Selling Purim to Progressives One More Time
It has been my custom to reproduce this Purim post every year, with some modifications. This year I do it a day after Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a megillah/Scroll of Esther to President Obama.The scroll, read twice on the holiday of Purim, relates the victory of the Jews over Haman the Agagite, his sons, and a whole bunch of people inside and outside the Persian capital of Shushan who had it in for the Jews. Jeffrey Goldberg explains the point of Bibi’s gift:
The prime minister of Israel is many things, but subtle is not one of them. The message of Purim is: When the Jews see a murderous conspiracy forming against them, they will act to disrupt the plot. A further refinement of the message is: When the Jews see a plot forming against them in Persia, they will act to disrupt the plot, even if Barack Obama wishes that they would wait for permission.
Goldberg reads Bibi right, but Bibi reads the megillah wrong. In the story, the Jews are saved only because the Jewish Queen Esther convinces the Persian king to execute the wicked Haman, after which the king authorizes the Jews to defend themselves against their attackers.
The real message of the megillah for Bibi should be: Diplomacy works; self-defense is the last resort; and one should act only with the consent of the legitimate authority. In other words, Jewish unilateralism and aggression are dumb and counterproductive.
It’s not just the Scroll of Esther that discomfits progressives; it’s the Amalek thing; it’s the Barukh Goldstein thing (Goldstein was the settler who on Purim murdered Palestinians in prayer); it’s the Hanan Porat “Purim Sameah” (“Happy Purim”) thing (That’s what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) And most sane people don’t like the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah and Purim, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman’s name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk.
So…here’s my attempt to sell Purim to progressives again.
Consider the following:
As Marsha B. Cohen points out in her excellent post [below this], the Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don’t worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, the victims were guilty, or the offspring of those who were guilty, and in the Ancient Near East, the offspring are considered extensions of their parent. Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course! But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can’t shed tears over the death of Orcs either.
Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B-(after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide, and the Jews are indeed set upon), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives.
I adopt both responses, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers, always did — providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views.
James Kugel has argued persuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters — which is what Protestant Judaism and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do — then the book you are left with is pretty mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, even in its very text, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place, but as timeless.
So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just forget about the rest. I read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy us because we were different from them.
And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture — and physical welfare– destroyed by forced assimilation, in the name of a superior culture and/or ethnic homogeneity. Because if what Haman wanted to do the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.
Purim: When Bad History Makes Bad Policy
The most raucous holiday of the Jewish calendar begins tonight (Wednesday), observed by reading the biblical Book of Esther (Megillat Esther or just the Megillah). The reading is accompanied by an outbreak of cacophony every time the name of Haman the villain is mentioned. Other Purim traditions include feasting and sharing treats with friends and family, masquerading in costumes, staging comedic performances (purimspiels) and engaging in inebriation to the point of being unable to distinguish the anti-hero Haman from the hero Mordecai.
During their meeting, timed to coincide with the AIPAC confab, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu presented President Barak Obama with a copy of the Book of Esther. As Nathan Guttman noted in The Forward:
Benjamin Netanyahu’s gift to Barack Obama summed up his message at their White House meeting Monday. The Israeli Prime Minister gave the President a copy of he Book of Esther, which tells the story of the Jews fighting back against a genocidal plot by the ancient Persians. Netanyahu sees the nuclear threat posed by modern-day Iran as no less existential to Israel…
As the biblical novella recounts in the tale, a Jewish young woman by the name of Esther is taken into the harem of the Persian King Ahasuerus during a roundup of pretty young virgins, after the uppity Queen Vashti is deposed for defying her husband. Esther keeps her Jewish identity secret for five years until Haman, now the King’s vizier, becomes enraged when Mordecai, Esther’s uncle/cousin (depending on the translator), won’t bow to him. Haman persuades the king to allow him to organize the mass extermination of the Jews of Persia on grounds that they refuse to observe the king’s law. Ahasuerus gives Haman his signet ring, to use as he wishes in promulgating edicts.
