Was It Rational For Egypt To Enslave The Israelites?

From this week’s Torah portion:

8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

I suspect the Israelites did not identify as Egyptians.

Does any strongly identifying in-group have the majority nation’s best interests at heart or their own best interests at heart? So why wouldn’t Egypt want to deal harshly with them in certain circumstances and deal generously with them in other circumstances?

This problem has come up again and again in Jewish history. Host nations (aside from English-speaking ones and a few others) have consistently doubted the patriotism of their Jews. Professor Lindemann writes in his book Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews: “For many Russians [at the turn of the 20th Century], their country’s Jewish population appeared as a rapidly growing and increasingly hostile body, actively if secretly collaborating with those enemies.” (Pg. 280)

Israel abstains today from expelling the fifth column in its midst for pragmatic reasons, for fear of offending western democracies, not because Torah and the Jewish tradition have any problem with expelling the fifth column.

The Jewish commentaries I consulted argued about whether the Egyptians were sinning primarily against God or against their fellow human beings when they enslaved the Israelites.

It sounds to me like the new Pharoah saw the Israelites as a rising fifth column in his midst and so he took action to deal with the problem.

The modern state of Israel may have a similar problem with its Arabs and I am sure most Jewish Israelis would love for the Arabs to leave Israel. Under Torah law, the Jewish state would expel non-Jews who were problems. Every strong nation will expel or enslave a rising fifth column in their midst.

The Pharoah feared that the Israelites would “join our enemies, fight against us.” Let’s look at the immigration policy of Agudas Israel, the Orthodox lobby group: “Finally, in the area of immigration, Agudath Israel urges that American borders continue to be open to Jewish and other refugees who seek to come to the United States after escaping from oppressive political environments. The United States is a nation of immigrants and has long been distinguished by its generosity toward refugees from all across the globe. It is essential that such generosity continue to be maintained in today’s era of international volatility. Agudath Israel accordingly opposes any efforts to impose caps or quotas on refugees seeking safe haven in the United States. Agudath Israel further supports the provision of welfare benefits to needy non-citizen immigrants.”

This policy effectively calls for the end of America as we know it. Do you think Mexicans, Guatemalans, Africans and Muslims venerate George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? I don’t. For their own understandable reasons, these groups are hostile to American Christians. All closely identifying in-groups, such as Muslims, tend to be have suspicion of, if not outright hostile towards, out-groups. Why would any rational nation want to import this diversity, conflict and hostility? And yet every major Jewish political organization wants amnesty for the approximately 20 million illegals living in the United States, thus inviting countless more millions to come in illegally.

An Orthodox rabbi says: “Was Haman acting in self interest or Hitler? Pharoah didn’t expel them, he enslaved them. If he expelled them, it would [have] be[en] a different situation.”

To expel would have meant in Pharoah’s eyes to kill them all because they could not be expected to survive in the desert.

Another Orthodox rabbi tells me: “I think the Torah is telling us with ‘who did not know Joseph’, that had he understood the Jews and their role in Egypt he would have grasped the benefit.”

A Jewish friend says:

Pharaoh was concerned that the Jews would join ‘enemies,’ which could be many things. In addition to an invasion, it could be an underclass, slaves, minorities; any sort of outsiders. Why join ‘unto’ our enemies? Because the Jew will hide his hatred behind the stated motive of the enemy he is abetting.

While Jews only recognize an irrational hatred of Jews, the Torah is clear that Pharaoh believes he has reason to fear Hebrew talents and hostility.

An Orthodox friend says:

I disagree. The Jews weren’t a “captured” nation or a subservient nation. They lived there as equals for many years, assisting in building the economy and creating immense success for the Egyptians. Enslavement came via manipulation of their hard work and nationalistic attitude toward Egypt.

The Jews enslaved the Canaanites via capture, however, they gave them opportunity to a) leave, b) have a peace treaty, c) fight.

Another friend says:

Some commentators say that only a fifth of the Jewish population was freed from Egypt that is because 80 percent of the Jews assimilated into the Egyptian culture.

And unless your are a neo-nazi, I don’t see any reason in the world to expel Jews from your country. Jews are instructed to respect the laws of the land (a clear Halacha) and abide by it.

I think Jews contribute more to the society when they identify as Jews first and nationality second.

One rabbi opines:

Genesis 47:20-27 indicates the viceroy Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharoah, excluding only two groups: the pagan priestly class and the Israelites. “I have bought you today and your land… Only the land of the priests alone was not Pharoah’s… And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and they held onto it.” The general population was then to be an ownerless lower class with a fifth of their harvest going to the kingdom’s storehouses.

Perhaps Joseph, knowing of the prophecy made to Abraham that his descendants would dwell in a strange land, wanted to insure that the Egyptian masses would not be able to oppress them and may even need them because of their economic power. During the years of famine with this arrangement sustaining the Egyptians, the nation was grateful being enslaved. “You have saved our lives… We will be Pharaoh’s bondmen,” they declared.

However, this preferential treatment in property rights backfired as Exodus 1:9 has the new Pharoah tell his nation, “the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.” In fact, Exodus 1:11 has the new slaves building “store-cities, Pithom and Raamses.” 2 Chronicles 32:28 uses the same Hebrew word to describe building of “treasuries for the harvest of corn and wine and oil, and stables for all types of beasts, and folds for sheep.” Now the tables have turned. They who were one of only two owners in Egypt while the rest of the Egyptians were stripped of their property and working in part for the storehouses, have the Jews made slaves to fill the new generation’s storehouses.

Efrem writes:

I think if you learn nothing else about the story of Exodus, except Pharoah seeing the “fifth column”, and enslaving them, you may, in a great effort of giving him benefit of the doubt, allow a thought of him “simply acting” in Egypt’s best interest. Once you learn about him ordering baby boys thrown into the river, you may start suspecting that there may be something else going on in his mind, besides “Egypt’s Best Interests”. When he subjects his entire nation to 10 plagues, just to stop the “fifth column” from leaving the country, you have to be a Pharoah himself, or one of his very loyal friends, to continue to maintain that he was “simply …..”. Finally after Pharoah drowns his entire elite force, trying to chase the “fifth column”, and himself realizes that he was wrong, you will have to be a blogger who is trying to promote some kind of agenda 3000+ yrs later, to suggest that Paroh was asking in Egypt’s best interest.
Not sure why you are bringing up Jewish state here, as I don’t recall anything similar happening there. (maybe there was a plague that I have missed, you tell me)
“Expel the fifth column” doesn’t seem to fit either, as this was exactly what Pharoah refused to do. I mean, you would think, that if he genuinely thought that he had a fifth column, why didn’t he make it easier for everyone, and did exactly that: expel them? Maybe, and I’m just speculating here, he didn’t think that there was a fifth column.
You could also say that it’s relevant to Europe’s situation, if you are going to suggest, that some of the children of Israel were murdering ancient Egyptians for daring to offend the Patriarchs, or that modern day Europe is trying to enslave an entire nation in its borders, but that’s the kind of thing, for which people use terms like “alternate reality” and “parallel universe”.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill said: “When we think of the insane ambition and insatiable appetite which have caused this vast and melancholy extension of the war, we can only feel that Hitler’s madness has infected the Japanese mind, and that the root of the evil and its branch must be extirpated together.”

Or we could look at Japan and Germany as acting in their national self-interest just like other nations do.

What is the significance of the mesorah’s lack of interest in what motivates hatred of Jews?

A rabbi tells me: “They take it as an existential reality. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai called it a halacha – a spiritual law that Esav hates Yakov.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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