A survey last month conducted by the Anti-Defamation League found that 25% of the world’s adults—over a billion people—harbor anti-Semitic attitudes (http://global100.adl.org).
Inevitably these findings generated a lot of discussion about the causes of anti-Semitism, which is rampant even in countries with virtually no Jewish population. Anti-Semitic attitudes are reported among 53% of adults in Senegal, 61% in Malaysia, 38% in Paraguay. One popular explanation is to blame Israel. A couple of years ago, when we were demonstrating here in Albuquerque in support of Israel, a young counter-demonstrator, a Jewish kid, said that Israel was the greatest cause of anti-Semitism around the world. More recently, I’ve heard some Palestinian Christian colleagues make a similar claim. But the state of Israel was founded in large measure in response to anti-Semitism—so how can you say it’s the cause of anti-Semitism? Furthermore, in countries like the USA, Brazil, or the Philippines, people look at Israel and come away with a low incidence of anti-Semitism (9%, 16% and 3% respectively), and often with admiration for the Jewish state.
The Scriptures provide a genuine explanation for anti-Semitism. They repeatedly declare that the Jewish people are elect, chosen by God, not out of any merit of our own, but because of God’s sovereign purpose, which in the end will benefit all humankind. This election itself stirs up profound opposition, indeed hatred, among the other nations, which can always find rationalizations for their hate. The modern state of Israel provides a current rationalization, but the real reason is rooted in humanity’s opposition to the purposes of God.
This dynamic appears in the Torah portions we’ll read over the next couple of weeks, which trace the story of Balaam the seer. Balak, king of Moab and the Midianites, hires Balaam to curse the Jews, who are encamped at the edge of his territory (Num. 22). Unlike today’s anti-Semites, Balak has reason to fear the Israelites, because they’ve just defeated two neighboring kingdoms. Nevertheless, his response to Israel isn’t just on the natural level, but also on the (evil) spiritual level of seeking to curse them.
Balaam, however, soon discovers that he can’t curse Israel, for they’re under the blessing of God.
When He blesses, I cannot reverse it.
No harm is in sight for Jacob,
No woe in view for Israel.
The LORD their God is with them,
And their King’s acclaim in their midst. Num. 23:20a–21
Now this whole story is part of the book of Numbers, or Bamidbar in Hebrew, meaning, “In the Wilderness.” Our ancestors are literally in the wilderness throughout Numbers, and mostly in the wilderness spiritually as well. Bamidbar tells of their kvetching about manna (ch. 11), their refusal to enter the Promised Land after the report of the 12 spies (ch.13-14); the rebellion of Korach (ch. 16-17); and more kvetching at the waters of Merivah (ch. 20). But when God opens Balaam’s eyes to really see Israel, it’s not a camp of kvetching and cowardly ex-slaves that he sees, but a vision of order and shalom.
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the LORD,
Like cedars beside the water;
Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water. Num. 24:5-6
When Balak hears this oracle, he becomes enraged, and starts yelling at Balaam, who reminds him, “I can only say what the LORD gives me to say” (Num. 24:13).
But apparently Balaam isn’t quite the pious and humble guy that he presents in this verse. And his anti-Israel leaning isn’t so easily deterred. Immediately after reporting his vision of Israel as God’s chosen, the Torah tells us that the men of Israel “profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women,” joining the worship of their false god, Baal-Peor, and so bringing down God’s wrath upon themselves (Num. 25:1ff). Later we learn that it was Balaam who came up with the whole idea of enticing the Israelites into sexual sin and idolatry. The Midianite women had, “at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor” (Num. 31:16).
So perhaps we can understand today’s anti-Semitism as a sort of anti-God-ism. Balaam and Balak finally get it that God wants to choose and bless Israel—and they just can’t stand it. True, they had natural reasons to fear the Jews, but they end up opposing God himself. Instead of acknowledging that God is God, they do whatever they can to undermine his choice, and must face the consequences. Perhaps the age-long survival of anti-Semitism among those with no reason to fear the Jews reflects this same resistance to God as the one in ultimate authority.
If so, then it’s all the more important for those who claim allegiance to the true God to remember that he calls himself the God of Israel, and to get behind the choice he has made.
All Scripture references are from the New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) translation.