Urged by Mordecai to intervene, Esther risks her life by going before the king without having been summoned and inviting him and Haman to two sequential banquets. At the second banquet, Esther reveals Haman’s dastardly plot, and Haman and his ten sons are hanged. Mordecai becomes the king’s vizier in his stead, and all live happily ever after–except for the 75,800 people in Persian empire who are massacred when Esther convinces the king to allow the Jews to avenge the plot against them.
“For as long as I can remember, I never liked the holiday of Purim, with its story of the massacre of the gentiles and its message of revenge and rejoicing at the downfall of others,” writes author Ruth Meisels in Haaretz. “And so every year all that’s left for me to do is to grit my teeth during the synagogue reading of the Megillah, taking comfort in the fact that historically, at least, the veracity of this story is very much in doubt.”
Although many apologists for the Book of Esther have claimed its author was familiar with the intimate details of life at the Persian court, such claims don’t hold up in light of what we now know of Persian history (559-331 BC), apart from the copious Greek propaganda produced during the Greco-Persian Wars (492-449 BC).
A Persian king sleeping with a virgin every night? This sounds remarkably like premise of the tale of Sharazad in Hezar Afsaneh, a collection of ancient Persian folk tales. According to Elias Bickerman, a highly respected scholar on Jewish literature of the Achaemenid Persian period, “We have here a typical tale of palace intrigue that could as well find a place in the Persian histories of Herodotus and Ctesias, or in the Arabian Nights. The only Jewish element of the tale is that, according to the author, Mordecai is a Jew.” “Mordecai” was not a Jewish name in ancient times (it is now); nor was “Esther.” In fact, it has been noted numerous times that the two names bear a remarkably close resemblance to those of the Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar.
A Persian king marrying a mysterious Jewess who kept her origins secret for five years (especially with her known to be Jewish cousin/uncle lurking around outside, exchanging messages with her through courtiers)? No way! A Persian king’s marriages, as Maria Brosius explains, were alliances with the daughters of foreign potentates and the leading families of the Persian empire for reasons of statecraft. The Achaemenid Persian tradition seems to have been postponing the designation of any of the king’s wives as what might best be translated as “queen” until after she had given birth to his designated heir. Neither Esther nor Vashti is mentioned as having been the mother of Ahasuerus’ children. Furthermore, a Persian monarch’s mother and his wife were entitled to see him whenever they wished.
Finally, there is no historical record of any King Ahasuerus or a Queen Vashti, and, most significantly, no record of a plot to ethnically cleanse the Achaemenid Persian Empire of its Jews. Nor is there any account by any ancient historian of vengeful Jewish mobs slaughtering nearly 76,000 residents of the Persian Empire.
As for Jews living according to their own rules, Darius the Great (ruled 522-486 BC) had institutionalized hagiarchy (rule by priests) over the various and distinct peoples of his empire, not only allowing, but requiring that each of the ethnic groups in his domain live according to its own religious code, promulgated and enforced as da’t–“The King’s Law.” The Second Temple in Jerusalem, for which Jews mourn in their liturgy and for whose restoration observant Jews today pray three times daily was built by returning Jewish exiles with the full support of Darius. The Temple was a center not only for sacrificial worship, but for bureaucratic administration, including the the collection of taxes. Darius and subsequent Achaemenid Persian emperors institutionalized the various religious codes by which his subjects lived. The enactments of Ezra, which became the core of Jewish ritual observances (halakha) still practiced by orthodox Jews to this day, were enforced as though they had been decreed by the emperor himself.
During the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid Empire (165-162 BC, commemorated by the Jewish festival of Chanukah), Judeans battled the Greek overlords who had seized control of Judea with Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Achaemenids (331 BC), demanding the right to live according to the Jewish “law of the ancestors,” codified as d’at hundreds of years earlier while Judea under Persian rule. The Parthians, the successors of the Achaemenids in Persia after an interlude of a century or so after Alexander, aided the Maccabees–heroes of the Jewish Chanukah story–in their resistance against Greece, and their Hasmonean descendants in their revolt against Rome.
