The holiday of Purim is just around the corner (March 9-10), and one of its main themes — the upside-down nature of events — seems more relevant than ever.
Consider the events of the Purim story and then glance at today’s headlines.
In the Book of Esther, ironies abound. God’s name does not appear even once, but God’s imprint on the narrative is everywhere. Among the highlights: Haman, the king of Persia’s powerful viceroy, seeks to destroy the Jews and has a tall stake built on which to hang his Jewish nemesis, Mordechai. Instead, the Jews are saved, Mordechai replaces Haman as the king’s favored lieutenant, and Haman and his 10 sons are hung at the very stake intended for Mordechai.
Further, in a land where Jews faced imminent extinction, it is revealed that Queen Esther is herself a Jewess and she helps save her people. And the very day of the month of Adar that the Jews were to be destroyed has become a holiday ever since, marked over the centuries by raucous celebration. Indeed, our usually restrained sages called for Jews to imbibe on Purim to the point where they wouldn’t know the difference between Haman, the villain, and Mordechai, the hero.
Which brings us to current events, noting that many centuries after the Purim story, Jews are still threatened with annihilation by the leader of Persia, now Iran. A key distinction, fortunately, is that Jews today have a state of their own to protect them.
In the Middle East, Palestinians haven’t held a national election since 2005, and Israel is about to hold its third national election since last September. Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been prime minister longer than anyone in the history of the Jewish state, has failed twice in less than six months to put together a ruling coalition. If he manages to prevail in the March 2 elections, his gratification will be tempered by the fact that he faces a trial on a series of corruption charges set to begin two weeks later. (Not that his serious legal problems seem to have cut into his popularity among most right-leaning voters.) Still, the powerful head of state faces the prospect of conducting critical national affairs while a court determines if he should be sentenced to prison. And the very real prospect remains that the national elections will still prove inconclusive, and that Israelis may face a fourth election in less than a year, living out an all-too-real version of “Groundhog Day.”
Here at home, where Jews have long dreamed of a day when America would prove so welcoming that a member of the tribe could be elected president, the fact is, that day may be near. And not one, but two, Jewish men are serious candidates in this election campaign. Yet that prospect is proving more frightful than gratifying to large segments of the Jewish community.
Michael Bloomberg, the powerful former mayor of New York City, is a proud Jew and supporter of Israel. But his embarrassing responses to charges of racial bias and misogyny have overshadowed his record of managerial competency as a businessman and mayor. In addition, Bloomberg is being sharply criticized within the Democratic Party for appearing to try to buy the nomination with hundreds of millions of dollars, conjuring up the nightmare that a President Bloomberg will be perceived widely across the country as a billionaire New York Jew who bought his way into the White House, unleashing new levels of anti-Semitism.
Then there is Bernie Sanders, a forceful socialist senator calling for economic revolution. Not only could his persona and domestic policies as president set off ugly anti-Semitism, his lukewarm support for Israel deeply worries many Jews. Yes, he spent some time on a kibbutz in his youth and supports the legitimacy of the Jewish state, but he has indicated more sympathy for the Palestinian cause than the government in Jerusalem. It should also give us pause when harsh critics of Israel like Linda Sarsour and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take to the stump in support of Bernie.
Maybe it’s not so surprising, then, that many American Jews are less than enthusiastic about the candidacies of two of their own ethnic group.
When it comes to upside-down behavior, President Trump is in a league of his own, the most powerful man in the world who consistently sees himself as a victim. How ironic that though he has been the most outspoken advocate of Israel ever in the White House — moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, clearing the way for Israel’s annexation of disputed territories and issuing a peace plan that is overwhelmingly supportive of Jerusalem’s position — a majority of American Jews would rather vote for anyone but him. Even, perhaps, Bernie Sanders, the Jewish candidate with a worrisome attitude toward Israel.
One reason for the president’s unpopularity in our community is that most Jews believe the president’s support for Israel is more transactional than policy-based, and however well-intentioned, would not bring peace to the region. (Ironically, it is the Orthodox community, whose teachings stress strict adherence to moral values and modest sexual behavior, that manifestly favors a president known for — and who even boasts of — his immoral lifestyle.)
Perhaps even more importantly, the majority of American Jews oppose Trump because they see him and his policies as a threat to democracy, stirring up nationalism and polarization in American society and as drifting toward authoritarian rule.
One cautionary takeaway from the Purim story is the danger posed to society by an autocratic ruler whose fateful decisions, from banishing his queen (Vashti, his wife before Esther) to destroying a people, are based on personal aggrandizement and whim, and often made by following the advice of the last person with whom he has conferred. The more hopeful lesson from Megillat Esther is that with faith and courage, the Jewish people have survived even in the darkest of times, and that clouds of fear can give way to rays of light and joy.