Pharaoh: The Model Tyrant
How did Pharaoh turn the Egyptians against Benei Yisrael? During one generation Benei Yisrael went from guests of honor to a national enemy. Yoseph not only saved Egypt from total starvation and destruction, he turned Egypt into one of the wealthiest and most powerful kingdoms in the region. How can a nation persecute those to whom it once felt indebted? The oppression developed over time through a strategy of propaganda and demonization. Pharaoh was not the last to utilize these tactics to oppress, and there will likely be more. The strategy of Pharaoh, and dictators like him, is clearly described in the first chapter of the book of Shemot.
Pharaoh had a multi-step plan. Firstly, Pharaoh “forgot” the past, actively ignored and erased the contributions of Yoseph and Benei Yisrael. Countries disregarding Jewish contributions took place throughout our history, for example in Germany:
“The German Jewish community had contributed a great deal to German society culturally, economically and socially. Many Jews were patriotic Germans, and had sacrificed their lives for their country in WWI. For example, survivor Trude Levi’s father fought for Germany during the 1914-1918 conflict and was granted medals for serving the country. In her oral testimony in Topic 1 she describes how her father was told to return his medals and that his Hungarian citizenship had been revoked.”
Mr. Levi fought for the Germans, receiving medals of honor, yet had his medals taken from him and his citizenship withdrawn. After Pharaoh erased the memory of Benei Yisrael’s contributions, he defined Benei Yisrael as “the other.” This is exactly what happened in Germany as well:
“The Jew is no German. If you say that the Jew is born in Germany…has obeyed German laws has had to become a soldier–has fulfilled all his duties, has paid his taxes, too, then all that is not decisive for nationality, but only the race out of which he was born is decisive.”
Once their contributions were ripped from them, and they were defined as “the other,” as a separate nation, there would be less resistance to his scheme. Pharaoh’s plan continued to unfold as he then framed Benei Yisrael as not only a separate nation within the land, but as an internal threat, a “fifth column.”
Pharaoh rallied his people around “the Jewish question,” telling them that Benei Yisrael developed their power and wealth from the Egyptians. Hitler used the same propaganda in his speech on January 30th, 1939:
“For hundreds of years Germany was good enough to receive these elements, although they possessed nothing except infectious political and physical diseases. What they possess today, they have by a very large extent gained at the cost of the less astute German nation by the most reprehensible manipulations.”
Pharaoh said that something had to be done lest Benei Yisrael rise up and take over the country. Hitler created similar fears in his country when he said:
“The rescue of Europe began at one end of the Continent with Mussolini and Fascism. National Socialism continued this rescue in another part of Europe and at the present moment we are witnessing in still a third country the same drama of a brave triumph over the Jewish international attempt to destroy European civilization.”
The Jews had as much intention of taking over Egypt as they did of taking over Europe in the 20th century, none.
The answer to the Jewish Question was in place: forced labor. At this early phase the Egyptians would not harm Benei Yisrael themselves, and Pharaoh could not outright harm Benei Yisrael, but he could oppress them with meaningless labor, eliminating them as a threat. So, he conscripted them as part of a labor tax, and had them build store houses, as opposed to national infrastructure. Labor taxes were normally used to build infrastructure such as irrigation and roads, but Pharaoh solely sought to oppress, and therefore had Benei Yisrael engaged in labor that would not be contributing to society. Eventually, the Egyptian people themselves oppressed Benei Yisrael having become disgusted with them.
Once the Egyptian people were willing to oppress Benei Yisrael, it was time for Pharaoh to issue his order to the entire nation of Egypt. The nation of Egypt was instructed to kill all newborn Israelite males. This was an open policy, not a secret plan to be implemented only by the midwives. Finally, the entire populace was turned against Benei Yisrael, and that is why all of Egypt was later punished with the makkot.
The oppression and enslavement of Benei Yisrael did not happen overnight. It was a carefully drafted plan:
- Erase Jewish contributions
- Define Jews as the other
- Label Jews as a threat
- Establish anti-Jewish governmental laws
- Have populace become disgusted by Jews and join in embittering their lives
- The populace is empowered to take up arms against the Jews.
The lesson in the first chapter of Shemot is to be aware of the rise of a tyrant and his plans of oppression before it is too late. Benei Yisrael saw themselves as Egyptians and never thought it possible that the populace would turn against them, the same way the German Jews saw themselves as German and never thought they would find themselves stripped of their citizenship with their once friends as enemies. Our Torah’s telling of our history, such as the enslavement of Benei Yisrael in Egypt, is not solely to record of our history, but to guide us for our future.
Rabbi Meyer Laniado
 Shemot 1:8
 Shemot 1:9
 Hermann Ahlwardt, Speech to Reichstag, 1895 http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/site/pp.asp?c=gvKVLcMVIuG&b=394895
 Hitler defining Jews as the other: http://www.hitler.org/writings/first_writing/
 Ramban Shemot 1:10 also note Hitler’s words in a letter to Herr Gemlich noted in footnote 5: “If the threat with which Jewry faces our people has given rise to undeniable hostility on the part of a large section of our people…”
 Mimenu (Shemot 1:9) can be read as from us. The point of them becoming more numerous in the beginning of the chapter is only in relation to their small numbers previously, not in relation to the Egyptian population. In Germany as well, the Jews were only a small percentage of the population, less than 1 percent, hardly the root of all of their social and economic problems. “According to the census of June 1933, the Jewish population of Germany consisted of about 500,000 people. Jews represented less than one percent of the total German population of about 67 million people” http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007687 and many of those had previously converted to other religions
 Shemot 1:10
 Hitler’s The Jewish Question speech, delivered before the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany January 30, 1939.
 Shemot 1:12-13
 Shemot 1:22
 Shemot 1:15
 Shemot 1:8
 Shemot 1:9
 Shemot 1:10
 Shemot 1:11
 Shemot 1:12-14
 Shemot 1:22