Understanding Haman’s racism in modern-day Israel
As we read the Purim story, give charity to the poor and gifts of food to our friends, we should remember the Jewish country must run by the highest possible standards of justice, tolerance and compassion toward the minorities who live amongst us.
Purim is a fantastically joyous festival, on which we are commanded to drink until we cannot tell the difference between, "Blessed be Mordechai and Cursed be Haman". Our rabbis, perhaps in the hope of limiting our alcohol consumption, stress that the two phrases are intimately connected, so we need not drink too much to confuse the two. But if that's the case, what does it say about the Jewish people's relationship to Haman's terrifying racist ideology?
Haman's plot to commit genocide against the Jewish people emerged from a personal slight, when Mordechai would not give him the honor he wanted. Haman's claims reeked of the xenophobia and racism which are familiar to anyone acquainted with modern history. "There is", he warned the king, "a nation scattered and separated among the nations throughout your empire. Their laws are different from everyone else's, they do not obey the king's laws, and it does not pay the king to tolerate their existence" (Esther 3:8). The Talmud says Haman accused the Jews of being unpatriotic, parasitic, antisocial and racist. Such words sowed the seeds for the decree for our destruction.
Haman was not the only one to stir up hatred against a group, because of the actions of an individual. When Queen Vashti refused to appear naked before her drunken husband, the king's advisers identified her behavior as an insult to all men.They counseled the king to extract revenge against his queen and to pass laws oppressing all women.
On Purim, we celebrate the downfall of these villains, but we are also warned that events are easily reversed. "Blessed be Mordechai and Cursed be Haman" are not as far apart as we might think.
The Jewish people have spent much of our history contending with anti-Semitism. Much blood has been spilled at the hands of successive Hamans, and still, we are not free from their threats. It's hardly surprising that a nation which has been so battered, would prioritize self-defense above all else.
Israel's focus on self-preservation is portrayed by our enemies as a switch from David to Goliath and from Mordechai to Haman. We must stand up to such false charges and dispel them.
But in campaigning against this hatred, we dare not forget our own responsibilities to the minorities of our country. We should not lose our sensitivity to what Rabbi Soloveitchik described as "the great universal hymn of the salvation of mankind" about which he comments. "A Jew is not satisfied with his redemption unless everybody will be redeemed with him; the Jews feels the beat of the heart of the universe".
This year saw attempts to pass shameful, racist legislation through the Knesset; laws which had nothing to do with the security of the state and everything to do with asserting Jewish supremacy over the minorities who live among us. These attempts to legalize racism were accompanied by "price tag attacks" on churches, mosques and olive groves. Organizations which sought to uphold the rights of the victims were branded treacherous or anti-Zionist. This racism was followed by appalling degradation of women as their images were removed from advertising billboards in our capital city.
Have we done enough to condemn this or even debate it? How about our lack of response to the suffering of thousands of refugees and the Palestinians and Bedouins who live in Israel without electricity, running water, freedom of movement or the right to vote?
The salvation of the Jews came when Mordechai demanded that Esther stand up for her persecuted people. She was reticent, fearing the consequences of speaking out, but when he told her, "Who knows whether you came to your royal status for a time such as this," she understood her responsibilities and began to act (Esther 4:14).
Purim is a time for celebration. We can be proud of withstanding the attacks of anti-Semites and building a wondrous Jewish state. But as we read the Purim story, give charity to the poor and gifts of food to our friends, we should be reminded that a Jewish country must run by the highest possible standards of justice, tolerance and compassion toward the minorities who live amongst us.
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel and director of the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.