By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
February 26th, 2021 – י”ד אדר תשפ”א
The book of Esther is a study of classic antisemitism. It is the only biblical book that portrays antisemitism as we know it today – hating Jews just because we are different, just because we are not like the mainstream.
The book of Esther alludes to the struggle against those who seek our destruction as a generational build-up since the time of the Amalekites in the book of Exodus. Tradition affirms that Haman, in the Purim story, is the descendant of Amalek – appearing yet again as an evil force in every generation to destroy the Jews.
Only weeks after leaving Egypt, the Amalekites engaged the Israelites in battle in a place called Refidim. According to chapter 17 in Exodus, there is no reason and no provocation. According to the recounting of the event in Deuteronomy, they simply ‘happened upon the way’ and attacked from the rear cutting down all stragglers. The rabbis pick up on the words, they “happened upon the way,” remarking that the Amalekites represented a sort of Weltanschauung of happenstance. They represent the claim that everything in the world is arbitrary and there is no judge, no justice, and no cause and effect. The Amalekites, therefore, denied the reality which was affirmed through the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and sowed doubts in the hearts and minds of others.
Haman wants the Jews destroyed because they are a subversive force that appeals to a higher authority. Haman wants the Jews destroyed because they are a people “whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws” and therefore “it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8) Haman understood only too well why Mordechai did not want to bow down, and for this reason, wanted to destroy the entire people (and God!).
Haman’s central accusation is that the Jews, by being different, undermine the political stability of the country. That difference makes it impossible for the king to make his kingdom peaceable and open to travel. The Jews make it impossible to re-establish the peace which all “normal” people desire.
Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur’s new book Anti-Semitism Revisited: How the Rabbis Made Sense of Hatred (published in French in 2019 and just released in English this month) is fascinating, accessible, and an original examination of this age-old phenomenon. As a leading Reform rabbi in France, Horvilleur dedicates a chapter to Israel and Zionism stating matter-of-factly:
“Once again [the Jews] are the threat to shalom; they are the obstacle in the way of union, in Palestine as in the West. In Palestine, they are the obstacle because they support a colonial settlement that has become the alleged mother of all imperial adventures. In the West, they are the obstacle because they are alleged to be complicit in the oppressive values and philosophy of the Enlightenment’s White universalism.”
Antisemitism has morphed and changed, evolved and re-emerged in different ways, and yet it endures with the same classic tropes. As Rabbi Horvilleur puts it:
“The far-right censures Jews as threats to the established order. The far-left censures them for being part of that order and for being in its service.”
In today’s reality, the organized Jewish community, along with many governments around the world, have sought the guidelines of a definition of antisemitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The IHRA definition lays out when something is antisemitic and when it isn’t. Like any text and set of guidelines, questions arise and interpretation is required which has led to lengthy discussions in the Jewish world and in our own Reform movement over the use of the definition and whether it should remain a collectively agreed-upon guideline or codified into law?
Antisemitism: Not A Joking Matter
Perhaps these guidelines can help us be discerning in our response to seemingly antisemitic jokes or quips. Some, who their role as primarily a defensive role for Israel and the Jewish people see Michael Che’s recent joke criticizing Israel on SNL’s famed Weekend Update as yet another manifestation of this age-old antisemitic trope and believe that such jokes have dangerous repercussions (see here, here, and here). Multiple groups jumped on these 12 seconds of satire which initiated the latest brouhaha and Twitter frenzy. There were rallying calls for apologies and for the world to wake up to this clear and present danger – like Tablet’s Liel Liebovitz who minced no words in saying: “Was the line anti-Semitic? Yep. Was it also absolutely intended? You betcha.”
There is something to the criticism. It is legitimate to shrie gevalt over the simple factual erroneousness – Israel is more than fifty percent Jewish and has vaccinated loads of non-Jews. It is also reasonable to bemoan the safety of satire – “We’re an equal opportunity offender as we make fun of everyone,” or the pareve yet infuriating response after an offensive jeer of “just kidding” or “hey, no offense.” The joke just wasn’t that sophisticated and also coming from one of the most widely viewed programs in the world can easily make an impression on an unacquainted viewer.
But others argue that the joke is not the issue, rather the subject of the joke. Rather than getting upset about it, one should be upset about the perceived inequalities the joke raises. A Jerusalem Post editorial stated frankly: “If everything is antisemitic, then nothing is, so the appellation must be used sparingly.”
Those are wise words.
A friend recently asked if political satire whether being done in good taste or not, succeeds in causing us to confront our predispositions, or does it strengthen them? As Dr. Alex Sinclair wrote in his book Loving the Real Israel, when someone criticizes Israelis the typical response is “what’s wrong with them that they’re criticizing me,” rather than “might there be something wrong with me?” The label of antisemitism is often applied to put up an immediate shield guarding us against the darts of potential truth that could be at the basis of the accusation. The squeamish discomfort that many felt with Che’s low blow might stem from the fact that Israel’s vaccine heroism was for many the moment to bask in the sun and feel proud. To remind ourselves what Hillel taught us that we can be for ourselves.’ That we’ve made it in the world and that the Jews are a true light.
And then in 12 seconds, we’re reminded that being for ourselves is actually not enough. And that Hillel also taught us that if we are only for ourselves what are we? That it’s one thing to be able to vaccinate millions of our own citizens, but what about the others in our midst and under our control?
An unfortunate joke is not the same as a massacre in a Pittsburgh or a Californian synagogue. When pressed about the rise of modern antisemitism, renowned literati Leon Wieseltier commented during a 2006 AJC panel debate that he preferred “Mearsheimer and Walt [who wrote a book called the Israel Lobby, which some deemed antisemitic] over the Kishinev pogrom any day,” and Michael Che is not the Kishinev pogrom.
There is a strong resemblance to Jews in the Western world today with how we were in Shushan. Many are members of the dominant privileged group (direct access to the King!), and also see ourselves as victims at the edge of destruction.
Purim is our אם אין אני לי – “If-I-am-not-for-myself” holiday. We remember that in every generation they will rise up to destroy us, and we the powerless became powerful. We the victim became the victor and behaved without mercy towards others:
“Throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt; and no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples.” (Esther 9:2)
The book of Esther teaches us to be for ourselves. We should continue to call out and confront antisemitism and racism when we see it, to protect ourselves from clear and present danger but not assume that every criticism of Israeli policies or positions taken on policy is evidence of antisemitism. As we transition from Purim into Pesach we should move from frivolity to peace by being eternally vigilant and carefully discerning.
לַיְּהוּדִ֕ים הָֽיְתָ֥ה אוֹרָ֖ה וְשִׂמְחָ֑ה וְשָׂשֹׂ֖ן וִיקָֽר׃
The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor. (Esther 8:16)
May we focus on the light that we bring and do all we can to spread it.