Benjamin Netanyahu chose the day before the holiday of Purim on which to deliver his speech to Congress, and made the most obvious analogy: As in ancient times, the Persians intend to annihilate the Jews. Now, as then, the Jews will prevail over the villains and foil their genocidal plots. It doesn’t take more than a cursory reading of the text behind the festival, The Megillah ("Book of Esther,") to see that Netanyahu’s comprehension of scriptures is about as slanted as his apprehension of nuclear strategy and international relations. Although the holiday has become over the years an excuse for innocuous masquerade and revelry, the Megillah itself is problematic, revealing as much about our wounded psyches as our procession of enemies.
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The Netanyahu approach ignores the first part of the Purim narrative, which is a comedy, and reflects only on the second part, a revenge tragedy, recruiting the popular version of the story to justify his militant position against Iran.
The first eight chapters, the crux of the Megillah, are an exercise in what might be called orientalist fantasy. King Ahasverus rules over an empire of 127 multilingual satrapies with Persian and faux-Persian names; he has an entourage of eunuchs and simpering officials who do his bidding, facilitating drunken revels lasting 180 days and punishing disobedient wives and instructing their husbands in the art of tyranny. The villain Haman is a grotesque counterpart to the virtuous Mordecai; the beautiful Esther is the damsel who will win the beauty contest. Parody, masque, commedia dell‘arte: what this text reflects in its early chapters is the comic impulse, nourished, as some scholars contend, by the rather beneficent conditions in which Jews lived in the Babylonian, Persian and even the Hellenistic diaspora (depending on where and when you date the composition of the text).
Clearly, although Netanyahu implies otherwise, the Book of Esther is a fantasy – not recounting any historical event. The only real “historical” reference is to Mordechai, who is presented as a fourth generation descendant of the Jews exiled from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylonia [2:1 – a verse singled out in public readings to be chanted in mournful tones].
The book’s middle is the part we – and the Israeli prime minister – know best: Mordechai, making the most of his luck, positions his niece Esther to become the queen in order to influence the hapless king to override Haman’s genocidal intent. But by the end of the book we might be too drunk to pay attention to the ways in which comedy has turned into revenge tragedy, an explosion of blood-curdling violence — not by Persians against innocent Jews, but by Jews against innocent Persians.
Esther, having thwarted Haman’s evil plot, is not satisfied with the public hangings of her arch-enemy and his 10 sons – but is granted permission to preemptively slaughter all who have received the order to kill the Jews. There is no textual hint that these Persians ever took up arms – “no one dared to stand up against them, out of the fear that they instilled” [9:2]. Yet the Jews go ahead and slaughter 500 innocent people in the satrapies that belong to the King. Then sweet Esther, the beguiling descendant of Babylonian exiles, wife of the clueless Ahasverus – whom little girls will emulate in gauzy costumes for centuries to come – asks for, and is granted, another day of slaughter: in the capital city of Shushan alone, 300 people are slaughtered, and in the surrounding satrapies 75,000 are slaughtered [9:15-16].
That is the text that all those Congressmen and women – who leapt to their feet with every platitude and oath Netanyahu uttered – should read. The prime minister of Israel, showing a pathetic lack of self-awareness, is valorizing the mind of Esther. The text he cites is the chronicle of how a people, shocked into seeking to thwart the evil decree, wind up using the excuse of preemption to justify vengeful, rampaging violence. (It is a universal story in this sense, not just a Jewish one: what genocidal act is not justified as retribution for some great or imagined grievance?) The historic persecution of the Jewish people has been real enough. But Jewish suffering has also engendered a fantasy of demon-enemies, of Jewish attacks as nothing but deterrence.
Two generations after the liberation of the concentration camps, Netanyahu brought Elie Wiesel to bear witness to his militant words. Another writer who survived the camps, the late Ilona Karmel, once warned about Jews like Netanyahu who have “scars but no wounds.”
Netanyahu declares: Don’t make a deal. He may have said the alternative is a "better deal" but by alluding to the Book of Esther, what he really implies is that the alternative is war. Esther – or at least the people who live in the chimerical world conjured by her book – would no doubt approve.
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Guggenheim Fellow.