On fear, nationalism, and oppression in Shmot

With parshat Shmot coinciding with the inauguration (err, Put-in) of Donald Trump, this image from Yossi Fendel has been making the rounds on social media. It quotes the eighth verse of the parsha (and book):

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע [אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף]׃

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know [Joseph].

A new king arose who did not know. Image by Yossi Fendel

It’s an ominous image, and makes an important point, but it’s the next couple of sentences that have really stuck me for the last several years:

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃

And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.

הָ֥בָה נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”

The liturgy talks a lot about the exodus from Egypt, but focuses far less on why the Israelites became enslaved in the first place. The answer, this parsha makes clear, is fear. Fear of shifting demographics. Fear of an ethnic group that looked different, spoke differently, and had different practices and customs — yet served an important economic function by doing the job no Egyptian was willing to do.

Faced with that fear from shifting demographics, the Pharaoh had at least a couple of courses of action. He could have pushed an agenda of multiculturalism, encouraging the Egyptians and Israelites to get to know one another, thereby mitigating their fear. Instead, he felt that it was more important to maintain what he considered the fundamentally Egyptian character of Egypt.

The United States — at least in theory — was founded not as “a place for a people”, but as a place for all people. Sadly, there are people who believe that America was a white country (back when it was great or something 🙄), and they are now feeling the same fear and oppressive urges the biblical Pharaoh felt.

This is precisely the danger that comes along with ethnic, racial, or religious nationalism. A nation founded as “a place for a people” cannot simultaneously offer full and equal rights/privileges to all, and continue to exist should that people become a minority. And the only ways to maintain the “desired” demographics are exclusion and oppression. Whether it’s in the context of Trump-emboldened white nationalism here in America, or Zionism, its moral equivalent, let’s learn from this week’s well-timed parsha: national ideals that depend on maintaining certain demographics are inherently oppressive.

In a place like America, although changing demographics can bring up a natural fear of the stranger, it also provides us with an opportunity to not be like Pharaoh and to strive for a multicultural ideal. The Torah reminds readers that, because the Israelites were strangers in Egypt, not only is one forbidden to oppress the stranger [1, 2], but it explains how: by loving that stranger [3]. But loving the stranger is abstract. Perhaps it’s better to take a cue from the JPS translation and befriend the stranger. Friends are way less scary than strangers.