Thursday, 10 March 2011

Purim - To Stand Firm or To Look Away?



I’ve been reading Elliot Horowitz’s excellent ‘Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence.’[1] It’s inspired this analysis.


The very last verse of the Book of Ester reads ‘[Mordechai] ratzui lerov achav.’

While the sense of the verse is surely captured by the acceptable translation ‘Mordechai was accepted by the multitude of his brothers,’ a hyper-literal translation suggests he was ‘accepted by a majority of his brothers.’ In other words a minority refused to accept Mordechai. (The trials of trying to lead Jews).


Horowitz notes the French scholar Joseph Kara (born around 1060) commented that there were those who ‘maligned Mordechai by saying, ‘Look what he did to us, for he provoked Haman and on his account we would have been sold to be destroyed, slain and annihilated, were it not for God.’’ The provocation, of course, was the refusal to bow. Surely Mordechai could have just ducked his head, pretended to tie up his shoe-laces; surely he didn’t have to anger a haughty, massively powerful antisemite? Even the great Spanish commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra wondered why Mordechai had ‘insisted on endangering his own life and the lives of other Jews by flagrantly refusing to bow down before him, rather than discreetly leaving the vicinity when he saw Haman approaching.’


 The question of ducking or discreetly looking away versus standing proud in the face of a challenge is perhaps most sharp at the time of Purim. Ester is the Biblical book most ‘in the face’ of the surrounding culture. It’s uncompromising, defiant pugnacious and vicious. There is, as Kohelet might have said, a time to look away and a time to stand firm. And Purim is the time to stand firm. There is certainly something to stand firm against. I am no scare-mongerer when it comes to the spectre of anti-Semitism in this country but I am feeling increasingly uneasy at the shifting way in which Jews are being expected to look down and look away, particularly from defending Israel in this country. Norman Lebrecht put it very well, in his analysis of the John Galliano debacle in last week’s Jewish Chronicle.


‘Outbursts such as Galliano's do not sprout spontaneously. They are nurtured by a climate in which casual antisemitic utterances have become increasingly prevalent - indeed, acceptable, so long as they are couched within the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

‘Jews are held to account as presumed extensions of Israeli occupation policy in a way that, for example, overseas Chinese are not held responsible for Beijing's occupation of Tibet. A Norwegian colleague was challenged on television to condemn Israeli policy before her views on social harmony could be heard. I, too, after discussing the cultural implications of the Galliano affair on BBC Breakfast was beset by emails demanding that I take a position on Gaza - as if one were related to the other.

‘This is new antisemitism, 2011-style. The requirement that Jews must in some way atone for Israeli deeds and misdeeds is the latest manifestation of two millennia of crucifixion guilt. It is a pervasive atmosphere and one that disinhibited a dress designer from allegedly extolling the extermination of Jews.’[2]


This is not the time to discreetly walk away.





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