls us, they too shall join our enemies, and fight against us, and leave the land.’   And so they set taskmasters upon them…to afflict them with their burdens…”  (Exodus I.9—11)

By this time, a new generation of Israelites had matured in the fullness of Egyptian society. Surely, they knew the local tongue, had adopted some of Egypt’s mores, surely, they had made associations both social and professional. But with a few choice words, we are told, Pharaoh provokes one nation to enslave another. Is it so simple a task to pit neighbor against neighbor?

Yet Pharaoh’s speech is a case-study in propaganda. It begins with that ubiquitous fear of ‘immigrants taking over’: The Children of Israel are more numerous and mightier than we.  There is a familiar appeal to patriotism—defending the homeland against an imminent threat—when it happens that a war befalls us.  Tarring the Children of Israel as disloyal and treasonous evokes memories of McCarthyism: they too shall join our enemies, and fight against us…  One imagines the speeches, the flag-waving, a pandemic of prejudice and fear….

As a whole, Pharaoh wants to whip up the mob. He addresses his people, not his counselors or advisors. He is so very different from the previous Pharaoh who sought counsel from Joseph and would heed the wisdom of his advisors! (Gen. 41.8, 9—39) This Pharaoh uses we and us instead of I and me.  Those familiar with the writings of Karl Marx may remember that he had a habit of assuming his readership shared his conclusions. (Link 1, Link 2) Let us deal wisely with them, Pharaoh says, a theocratic monarch hardly needs the counsel of plebeians, but this Pharaoh is a clever demagogue who pretends to heed it. Within a few lines, Egypt is united, and Israel is lain an outcast to be exploited and enslaved.    

Rabbi Benno Jacob (1862-1945) wrote a German commentary on the book of Exodus, which he completed in 1940, just as Nazism cast its black canopy over the skies of Europe.  Commenting on this week’s portion, Rabbi Jacob notes that a great deal is left out of Pharaoh’s speech. Who are these enemies that threaten Egypt? We are not told of Hyskos or Hittites lurking at the borders. We know nothing of a Philistine armada blockading Egyptian trade. Does Pharaoh manufacture a threat, some pretext for enslavement? We can only imagine what he had in mind, much less what he told his public. Similarly, what grounds are given for the suspicion “that the Israelites were politically unreliable or might join an enemy against the Egyptians”? Again, we are told nothing whatsoever besides the fact that Israel’s population multiplied and flourished.

There are other questions one could ask. If Pharaoh was truly afraid of a fifth column, it would seem reasonable to expel the threat instead of enslaving Israel permanently. Moreover, why does Pharaoh conclude by saying that Israel will leave the land? Usually, conquerors remain to savor the fruit of war.

But perhaps these questions are not meant to have answers. Knowing all too well the horrors of dictatorship and demagoguery, Rabbi Jacob warns that it is a mistake to expect Pharaoh’s behavior to conform to logic, sense, or reason. “[The Torah] sought to place Pharaoh before us as a memorable tyrant, to expose his evil machinations, and to ridicule his senseless speeches and acts.” In other words, despots don’t need reasons, and Pharaoh was a despot of the first degree. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman 

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