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Purim: A Sordid Tale?

Guest Post by Sam Shube

The scroll of Esther, that most intellectually and spiritually vapid specimen of biblical literature, features a plethora of protagonists but a paucity of heroes. A misogynist monarch whose geopolitical horizons extend from the bedroom to the palace garden; a political lobbyist who prostitutes his stepdaughter in a power play that makes him top dog in the wake of an ethnic bloodbath, and a youthful diva who rises, Evita-like, from obscurity to stardom in the royal harem, neither for love of king nor out of duty to her co-religionists (her first instinct is to turn down Mordecai’s request that she intercede with her sovereign on their behalf). Meanwhile, Vashti — the proto-feminist heroine — is consigned to oblivion in the first chapter. Is there any hope for human decency that stands out among the villains and anti-heroes of this sordid tale?

I cast my vote for the royal couriers, those trusty bureaucrats who go out, posthaste, to carry forth royal decrees on two occasions – the first confirming Haman’s anti-Semitic edict, and the second rescinding it and calling upon the Jews to defend themselves. No, we are not told what these cogs in the imperial machine think about the content of their missives. All we know is that they send them to “every province in its own script and every people in its own language” – every one of the “127 nations” of the Persian Empire, “from India to Ethiopia.” For these couriers, the medium is indeed the message. And the message is diverse, multi ethnic and pluralistic, like the very empire they so eagerly serve.

The Persian realm was truly a tolerant one by the standards of the ancient near east. Certainly in comparison to its Assyrian and Babylonian predecessors, powerful killing machines that crushed nations and exiled entire populations. The Persians, by contrast, preferred the rule of relaxation, replacing extermination with tribute and – as Ahasurerus’ wine feasts attest – inviting everyone to join the party. It was Cyrus who facilitated the Jewish restoration to Zion and the rebuilding of the Temple, a decree that earned him the cognomen “messiah” in the words of Isaiah.

Assyria and Persia represent two archetypes of multi-ethnic states that have recurred, curiously, throughout Jewish history. In modern times, Czarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire have played the role. While the Slavic behemoth, the proverbial prison house of nations, butchered its way towards the twentieth century with pogroms against the Jews and mass relocation of Moslem nationalities, Franz Joseph pursued a policy of toleration, guaranteed equal rights and twice refused to confirm the appointment of the anti-Semitic Karl Lueger as mayor of Vienna, despite his democratic election. It is no accident that Austria-Hungary was the birthplace of Herzylian Zionism.

The age of Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East confronts us with a choice of paradigms. As tiny as we are, the Jewish republic is no less a multi-national State than so many larger historical conglomerates, and the choices we make under the circumstances will be as fateful as theirs. Will the machinery of Israeli statehood follow the path set by the Persian couriers of old – to each province in its own script and every people in its own language – or will we pursue the policies of ethnic hostility promoted by Haman and avenged with no less sanguine methods by the partisans of Mordecai? Will Israeli society have the wisdom to see the Arab 20% of its citizenry as a bridge to the cultural wealth of the Arab world of which we are in many ways part, or will we eschew them as an alien influence? Both possibilities are equally conceivable.

Much, of course, depends on whether the Arab world itself reverses its longstanding refusal to accept Jewish sovereignty. We, for our part, have behaved with unfathomable schizophrenia. On the one hand, Israel has wisely adopted a policy of linguistic autonomy, guaranteeing the existence of an Arabic language public education system for its Palestinian minority. On the other hand, the separate educational systems thus engendered have guaranteed further ethnic polarization and alienation. On the one hand, the Israeli government has launched several unprecedented media campaigns combating racial discrimination. On the other hand, a growing ideological wellspring — led by fundamentalist-xenophobes such as Rabbis Dov Lior, Shlomo Eliyahu and Yitzhak Ginzburg — demands the marginalization of Arabs and their elimination from the public sphere. As a Zionist, I jealously defend Israel’s right to don the symbols of Jewish national identity – much like Great Britain shrouds its own sovereignty in the symbols of a Christian past. And I agree with Netanyahu that our democratic system remains sui generis in the Middle East. Yet I live in constant angst that the partisans of nationalist mayhem may yet set the tone for our still emerging republic. Ohad Ezrahi, writing in Haaretz, has related how settlers in Bat Ayin cheered news reports as casualty figures came in following the massacre of Moslem worshipers by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron on that black Purim day, 20 years ago.

Purim can be a holiday of vengeance and blood. And it can be a celebration of diversity. By the waters of Babylon we wept our exile. But in the streets of Shushan we enjoyed “light and gladness, happiness and honor.” These are the options that history offers us. In the age of Jewish sovereignty, the choice is ours, and ours alone.

Sam Shube has worked in Israel’s third sector for 25 years. A resident of Jerusalem, he writes extensively on public affairs and Judaism, in both Hebrew and English.

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