The closest that most scholars can come to identifying the historical setting of the Book of Esther is the reign of Xerxes, who ruled from 486-465 BC. A staunch and uncompromising monotheist, Xerxes eliminated all government subsidies that non-Zoroastrian religious cults in the Persian empire had been receiving from his father. According to scholar Robert Littman, writing in the Jewish Quarterly Review, it was actually Babylonians, not Jews, who were the original victims in an incident that would be recast as the tale of Esther and Mordecai in the Megillah.
Xerxes took the 18-foot solid gold statue of Bel Marduk, the chief idol of the god, whose hands monarchs seized to gain title as King of Babylon, and whose hands the pretenders had seized to gain legitimacy for their rule and revolt, and carried it off to be melted down for bullion. When the priest of Esagila protested, he was killed. Without the idol of Marduk, no pretender could so easily legitimize and claim divine sanction for his position.
None of this historical background would matter very much, if at all, were Purim just a fun-focused festival of eating, drinking, whirling noisemakers (groggers) at the sound of Haman’s name, and pretending to really like the triangular-shape pastries, filled with prune jam or poppy seed puree that grandma baked, the way that the overwhelming majority of Jews who have even only heard of Purim recall as the festival from their childhood.
But Purim has a darker side, unencumbered by historical facts, that has impacted relations between Jews and their neighbors, as Elliot Horowitz, a professor at Bar Ilan University, chronicles in his book Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. In recent years, Purim has taken on an increasingly ominous aspect, with Israeli settlers belligerently sparking confrontations with Palestinians in whose midst they have entrenched themselves. The most deadly of these took place in 1994, when the holiday of Purim coincided with the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan. Muslim worshipers packed the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a shrine sacred to Muslim as well as to Jews. An American-born Israeli settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, opened fire on them with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 29 and wounding more than 100 others. “Since then, for me and for many others, Purim has never been the same,” Horowitz writes.
Goldstein’s mentor, Dov Lior, the government-salaried rabbi of the Kiryat Arba settlement near the site of the Hebron massacre, has been frequently accused of incitement of, and involvement in, terroristic acts of violence directed against Arabs, including a plot to blow up six buses, loaded with explosives, with the objective of killing the hundreds of passengers on them. Israel’s Shin Bet security service foiled the plot at the last minute. Lior endorsed a book, Torat HaMelech (Law of the King) which countenanced the slaying non-Jews, and not surprisingly drawing upon the Book of Esther for justification. His arrest incited outrage among his followers. At the beginning of February of this year, Israeli Army Radio reported that Lior had derisively referred to the US president as a kushi (a biblical term denoting a person of African descent, the modern Israeli equivalent of “nigger”) and compared him to Haman.
Since his election as Iran’s president in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been depicted both in the U.S. and Israeli media as a modern-day Haman, who will stop at nothing to achieve his genocidal objective. In 2006, Sarah Posner of American Prospect pointed out that Texas televangelist John Hagee, founder of CUFI (Christians United for Israel, an AIPAC for evangelicals) had “a huge following, the ear of the White House, and a theory that an invasion of Iran was foretold in the Book of Esther.” Hagee’s 2005 book Jerusalem Countdown, is described by its publisher as “an incendiary new book purporting to show that the Bible predicts a military confrontation with Iran.” In the Purim apocalypse envisioned by Hagee, Posner noted, “he glossed over the obstacles faced by Tehran in creating a viable nuclear weapon, arguing that ‘once you have enriched uranium, the genie is out of the bottle,’” a view adopted not only by Israeli hardliners but also recently by the US Congress.
