NEW YORK (Feb. 23)
Kabbalists have long compared Purim to Yom (Ha)Kippurim — the Day of Atonement/Repentance.
(Note the Hebrew pun — Yom Ki-purim, a day like Purim.)
This year, American Jewish leadership should apply this idea literally. They should use the occasion to declare mea culpa and apologize to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli electorate.
What is our sin? It is having stood complacently — if not joined in actively – – as the media and the world piled on Netanyahu in an orgy of delegitimation, mockery and accusations that he was undermining the peace process.
Clearly, American Jewry has not yet learned the lesson of Purim as to its proper role.
The turning point in the Purim story comes when Esther finally understood what is her true and appropriate role. As Mordechai helps her see, the queenship must not become her ticket to assimilation. If she forgets her people out of identification with the power structure, she will turn her back on the Jews she left behind and who are now endangered.
On the other hand, Esther is no longer the powerless, clinging young girl who followed her uncle’s every instruction. If she continued to think of herself as a passive, dependent woman, she would not be able to undertake the dangerous court intrigue that alone could save her people from certain destruction.
The key breakthrough came when Esther grasps: “Who knows? Perhaps it was for this very moment that [Providence arranged that] you attained the queenship!”
Esther suddenly understands that she has a mission. She cannot pass the buck to her elders; she dare not turn self-centered and save only herself. She must use every wile and talent that she has to duel with Haman for the loyalty of the king. The risk involved is enormous, for the rivalry can only end with the death of one of them.
Yet Esther faced a second test along the way. Having overthrown Haman, having received the highest honors and protestations of love that the king could offer, she could not let herself be lulled into complacency.
Had Esther relaxed, Haman would have been dead and she would have been saved – – but the Jews would still be marked and vulnerable to destruction. Esther had to stay focused. She had to resist premature victory parties and the rush of recognition that she was getting from all courtiers.
Armed by memory and empathy, Esther walked away from the heady atmosphere of social climbing and universal acclaim. She forced herself back into the supplicant’s role.
Esther again invaded the king’s court, again risked being put to death for coming uninvited, again put herself on the line as inseparable from her people. Only then did she win an unequivocal decree from the king outlawing those who would kill the Jews. This finally empowered the Jews to win a victory that put them beyond all jeopardy.
American Jewry has to relearn the lessons of Purim. Providence placed U.S. Jews in a remarkable situation, able to influence the foreign policy of the world’s greatest power, the United States. Without exaggerating, the fact is that the American-Israeli partnership — of which American Jewish activism was an indispensable part — led to the breakdown of the cordon of Arab exclusion and would-be genocide that surrounded Israel.
This same partnership — and the uprising of Soviet Jews — helped undermine communism, the greatest enemy of the Jewish people after Hitler.
Still, when the Netanyahu government came to power — after the peace agreements and the unprecedented acceptance of Israel internationally and of Jews domestically — American Jewry dropped the ball. Netanyahu was elected by a substantial majority of the Jewish residents of Israel who were worried that Israel was not getting sufficient security assurances.
Instead of standing behind the new government and sympathetically interpreting the new demands as a tightening of security to meet the concerns of the Israeli majority, American Jewry split.
A minority demanded a more radical and uncompromising rejection of the peace process. Another minority (mostly on the left) turned on the Netanyahu administration with attitudes ranging from dismissive and patronizing all the way to venomous and delegitimating. The majority in the middle seemed to fall silent or resort to half-hearted speech.
It was almost as if Jews were embarrassed by Israel’s “backsliding” and feared that they would lose the “nachas” of universal approval and establishment blessings. Instead of seeing their mission as securing the safety of Israel, American Jews identified with the complacent world.
Admittedly, the Netanyahu administration was inexperienced and did not signal its true goals in clear manner. Still, the American Jewish silence — not to mention the virulent denunciations — was inexcusable. For months, the process of legitimating the Jewish state was reversed; Israel was portrayed again as the imperialist conqueror and international outlaw.
Perhaps it is unfair to highlight one attack but Leonard Fein’s denunciation of Netanyahu as both evil and stupid stands out as a classic example of the unbridled and unjustified abandonment of judgment. It was almost as if Esther forgot that Haman was overthrown but the Jews were not yet out of danger.
During this period, the Hamas continued to fight the Jewish state with terror, Egypt spread the poison of isolating Israel, Syria threatened war, Yasser Arafat continued to threaten violence even as he held up the Hebron agreement and, inexcusably and outrageously, the Palestinian police turned their guns on Israeli troops. Yet, the overall public media message was that Israeli intransigence and Likud irredentism were the problem.
Now that the Netanyahu government has signed the Hebron accord, the balance has somewhat righted. But American Jewry should be deeply ashamed that it allowed itself to be dragged along as fellow travelers in a one-sided campaign to put Israel in the dock again.
Until Israel is safely at peace, Mordechai’s words should burn in our minds. We were placed here by Providence and given all its blessings — to enable us to use our leverage to assure the safety and peace of our fellow Jews.
The lesson of Purim is that a new day will be achieved only when we practice full solidarity with our fellow Jews around the world. And only when we feel full empathy for their concerns can we find the right moral balance and the right policy.
Irving Greenberg is president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and author of “The Jewish Way” (New York: Summit Books).