From Haman to Hamas, what does the Jewish holiday of Purim teach us about fighting antisemitism?

by Mar 11, 2024Antisemitism

If you want to gain a better understanding of growing antisemitism in our society today and even how we as a modern Jewish community might respond, look no further than the Jewish holidays. 

Each holiday reminds us of God’s presence in our lives, the miracle of our survival, and  our own human agency so that we refuse to live as victims. But these holidays also speak volumes about the varied forms of antisemitism and the response of the Jewish people. 

There is the antisemitism of Pharaoh (Passover), of Antiochus (Hanukkah), and of Haman (Purim). Pharaoh sought to enslave us – lest we become a ‘fifth column’ against his reign. Antiochus sought to assimilate us so as to eliminate our heritage and distinctive ways. And Haman, with the full backing of the king, simply wanted to exterminate us. 

In each case, the people of Israel were somehow a threat or presumed to be an obstacle to the hater’s idyllic vision of the world. Each one of the evil antisemites operated from a place of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. And, to the delight of all who celebrate, each one of them ultimately failed and the Jewish people triumphed. And as the old adage goes once we have told the story, “So let’s eat!”

While biblical historians have spent countless pages exploring the accuracy of the accounts of Jewish holidays, Jews have incontestably experienced each form of the antisemitic perpetrator described in our holiday traditions: The Romans, the Arab Conquests, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Pale of Settlement, the Dreyfus Affair, the Nazis, the Arab Riots, the Farhud, the Expulsions post-1948 from Arab countries, the Intifadas, the Hamas “al-Aqsa Flood” of October 7th. 

But what do the holidays tell us about the Jewish response that helped us adapt, overcome adversity and ultimately to triumph against our enemies?

Just around the corner, Purim, especially, provides great insight.  

The first lesson from Purim is that we must be able to laugh at our enemies – and ourselves – in order to own our own story and to preserve a sense of agency. The Scroll of Esther ends miraculously (it is of biblical proportions, after all). The people of Persia wanted to become Jewish and the day that was set for disaster and destruction became one of merriment and life, light and joy. 

Because the story of Purim has everything turned upside down, we tell the tale dressed in crazy costumes, with humor and satire, dramatic music and great cheer (often induced by various libations). Humor, we learn, is a potent weapon against the absurd and the evil, and a powerful reinforcer of human agency.

The second lesson from Purim is that we have truly evil enemies that should not be underestimated and against whom we may need to wage war. Haman – and his ancestor Amalek – is embodied in today’s Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis – ironically, all backed by Iran, the very land from which the story of Esther, Mordechai, and Haman emanate: Persia. Taking Purim seriously means taking the threat of our modern day Haman seriously.

The third lesson comes from the fascinating role of Esther who was an outsider who got to the inside and ultimately never forgot who she was or her commitment to her people. She was there in the Palace at that very crucial moment when she could save our people. In other words, the holiday teaches us that it is permissible and even necessary to get our hands dirty in politics but we must never sacrifice the well-being of the Jewish people for political expediency.  

The fourth lesson comes from a related talmudic tale about a Purim celebration, in which we learn “miracles don’t happen all the time.” (Megillah 7b) In other words, we must not engage in a kind of magical thinking that naively wishes our adversaries away. We actually have to do the work of building new alliances, fighting back against antisemitic curriculum, calling out antisemitic voices in our midst and advocating for our interests in the halls of power.

We are required to celebrate the holiday of Purim – and so we will this year. While Israel defends its borders, works to bring its hostages home, and prepares for future fighting, the reality of evil has actual political and military responses and tactics. And at the same time, as Jews abroad face foes who unabashedly unleash antisemitic vitriol and threaten the very fabric of liberalism, there are strategic partnerships and projects which we at the JILV are pursuing to confront Haman-minded ideologues. 

May we all experience the joy of Purim this year and find encouragement in the principle characters of Mordechai and Esther as we renew our resolve to fight “the world’s oldest hatred.”

Rabbi Mark Cohn
Director of Partnership Development 
Jewish Institute for Liberal Values

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