Shemot – The Fifth Column Canard?

Pharaoh is the first world leader to levy an accusation that scores of others have since made throughout Jewish history. Pharaoh declares that the Jews must be enslaved lest ‘when there is war, they will join our enemies and fight against us (i.e. a fifth column), driving us from the land (Exodus 1:10).’

The irony of the accusation is that Jews actually have a Jewish legal obligation to be good citizens (though the Exodus story does take place before the giving of the Torah).  The Talmud teaches ‘dina d’malhuta dina,’ ‘the law of the land is the law’ (Baba Kama 113a). Meaning, Jews have a religious duty to follow the local civil laws of wherever they may be living.  So what did Pharoah have to fear?  A look at Portuguese Jewish history is illuminating.

During the years 1580-1640, Spain controlled Portugal. As a result, many Portuguese New Christians resettled in Spain proper, as well as in various Spanish territories in the New World. During the Portuguese war of restoration, these ‘Portuguese’ were seen as an internal threat to Spanish hegemony. As they were also Conversos, the Spanish reignited their Inquisition and levied charges of Judaizing against them, stripping many of their wealth, forcing others into slavery, and even relaxing some to the civil authorities to be burnt at the stake (in Mexico and Peru).

The Portuguese (Old Christians) would themselves raise the fifth column concern during their war with the Dutch over Brazil in 1630. There, the Portuguese were concerned that their New Christian population would assist the invading Dutch, in an effort to return to Judaism, as many Portuguese Conversos had recently done in Amsterdam itself. Indeed, following the Dutch victory, many New Christians did in fact return to Judaism, sometimes even traveling across the ocean to Amsterdam to be circumcised.

These cases underscore the degree to which ‘New Christians’ were often still seen as Jews, despite having lived as Christians for generations.  Perhaps, however, regardless of their minimal or non-existent Jewish observance, these Conversos did uphold the Jewish value of pursuing justice when in an unjust and oppressive society (such as early modern Spain and Portugal). When Jews live in an unjust society, the ideal of ‘good citizenship’ falls away, and the religious duty of ‘zedek, zedek tirdof,’ ‘seek out justice,’ prevails (Deuteronomy 16:20).  We can say as a matter of pride, that when corrupt governments rule, Jews have not hid from expressing their views and from even taking leading roles in fighting injustice.

As a distinct minority, the Israelites were seen as apart, and hence as a potential internal threat to a nation with many adversaries. Surely though, Pharoah had nothing to fear from his Israelite subjects, unless he acted corruptly.  Ironically, his decision to enslave them underscored the barbarity of his regime, which surely would justify internal unrest.  The ‘threat’ of the Israelites then was their unrelenting commitment to truth and justice.  Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites was an effort to quiet their voice (and perhaps also for the procurement of a good source of slave labor).

When the Jews were sent into exile long ago in Babylonia, the Navi Yirmiyahu commanded (29:7), ‘And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to God for it; for in its peace you shall have peace.’ Jews have done that throughout their Diaspora travels, penning and reciting prayers for their local governments, as we still do each Shabbat morning.


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