Tonight we Jews read the Book of Esther, and we celebrate the battle our ancestors won against the antisemites in Persia more than two thousand years ago. It could not come at a more appropriate time, as Benjamin Netanyahu organizes an Israeli Government whose main task is the protection of the Jews against antisemites in Persia. Again.
Anyone who wants to learn more about the Book of Esther–and its signal importance in the history of political thought–should read Yoram Hazony’s The Dawn. It is one of those stories that is generally recounted in a slightly abridged version. That version goes like this: King Ahashverosh (probably Xerxes I), “who ruled from Ethiopea to India,” ditched his wife, Vashti, for refusing to show off her natural beauty to the court. In the ensuing competition, Esther became queen.
At the time, the Emperor’s chief consigliere, Haman (hard not to type ‘Hamas’) was lobbying to get the Emperor to approve the destruction of the Jews of the Empire, and he got Ahashverosh to sign a decree to that end. Esther’s uncle, Mordechai–who was in considerable trouble because of his hardheaded independence, and refusal to bow before Haman–convinced Esther to appeal to her husband. She did, and convinced Ahashverosh to protect the Jews. Haman was hanged, ironically on the very gallows he and his sons had constructed for Mordechai, and Mordechai was elevated to the consigliere post.
And that is where most people think the story ends, but there is more, much more. For although Haman was gone, the decree–which had authorized a day of slaughter of the Jews–was still on the books, and could not be revoked. So Mordechai travels all over the Empire, organizing and rallying the Jews to fight. When the dreaded day comes, the Jews prevail, killing more than 76,000 antisemites. That is indeed cause for celebration.
The Book of Esther is remarkably modern. The Almighty does not make an appearance. Everything is done by men and women, without Divine assistance. The Jews themselves must fight for their survival, against the usual overwhelming odds. Today’s antisemites will no doubt recognize the fingerprints of the Jewish Lobby, convincing the Emperor to act against what they might ‘realistically’ define as his own best interests. And then the surprising ferocity of Jewish fighters, against steep odds, wiping out those who had planned their doom.
It reminds me of one of Golda Meir’s bons mots. She was once asked how Israel managed to defeat enemies who vastly outnumbered the Jews. “There are two ways,” she replied. “There’s the natural way, and the miraculous way. The natural way is that God sends a miracle and we win. The miraculous way is that we win by ourselves.” Esther’s story therefore recounts a miracle.
The defeat of Haman and his followers is part of the ongoing war between the Jews and the antisemites, which has been raging since the creation of the Jewish nation during and after the Exodus from Egypt. For Haman is a descendant of Agag, the king of the Amelekites. The Amalekites had attacked the Jews from the earliest days after the departure from Pharaoh’s kingdom, mercilessly slaughtering women, children, and the aged. Many years later God ordered King Saul to destroy all the Amalekites, kill even their livestock, and then salt the earth around them. When Saul showed mercy on King Agag, it cost him his kingdom. And the war continued, as Agag’s descendant Haman attempted to kill the Jews in Persia.
It has always been understood as an eternal war. In Deuteronomy we are taught to “Remember what Amalek did to you along the way…How he met you…and attacked your rear and all those who were faltering behind, and you were faint and weary…Forget not.” No wonder that Hazony says that “Amalek…stands as the anti-Jew.”
In the middle of the war against al Qaeda in Iraq, a Jewish soldier of my acquaintance sent an email home, in which he said, “boy was it ever right to kick out Saul; he should have killed them all. We’re surrounded by Amalekites here.”
There was no way to negotiate a modus vivendi with the antisemites; the royal decree had given them the chance to kill the Jews, and they intended to do it. If the Jews had not fought, they would have been destroyed. I don’t think this lesson is lost on serious Jews, and certainly not on most Israelis today.
I have many Iranian friends, across that country’s marvelous ethnic kaleidoscope. They are variously Persians, Kurds, Azeris, Balouchis, Lur, Ahwazi Arabs, and so on. Many of them take particular delight in pointing out that Persia is the only country to have had a Jewish queen. Esther. While antisemites undoubtedly rule Iran, I do not think there is mass Jew hatred in contemporary Persia, and I do not think the descendants of Agag and Haman would hold meaningful power if the Iranians were free to choose their government. But they do not have that option, and they may live through the latest battle in the ancient war between the Jews are their enemies. Their story, and perhaps their destiny, too, is part of the Book of Esther. Most of them, I think, are rooting for the good queen against the Amalekites.
UPDATE: Tom Gross does exemplary work tracking modern antisemites here.
UPDATE 2: Roger Cohen adds to his credentials for the Walter Duranty Award 2009 with this classic call for appeasing all the Amalekites. His basic thesis is that every time an evil group gains power, we should negotiate with them. Fight them? Faggetit.