Last year, revelers waving groggers with Ahmadinejad’s picture on them created a ruckus at a Megillah reading outside the Iranian Mission to the United Nations. Now Netanyahu has given Obama a Book of Esther as a gift and a guide, which Netanyahu’s aides have stated is intended to be “a form of ‘background reading’ on Iran.” “Then too, they wanted to wipe us out,” Netanyahu told Obama, according to an Israeli official quoted by the Jerusalem Post. “…’And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did what they would unto them that hated them.’”
As Ami Eden points out, “there’s the uncomfortable wrinkle that in Megillat Esther the Jews can’t/don’t launch their successful preemptive strike against their enemies until they secure the king’s permission — not quite the ‘Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions’ message that Netanyahu has been hammering home during his trip this week to Washington.”
Beyond that wrinkle, there’s a much larger question. Is it really a good idea for a US President to look to a biblical novella (especially one whose “happy ending” is the death of tens of thousands of people), or to any religious text, as his guidebook on foreign affairs? Robert Wright doesn’t think so, and proposes an intriguing “thought experiment” to answer this question:
Suppose that an Arab or Iranian leader of Muslim faith met with President Obama and told him about some part of the Koran that alludes to conflict between Muhammad and Jewish tribes. For example, according to Muslim tradition, the Jewish tribe known as the Qurayzah, though living in Muhammad’s town of Medina, secretly sided with Muhammad’s enemies in Mecca. Suppose this Muslim said to Obama, “Then, too, the Jews were bent on destroying Muslims.” What would our reaction be?
The Book of Esther is bad history. Bad history–especially when it masquerades as a relevant guide to foreign affairs–makes bad policy.
And bad policy is what you end up with when you can no longer tell Mordecai from Haman.
Happy Purim to all of us
By Adam Keller, Crazy Country blog
1) Purim in Washington
It was the week of the nuclear duck. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, what is it? Really, what could it be? Maybe it’s Dimona?
While trying to convince the President of the United States that it was time to bomb the nuclear duck (the Iranian duck, only the Iranian) the Prime Minister of Israel handed him a copy of the Book of Esther, which tells the story of the downfall and hanging of a Persian villain 2400 years ago, events for whose commemoration the Jewish religion instituted the Purim Holiday. Maybe exactly this would convince Obama to settle accounts with the Persian villain of the present day?
When and where, exactly, was The Book of Esther written? Did the events recounted there actually happen? Was there ever, once upon a time, a man at the court of the King of Persia named Haman, son of Hammedatha the Agagite, who conspired to perpetrate a massacre of the Jews in the many provinces under the King’s rule? Whether or not such a person ever lived, there is no doubt that when the book was written the phenomenon which we know as “antisemitism” already existed. The Jews were already a religious and ethnic minority scattered among many countries and nations, and already there were those who hated them and sought to harm them.
And how to interpret this Book and what lessons can be drawn from it for our own time? It can certainly be read as the story of cynical intrigues and power struggles going on at a corrupt and profligate royal court thousands of years ago, which are in many ways reminiscent of various intrigues and power struggles still going on in our own day. And there are quite a few Feminist interpretations of King Ahasverus’ relationship with the women in his life and his palace. And certainly, it can be read as the wonderful story of a struggle against racist persecution, the story of a threatened minority over whose heads hung a terrible threat, and who were saved due to a tenacious struggle for survival and due to a courageous and resourceful young queen who took considerable risks for the sake of her people.
But it can also be read as a story of bloody and cruel revenge, of how the hunted in a twinkling became the hunter, how those who were very nearly killed and slaughtered turned on the very next day into bloody killers themselves. Of how it was not enough to hang on a tall tree “Haman, Persecutor of the Jews”, but also his ten sons were hanged with him – including his youngest, Weizata, whom Jewish tradition remembers as a rather confused child who was not really involved in his father’s machinations. “It was turned around, and the Jews had rule over them that hated them. The Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces, to lay hand on such as sought their hurt, and no man could withstand them, for the fear of them fell upon all people.” And the Book of Esther sums up with the grim statistics – no less than seventy-five thousand killed in two days. And who were these people? Did they all deserve death? The names and details are not told.
