Today’s Private-Public Purim


More than history, the Jews have memory.

In his marvelous little book, Zakhor (“Memory”), Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi notes that Jewish historiography ends with the destruction of the Second Temple, revived only with the Continental Enlightenment and its reach into the communities of France and Germany.

Jewish memory, by contrast continues on, making sense of current events by analogy with Biblical ones.  It’s a method not entirely alien to American history itself.  The New England settlers saw themselves as latter-day Israelites, guided by God across a forbidding body of water, fleeing a corrupt Egypt to establish His kingdom on Earth in a new land.  Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States feature the Israelite crossing the Red Sea.  Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet (I have not read it, so I can make no recommendation one way or the other) chronicles the role of Moses in American thought, American memory.

But if America could draw on a new founding to make Moses its central prophet, the Jews, in exile, usually turned to a different Biblical story, the Book of Esther.  Scattered, everywhere a minority, at the mercy of temporal powers who were usually not friendly, the Jews frequently found reason to compare their situation to the Jews in the Babylonian exile, rescued from extinction by Divine Providence hidden in natural events, hopeful of soon returning home.

It was not unusual for local communities, and even families, to celebrate such rescues by declaring local “Purims,” often recording the events in local chronicles by paralleling the very words of the Book of Esther.

Even though there is now a Jewish Commonwealth for the first time since 70 AD, the current Purim Parallel practically writes itself.  Genocidal theocratic Persian seeks nuclear bomb for destruction of Jewish people, twists current world power’s leader to its own ends to obtain such. The comparison was given an added push by the timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress – on Tuesday, the day before the Fast of Esther, commemorating Esther’s own fast before she approached the King to plead her case.  Most of the commentaries I’ve seen put Netanyahu in the role of Esther, braving the dangers of speaking truth to power (in the old Lefty phrase) in order to save his people.

I don’t think that’s quite right.

Netanyahu’s role here much more close parallels that of Mordecai, imploring Esther to do the right thing and risk her own position and comfort to save her people.  Netanyahu deftly explained why the approaching deal is a bad idea, why it’s a threat to Israel, but also – more importantly, given the audience – a threat to the United States.  He appealed to the common civilization and shared values between Israel and the United States.

But thought Bibi can persuade, he cannot directly influence.  He has no vote in the US, he must act through others, igniting a serious debate where there had been none, inviting others to bring to bear direct political pressure.

Which means that you and I, friends, are Esther.

It is incumbent upon us to act, to persuade Congress to oppose the agreement when it is reached, to retain or increase sanctions, to prevent the administration from giving power, legitimacy, and trade to our enemies as Americans and Jews.

It is our role to step out of our comfortable positions in a wealthy, friendly, welcoming society and use what influence and power we have to prevent any agreement that even contemplates an Iranian bomb from being anything more than a dead letter.

Given this, the actual words of Mordecai’s plea are even more ominous for an American Jewish community used to security but facing new demographic and ideological threats:

Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house from among all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s household will perish.  And who knows if you became Queen for such a time as this?

There is actually a dispute as to how to translate Mordecai’s last sentence.  Some translate it as, “And who knows if you will remain Queen a year from now?” meaning that Esther might lose her position as Queen.  Others translate it as, “And who knows if this isn’t the reason you became Queen?”

The two translations aren’t necessarily at odds: the calendar date for the actual massacre was a year off from Esther’s approach to the King.  Mordecai could have been arguing that if Esther didn’t fulfill her purpose in being Queen, God could easily enough arrange for her fall from power and its protections.

There is, or should be, a growing unease among Jews in the United States, this exceptional home for us with its exceptional relationship to us.  Too many Jews have traded in their Jewish identity for a Democratic Party one, replacing eternal transcendent values for temporary, political issues of the day.  A small minority, the 10% who are Orthodox, are having the great majority of the children, and with even Modern Orthodoxy teetering a little unsurely, the future of Judaism in the States looks potentially smaller, poorer, and more inward-looking.

The President, in his desire to reach a deal with Iran’s mullahs, has put Jewish Americans, but especially Jewish Democrats, in a position of having to choose between identities many had come to see as identical.  There are any number of powerful and influential Jewish Democrats, and who knows that they didn’t achieve these positions for such a time as this?

Rabbi David Fohrman points out something I hadn’t noticed before.  Two tribes – Judah and Benjamin (plus some Levites, but leave them aside, they’re not a full tribe here) – are actually in exile in Babylon.  Those are the only two tribes left in the southern Kingdom of Judah after the northern Kingdom of Israel had been conquered a couple of centuries earlier.

Mordecai was from Benjamin.  Esther was from Benjamin.  But the decree was phrased as “Yehudim,” Judahites.  Haman didn’t care about tribal differences, but Mordecai would have caught the wording.  Benjamin and Judah had often had a somewhat tense relationship.  Would Esther think that the decree didn’t mean Benjamin, that she and others from her tribe could ride this out?

Mordecai’s demand means this, too: we’re all in this together, Benjamin and Judah.  Don’t think this doesn’t mean you.  It does.

Similarly Netanyahu is telling American Jews: don’t think this doesn’t mean you.  The Islamists, the anti-semites, the BDS-ers and the campus radicals have it in for all of us.  You may be secular, you may be comfortable, you may be wealthy, you may even be intermarried or atheist, it doesn’t matter.  They mean you, too.

And to non-Jewish Americans, Netanyahu is saying the same thing: the Islamists are coming for you, too.  This is a civilizational war we’re fighting, and we’re part of the same team.  Some of you may think you can buy safety by cutting a deal that puts Israel at risk, but you can’t.  And you’re putting your country and your children and your future in danger if you try.

Will the American Jews extend themselves on behalf of the Israeli Jews, or will we huddle together, trying to ride out the storm?

There are some, Alan Dershowitz, AIPAC, Larry Mizel & Norm Brownstein, who have risen to the occasion.  Since 2005, I’ve been on the email list for Jewish NOLA, and its president, Michael Weil, sent out an email this afternoon very supportive of Netanyahu’s speech and its message.

Too many, however, including our own JCRC here in Denver, the ADL, and other organizations charged specifically with advocating for Israel, have taken the safe route.  Happy to opine on just about any partisan political social or economic issue, they have fallen silent, ostensibly afraid to make Israel “partisan.”  In doing so, of course, they are acquiescing the an administration that has chosen to politicize Israel to try to isolate it, because it stands in the way of its Middle East Grand Strategy.  They have, perversely, allowed Israel to become the one topic they won’t discuss.

That’s not good enough.

There is one final parallel.  The Purim story doesn’t end with the King revoking his decree and saving the Jews.  In some interpretations, the King is prevented by Persian law from revoking a decree, in others he’s too proud to admit a mistake.  Regardless of the reason, the King instead issues another decree – a change in policy, if you will – permitting the Jews the defend themselves.  It’s a striking thing, a King risking the internal stability of his empire by permitting a subject people to take self-defense into their own hands on a national scale.  But he does it, confident that he’s not unleashing chaos, but rather encouraging justice.

Too often, we have valued stability in the Middle East above all else (indeed, stability is given as the reason for welcoming a nuclear-tipped Iran into a role a regional hegemon).  It would take a brave president indeed, or at least a confident and secure one, to welcome an Israeli effort to defend itself against an Iranian bomb.  It may mean waiting until the next president, who, while not repudiating whatever agreement this one reaches, winks and nods at such an effort.

 A sobering thought indeed, for American Jewry, ironically linked to a holiday associated with revelry and celebration.

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