Today is the Jewish holiday of Purim, a holiday I have a complex relationship with. The gift of the Purim reading, the Book of Esther, that Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to US President Barack Obama threw that complexity into sharp relief.
Growing up as an orthodox Jew, Purim was a welcome relief from holidays where I was restricted from doing most of the things I enjoyed and forced to endure seemingly endless hours of crashingly boring prayer.
But Purim was fun for a kid– making lots of noise in synagogue during the reading of Esther, dressing up in costumes and eating hamantashen, triangular pastries filled with poppy seeds, prune butter or apricot jelly. As an adult, the holiday is more fraught. It is a celebration of the perhaps apocryphal story of the Jews of Persia being cunningly rescued from a genocidal plot by the king’s adviser, Haman.
My first trouble with the story centered on King Ahashverosh’s first wife, Vashti, who disobeyed a direct order from her king to present herself to his friends so they could marvel at the queen’s beauty. The Talmud tells us that the king, in fact, commanded Vashti to come to the court wearing only her crown, and this is why she refused.
Vashti, in some modern readings, becomes a tragic figure, who was deposed (or possibly worse, the text doesn’t specify) for not wanting to be paraded naked in front of a room full of men, not an unthinkable attitude for a queen, really.
That’s how the story begins. But my real issues come up at the story’s ending. That’s where the king permits the Jews to not only kill the 500 people who attack them in the capital city of Shushan, but, after decreeing that the Jews must not be attacked, that they also be permitted to kill those in their towns who might have attacked them, including women and children. The dead recorded in Esther total 75,800.
This is an uncomfortable ending to the story for obvious reasons, and it’s why, for the most part, Jewish children are told a story that ends with Haman’s execution (along with his sons) and does not delve into the carnage after.
There are many readings of this text, some sensible, some tortured, some framed in anti-Semitism and some absurdly apologetic. But it’s pretty hard to escape the disturbing nature of the ending of this story.
Netanyahu giving this particular gift to Obama is laden with subtext that is equally hard to escape.
The story of Esther takes place in the great Persian Empire, with modern-day Iran at its heart. In the story, the Jews faced annihilation due to the mad hatred of an adviser to the supreme ruler and an underlying antipathy toward Jews among the populace which he tapped into.
That’s precisely the picture that Netanyahu is trying to paint for Obama.
He is trying to convince the US President that Haman has risen again in the form of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and is working ceaselessly to wipe out the Jewish people.
Netanyahu even, unintentionally brought in some of the Purim spirit by giving us all the picture of a “nuclear duck” flapping and quacking its way through the sky with its murderous payload.
Like Haman, Ahmedinejad is not the man who actually makes such decisions. Unlike Haman, Ahmedinejad does not have the ear of his boss.
Ahashverosh was depicted in Esther as a rather weak-willed king, easily swayed by his own passions and by the whispers of those around him. We don’t know a whole lot about Ayatollah Ali Khameini, but one thing is certain–he is not inclined to listen too closely to Ahmedinejad.
And what does Khameini have to say? Well, from the western media, one would think almost nothing. We rarely hear from him on the subject of Iranian nuclear ambitions in our press. In fact, he made a major foreign policy speech two weeks ago that raised nary an eyebrow in these parts. But it should have.
“The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons…There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”
World leaders say all sorts of things, and I certainly don’t expect that most Americans, much less Israelis, are going to hear that and just say, “Oh, that’s all right, then, nothing to worry about after all.”
But shouldn’t these words also be part of our deliberations, our thoughts about this situation?
After all, Ahmedinejad has been scaring us for so long now, but he’s not the one who makes the decisions, not about nuclear weapons, nor about war and peace.
One really wonders why this speech received so little attention in the West.
And this wasn’t a one-off. Juan Cole provides us with this Khameini quote from 2010:
“We have said repeatedly that our religious beliefs and principles prohibit such weapons as they are the symbol of destruction of generations. And for this reason we do not believe in weapons and atomic bombs and do not seek them.”
And in 2009:
“They (Western countries) falsely accuse the Islamic republic’s establishment of producing nuclear weapons. We fundamentally reject nuclear weapons and prohibit the use and production of nuclear weapons. This is because of our ideology, not because of politics or fear of arrogant powers or an onslaught of international propaganda. We stand firm for our ideology.”
So, maybe he’s lying, but those denials are a lot more emphatic than the ones we’ve heard from Ahmedinejad. Seems like they should be given wider exposure.
Haman/Ahmedinejad has just taken a beating in Iran’s parliamentary elections. His influence is diminished, and his term is nearing its end.
Yet at the recently-concluded conference of AIPAC, the leading voice of the mislabeled “pro-Israel” community that is always willing to fight to the last Israeli from their safe homes in New Jersey, Florida and California, you could easily tell how clearly a speaker called for war by how loud the applause was.
How did President Obama respond to that? After an expertly choreographed speech at the conference, he said:
“I think there’s no doubt that those who are suggesting or proposing or beating the drums of war should explain clearly to the American people what they think the costs and benefits would be. I’m not one of them.”
Netanyahu is no Mordechai. He is continuing to press for war with Iran, despite there being no evidence that Tehran has taken a decision to actually build a nuclear weapon, which is Obama’s red line.
At AIPAC, Bibi spoke of “not gambling with Israel’s security.” By beating the war drums, he is alienating much of the United States and straining his relationship with a President who is looking more and more likely to be around for five more years. He is maintaining his “right” to act in a manner the latest poll shows 58% of the Israeli people oppose, and which even he acknowledges will certainly bring serious consequences on the people of Israel and holds the potential to enflame the entire region and draw the US and Europe in as well.
If Iran actually starts to build a nuclear weapon, it is a different discussion. But that is not yet the case.
To maintain his tough-guy image and to press Obama for his Republican colleagues, Netanyahu is in fact gambling with Israel’s security, as well the Iranian people’s, the entire Middle East’s and, indeed, the world’s.
Mordechai he is not. A better analogy might be Shimon Bar Kochba, also named Bar Koziva, son of lies, by the Rabbis for his being a false prophet who led a disastrous Jewish revolt against the Romans.
Luckily, it seems Obama sees him for what he is, and is no longer being outmaneuvered by him.