Did it really happen, about 2400 years ago? Is it history or legend? What is indisputable is that in the year 1994, it was these precise verses which inspired a doctor named Baruch Goldstein at the settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron to go out on Purim and come to a holy site where tradition places the burial place of the ancient ancestors of the Jews and the Arabs alike. There, in this place and at this time of the year and inspired by these verses in the Book of Esther, he perpetrated a slaughter of Muslims during their prayer and set in motion the cycle of hatred, and of revenge, and of revenge for revenge for revenge, which led to suicide bombings of buses and the assassination of a Prime Minister on a square in the heart of Tel Aviv and the derailing of a process which should have led to peace and an end to the occupation no later than May 1999. And still now, there are those in the settlements who are attracted precisely to these verses, and who wave the words ” It was turned around” like a sword aimed at their Palestinian neighbors – especially, but not only, on the day of Purim.
And what is the Book of Esther for the current Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu? What did he think, exactly what did he want to express when presenting this book to the President of the United States?
2) Purim in Holon
In truth, most of the Israelis do not delve too deeply into the Book of Esther or ponder its subtle implications. Purim is conceived as mainly and primarily a children’s holiday, indeed the most important event for children in the entire year, a carnival holiday of colorful costumes and masks, of funny games and pranks and acts of mischief. The text of the Book of Esther is not taken very seriously – a funny and entertaining story about a drunkard king and his unkempt court. The mass killings at the end are played down, like the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales were changed from the very brutal stories published in the 19th century to the charming fairy tales nowadays known to the world’s children.
For the past twenty years the city of Holon established the tradition of the Adloyada, the colorful carnival parade thought its main streets, this year also helped by the weather (not the slightest hint of rain). On the way to the cheerful parade route, Border Police could be seen hefting their guns, but security was less heavy than in the Purims of five or ten years ago. Only briefly did the children and their parents stop when a chain of explosions rent the air, but these turned out to be only a string of firecrackers which someone had shot into the air.
At Sokolov Street, the main street of Holon, a large crowd had gathered along the sidewalks to watch the parade, also on the balconies and rooftops were masses of people. And cheerful giant floats passed along to the sound of joyous music and the cheering crowd, and some of them included hints to the social protests of the past summer. Also manifested was the spirit of Vegetarianism which in recent years had become more trendy in Israeli society. A giant chicken, with friendly and a bit sad face, sat under the sign “I do not want to become a schnitzel”. Behind it, a huge pile of mouth-watering papier-mâché vegetables was surmounted by the sign “Vegetables are good for you”.
And especially, there were the schools and youth clubs of the city of Holon, group after group of children and adolescents, from first grade to those who about to complete high school, dressed and made up and dancing and jumping and walking on their hands and performing all kinds of antics and stunts. It was clear that they had devoted much effort of preparation and rehearsals ahead of this big day. Group after group passed along the wide street and danced and jumped and received the cheers of the crowd. And not just from the city of Holon. Also from schools in neighboring towns, children and youths came to this great Purim parade , and even from Oranit a group of girls came to take part in the Purim parade of Holon. Oranit, for those who do not know, is a settlement located beyond the Green Line, in the territory which was occupied by the armed forces of Israel in 1967 and which is still under military rule and where the State of Israel is prohibited under International Law to move to its citizens (but ignores this prohibition). But Oranit is not a particularly fanatic settlement – more of a middle class suburb – and very few people present at the colorful procession noticed or gave thought to the location of Oranit. Anyway, the girls from there looked exactly like those in the other contingents, wearing tight black clothes and clown makeups on their faces and dancing and jumping and getting their share of the crowd’s applause.
