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January 19, 2024

The People of Israel are a Mixed Multitude

Angela W. Buchdahl

Erev Rav: The People of Israel Are a Mixed Multitude
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl

Have you noticed how in times of fear and anxiety, human beings become a lot more tribal? The more threatened we feel, the more we want to remain in the safety of our own camp. And the more we categorize people as “us”—or “them.”

And while the word “race” only came into its modern usage in the 19th century, viewing the “Other” in racialized terms is a practice as old as the Bible. In fact, this is exactly what the new Pharaoh does in the beginning of Exodus with the Israelites.  

He was threatened by how numerous they had become, and so he stoked racialized fears: “Those people will outnumber Egyptians and rise against us!

It is actually this Pharaoh who is the first in the Bible to call us Am B’nei Yisrael—the nation of the children of Israel—as he casts the Israelites as a racial bloodline. Pharaoh’s subjugation of the Hebrews affirms how the social construct of race has operated throughout history: categorizing people by immutable characteristics, segregating, and subordinating in order to create hierarchies of human value.  

Race is not real. It’s pseudoscience.

Unfortunately, racism—the way race has been weaponized—is real. And the Jewish experience of racism bears that out from the ancient Pharaoh who used it to justify our enslavement, to the Spanish and Portuguese who used Jewish bloodline to execute the Inquisition, to the Nazis who dehumanized us to enable mass genocide.  

On Yom Kippur several years ago, I refuted this idea of Judaism as a race or a pure bloodline. But I am surprised by how durable the idea remains, and how many Jews cling to it: “Rabbi—you say Judaism is not a race, but I took a 23andMe ancestry test and it says that I’m 99.9% Ashkenazi DNA!”

But Ashkenazi only represents one strand of the Jewish people. It would not match the genetics of Jews who came from thousand-year-old communities in Iraq or Ethiopia or Yemen. We Jews are a mixed multitude and come in all colors. And we always have, since our birth as a nation.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, after God inflicts the worst plagues on Egypt— Pharaoh finally relents and lets the Israelites go. The text says that 600,000 of them left! But then the next verse says something surprising and amazing:

V’gam erev rav alah 
“Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them.”

Who is this erev rav, this mixed multitude that joined them?!

Rashi, the medieval commentator par excellence, says that the erev rav was a mingling of converts from different nations who joined. Abraham ibn Ezra, a prominent Spanish commentator of the Middle Ages, says something more radical: that the mixed multitude were actually Egyptians who fled with the Hebrew slaves. 

Here, in this seminal story of the birth of Israel as a nation, the Torah makes clear we were not a purebred tribe of Israelites—we were a mixed multitude of anyone, even Egyptians—who wanted to flee oppression and seek out their liberation. 

Can that be a vision for Am Yisrael today? Could Israel be a nation that truly includes people we have seen as the Other?

As you may know, 20% of the Israeli population are Arab Israeli citizens. They have undoubtedly experienced prejudice and systemic discrimination, but they do have the right to vote, to municipal services, education, health care, clergy salaries.  

Some Arab citizens from the Druze and Bedouin communities serve in the Israeli army. Arab citizens of Israel can be found serving as MKs in the Knesset, surgeons in hospitals, and judges on the Supreme Court. 

But the vast majority of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arab Palestinian citizens live in segregated communities, go to separate schools, and literally speak different languages.   

Being a mixed multitude has been quite challenging for the State of Israel. Israeli Jews haven’t shown a lot of acceptance for Israeli Arabs, nor have Israeli Arabs felt a strong sense of belonging to the State.  

But on October 7, when Israel was brutally attacked by Hamas—all Israel was attacked. The entire mixed multitude. Jews were primary targets, but Arab Israelis, Thai workers, tourists were all among those kidnapped or murdered. 

And the mixed multitude were among the brave heroes of the day as well, like Awad Darawshe, 23, an Arab Israeli EMT working the Nova music festival who refused to leave because he felt he could help save lives. He was shot and killed while bandaging one of the injured. 

Or Lieutenant-Colonel Salman Habaka, 33, a Druze commander of an Armored Brigade who was one of the first IDF soldiers to enter Kibbutz Be’eri and save the remaining residents there. He raced south when he saw the first alerts and was the highest ranking officer killed at the time of his death, protecting Israelis in Northern Gaza. 

Or Youssef Ziadna, 47, a Bedouin bus driver who got a frantic call from the group he had dropped at the Nova festival to come back. He drove through gunfire to save them and dozens of others. When asked about his heroism, he simply said: “We are one people—we are Israelis. We live here together and we need to go hand in hand.”

Days after the attack, Lucy Aharish, an Arab Israeli news anchor went on the air to publicly condemn Hamas and to share a message of unity: “Since Saturday morning, the state of Israel is under attack. Our beloved country is under attack.”

Our beloved country.  

This was not just the lone voice of one successful Arab Israeli citizen. The Israel Democracy Institute took a poll of Arab citizens in November and 70% said they feel a sense of belonging with the State and its problems, which is the highest ever recorded. Just last year it was under 50%.  

And 87% of Arab Israeli citizens support helping out with civilian volunteering efforts in the war—a number that was born out in stories of Arab citizens working side by side with Jewish citizens to help their displaced neighbors.  

This may be a fleeting moment of respite, or perhaps it’s the sign of a transformative change in Israeli society that will endure. At a time when I hear from too many in the Jewish community that every Palestinian only wants Israel destroyed—and at a time when the world is accusing Israel of genocidal intentions towards all Palestinians—the story of Arab Israeli citizens and their sense of belonging with and loyalty to Israel needs to be told and understood.  

It reflects the vision of our origin story of this week: Pharaoh wanted to cast our people as a racial tribe to subjugate us, but Am Yisrael was an erev rav, a beautiful mixed multitude: of Israelites, converts, and anyone who reached for God’s outstretched arm—or that of their neighbor—to walk hand in hand out of that narrow place, into the Promised Land. 

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.