It is Rosh Chodesh Adar and that means Purim is coming in a particularly difficult time for Jews and the state of Israel.
Given the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, the brutality and threat of Islamic extremists, the Iran nuclear negotiations, the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the threat of another Palestinian Intifida, the contested Israeli election, the battle for the soul of the state of Israel and the American Jewish community, one can argue that Purim offers us necessary relief on the one hand and intensified angst on the other.
Truth to tell, Purim should make every Jew feel very uncomfortable, despite the joy and care-free spirit of the celebration, the masquerade and sweet hamantaschen. The story of Esther, though celebrating the victory of the Jews of ancient Persia over Haman’s genocidal intentions, has an intensely dark side for us Jews that we ignore at our peril.
The book of Esther is a challenge to liberal Jewish moral values, and it shows that the human being is capable of just about anything:
“…on the thirteenth day of…Adar…the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened and the Jews got their enemies in their power…Throughout the provinces of King Ahashuerus, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt…So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying;…. In the fortress Shushan the Jews killed a total of 500 men… [and] they disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes….” (Esther 9:6-10, 16)
How do we modern liberal Jews justify Mordecai’s and the Jews of Persia’s blood-revenge? Though the Esther story’s historicity is suspect, this terrifying tale describes what can and has happened to Jews in exile, and it warns what can happen in any society, even Jewish society, when power falls into the hands of one group.
History has shown that our having our own state has not shielded us from committing moral crimes. Pastor Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great figures of the 20th century, reminds us about the dangers of power:
“All power is a peril to justice…and the pride and self-righteousness of powerful nations are a greater hazard to their success than the machinations of their foes.”
Israel is a great democracy, but Israel’s military administration of the West Bank is not democratic. There are two systems are at work in the West Bank; one for Jewish settlers and another for Palestinian Arabs.
Though the Jewish response to their Persian enemies in the Esther story is not the story of Israel’s military justice in the West Bank, justice there is compromised by the two sets of standards for Jews and Arabs, and we Jews cannot turn a blind eye by justifying the status quo policy of occupation on the basis of divine right, ideology or security. Peter Beinart put it well this week in Haaretz (February 18, 2015):
“Israel is a decent country composed of decent young men and women who, in the West Bank, are obliged to police people who lack basic rights. And in such circumstances, decent people do indecent things. ‘We are making the lives of millions unbearable,’ declares one former Shin Bet head, Carmi Gillon, in the film ‘The Gatekeepers.’ In the West Bank, Israel has become ‘a brutal occupation force,’ notes another, Avraham Shalom. A third, Yuval Diskin, calls the occupation a ‘colonial regime.’ These men don’t hate Israel; they have dedicated their lives to protecting it…they are discussing the real Israel, not the one [others] have constructed in their minds.”
On Purim Jews are called upon to drink so heavily that we can no longer distinguish between the evil Haman and the virtuous Mordecai.
Do we really need alcohol to remind us that we so easily can assume the identity of Haman in the midst of our stupor? We need only to open our eyes and regard the reality of our situation. Yes, actions in our self-defense as a nation are morally justifiable even though mistakes and excess have resulted in suffering, but our gratuitously perpetrating evil as a matter of policy, which the occupation has become, is not justifiable.
Rather than Purim numbing us with hard drink and masquerade to the truth of our situation and human nature, this holiday arrives each year to remind us of the darkness lurking in every human heart and soul, and that our moral and ethical mandate as Jews, who have been graced with power for the first time in two thousand years, is to be exquisitely sensitive to the suffering of the “other,” to avoid becoming hard-hearted as a people, and to cease the infliction of gratuitous suffering.