Overall, it was a nice and friendly event, not very deep or meaningful. Children and youngsters have the right to rejoice together in the city streets and enjoy life, which in this country would probably provide them later on with less pleasant experiences. The children and teenagers and parents dispersed happily home, ordinary Israelis in their masses. According to the opinion polls of March 2012, most of these parents – like most citizens of Israel – would on the next elections vote to return to power Binyamin Netanyahu and his partners, even if they do not really want him to rush into war against Iran.
3) Purim in Yatta
The town of Yatta in the South Hebron Hills had also known celebrations, but it was several months ago. In October 2011, residents of Yatta went into their streets to celebrate and welcome home the town’s resident Khaled Musa Almahamra, who was released from Israeli prison as part of the great prisoner exchange deal.
This week, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, there was no cause for celebration in Yatta. Precisely on our holiday there arrived IDF soldiers to arrest the ex-detainee and haul him back to prison. “He had been involved in transferring money to a terrorist organization” said the security services of the State of Israel. For the general Israeli public, the word of the security services is sacrosanct, and the military judges issues Administrative Detention orders on the basis of secret evidence and do not ask many questions. What is the evidence, to whom was the money sent, what exactly is it meant to fund? (There were quite a few cases in which the funding of charities was considered as terrorism. Also the establishment of kindergartens.) We will probably never know.
At the same time when Holon youths marched happily through the streets of their city, their peers in Yatta went out into their own streets to protest the arrest of the neighbor who had just been released. And an Israeli soldier was hurt by a Japanese knife and shot and killed one of the Yatta youths and seriously injured two others who were taken to intensive care.
On the Israeli television evening news, coverage of the event was mostly focused on the lightly wounded soldier, the dead Palestinians being mentioned only in passing. And then the news magazine passed on the more joyous item of the big Purim parade in Holon and the smaller parades in several other cities. Everybody who missed seeing it in the flesh could see the young happy dancers in a beautiful colorful broadcast lasting several minutes.
4) Purim in Gaza
Here I intended to finish this article, but the Purim of this year was far from over, and there were still dramatic events in store. It was still Purim when the Air Force planes of the State of Israel entered the skies of the Gaza Strip, to carry out a liquidation from the air and hit directly and accurately at Zuhair Qaisi, General Secretary of the Popular Resistance Committees.
We were told through the media that this action, at precisely this time, was absolutely needed and necessary. Because the man was a dangerous terrorist, who was involved in preparations for an attack on Israel through the Egyptian border. The evidence that this is indeed so we will most probably never see or know. Of course, this is highly classified intelligence material. And if Qaisi had indeed been busy planning an infiltration through the Egyptian border, did his death prevent this attack, or did it actually add motivation to those who are about to carry it out? This we might, or might not, know in the near future.
In any case, those who ordered the assassination in Gaza could have been sure that it would be followed by a barrage of missiles on the communities of southern Israel (about one hundred, as of this moment) and that in response to the missiles the planes would come again and kill more Palestinians (15, as of this moment). And exactly who were these fifteen people? The official Channel-1 spoke about 15 terrorists – the last two killed while on a motorcycle on their way to shoot rockets. But in the slightly more independent Channel-10, the reporter noted that from the footage taken in Rafah, it appears that the two motorcycle riders were transporting vegetables. But of course, there are also terrorists who eat vegetables…
On the Israeli side of the border, no one was killed (as of this moment). There were only four wounded, and quite a lot of people who spent the last day of Purim nervously listening for the air raid warnings and sprinting to the nearest shelters. Iris, from the town of Ofakim, told of the events of the last day of Purim in her neighborhood. “We are forced to leave home and run to the shelter, where the whole neighborhood gathers. In truth, sleeping is very difficult. We sleep on a blanket under difficult conditions, a dirty floor, filthy toilet, a big nightmare. At six in the morning we had to get up again, because there was a barrage again, and no more sleep.”
But anyway, Happy Purim to all of us!