A Final Purim Thought

It’s a strange world, indeed, when the one place in the Middle East that seems the most stable and secure is the State of Israel. This is the spring of Arab revolt.

Tunisia has fallen, Hosni Mubarak is gone, Yemen is in danger, Hezbollah has taken over Lebanon, Saudi troops have moved into Bahrain, Jordanians are nervous, Syrian officers have fired on protesters, and in the skies above Libya allied missiles fly, seeking to destroy Muammar Gaddafi’s defenses.

Only in Israel do things seem quiet. It’s the nahafoch hu of the Book of Esther, a world in which what unfolds is precisely the opposite of what might have been expected.

The similarities don’t end there. For just as in Esther, the apparently massive battles at the end of the book were precipitated by Haman’s vendetta against a single man, so too, here in the Middle East, everything was unleashed by a policewoman’s slapping a Tunisian vegetable vendor, and his subsequent decision to burn himself to death.

Once on the subject of parallels, we ought to note Mordecai’s warning to Esther, as well.

“Do not imagine,” he tells her, “that you will escape with your life just because you are in the king’s palace” (4:12). There is no stopping this crusade, Mordecai is wise enough to understand – and all the protections of the palace will do nothing to protect her.

He was right, of course. So why do we assume that the fires can burn in Tahrir Square, in Yemen, in Beirut, in Bahrain and in Tripoli, but that all will remain forever calm in Gaza City, Nablus, Ramallah and Bir Zeit? Young people there are not connected to the Internet? And they’re not on Facebook? And we assume that they’ll be content to be left out of the spring of Arab youth?

NOW LET’S play out what happens if those cities erupt. Against whom will the protests be directed? Libyans (both the rebels and Gaddafi’s loyalists) despise Israel, but they do not have the luxury of pretending it is the cause of their ills. Syria is technically at war with Israel, but no one in Damascus could plausibly claim they have a repressive regime because of Israel. The same is true in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Even Egypt.

But that would not be the case in Gaza City or in the West Bank. Should those protests erupt, when everything is no longer as calm for the Jews as it is now, who will be blamed? In Ramallah, the problems may be the result of the Palestinian Authority, and in Gaza City they are the fruit of Hamas’s policies. But surely we know enough to understand that protesting Gazans will not accuse Hamas, and marauding Ramallans are not going to blame Mahmoud Abbas.

Once again, Israel will be blamed. And when that happens, the eyes of the entire world, already focused on the Middle East and all too happy to examine Israel with laser-like intensity, will look and watch. And if IDF troops have to help quell protests in Ramallah, which is a stone’s throw from Jerusalem, or in Nablus, where matters could easily get out of control, to whom will these troops be compared? In the eyes of the world, the IDF soldiers putting down the protests in Ramallah or Nablus will be the equivalent of Mubarak’s troops in Tahrir Square, Saudi troops that have crossed the Bahraini border, Syrian officers who’ve now started firing on civilians and, worst of all, Gaddafi’s forces, now the target of a new European coalition.

No, it will not be fair or just. And at this moment, it looks highly unlikely. But the central point of the Book of Esther is that often what seems most unlikely is precisely what can unfold. And why should those protests not begin? Why should Gazans and Palestinians be the only ones to sit out the revolts, when they’ve already had two intifadas which earned them some serious progress?

And what are we doing to prepare? What thought is being given to how we might put those protests down without looking like Mubarak or Bashar Assad or Gaddafi? Yes, it is true that Israelis (including Arabs) are infinitely freer than the citizens of those other countries will probably be for decades, but that will not convince anyone. That Israel has done more to create a Palestinian state than have the Palestinians may also be true, but that fact, too, will fall on deaf ears.

Nor should we forget that our current government has raised tone deafness to a near art form. In the aftermath of the horrific murder of the Fogel family in Itamar two weeks ago, there was a chance – a small one, but a chance nonetheless – to remind the world of the utter evil against which we are arrayed. But snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, our government, in its great wisdom, chose to announce the construction of 500 more housing units across the Green Line. Whether the building is justified or not is not the point.

What mattered was the timing. By the next morning, it was the construction, not the murders, that was being reported around the globe. Another opportunity missed. Just imagine how effectively we’d be likely to handle the fallout from mass protests in Nablus and Ramallah.

King Ahasuerus was not evil incarnate, at least not the way that Haman was. He was just stupid, a bumbling monarch with no vision, no spine and no strategy. But when push came to shove, the Book of Esther reminds us, being a fool is not much less dangerous than being evil.

Purim is now behind us. The costumes are gone, the drinking has ceased and the merriment has ended. So now, we’ll see. Did anyone read the megila? Did anyone learn anything?

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

12 Comments on "A Final Purim Thought"

  • David Stolow says

    “Stupid, a bumbling monarch with no vision, no spine and no strategy,” sounds just like Bibi and his coalition. Some young Palestinians have already joined their brethren by demonstrating for Hamas and Fatah to reunify into a single PA for the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas put down the demonstrations and began to escalate the attacks on Israel in order to distract their people. But the utter failure of Israel’s government to have any vision other than just hanging on for a full term will inevitably result in Palestinians taking to the streets because the young Palestinians know that being allowed to open coffee houses and build malls is no substitute for self-determination. Repaying the now-ending period of quiet with nothing that can seriously be taken as an effort to end the occupation will give rise, once again, to a round of violence which will give rise, once again, to lots of hand wringing by columnists and TV talking heads. And when some American Jews point out that maybe it’s time to break the cycle you can always call for more Knesset hearings to eclare more of us to be self-hating Jews.

  • Moishe (Thomas) Goldstein Toronto Canada says

    Hi, Daniel, I hope you’re well.

    Thank you very much for your column.

    The recent spiralling violence – the Fogels, the bus in Jerusalem, the obscene volume of rockets on Ashdod, Be’er Sheva, etc. – evidence the terrorists’ understanding that the world will indeed identify them as just another group of social – network activists in the Arab world.

    If the State of Israel, and all of Israel’s advocates worldwide, do not get up to speed immediately, there will be hell to pay.

    Shabbat Shalom U’Mevorach.

    Warmly

    Moishe

  • Edna Shoshani says

    Hi Mr. Gordis,
    “Did anyone read the megila? Did anyone learn anything?”

    It seems that you read the megila haphazardly.
    One of the lessons was that Mordechai refused to bow down.
    As much as you claim that we have to restrain ourselves and keep the appearances for the sake of the world public opinion which no matter what will remain hostile to Israel, we are also obligated to keep our own spirits high and resolute.

  • It is always a pleasure to read your dispatches. It is even more of pleasure in this era of polarization to read thoughtful words with which I often agree and often disagree, rather than the knee-jerk right and knee-jerk left columns that pass for punditry. To be thoughtful and reflective as well as provocative and passionate at once is a great gift. Thank you.

    Shabbat Shalom, Avi

  • David Burger says

    Thank you for your insight, Daniel. I’ve been thinking along the same lines: how complacent can Israel’s government afford to be? Sooner or later – probably sooner – Israel will be faced with hundreds and thousands of protesters and will, as always, be blamed for the situation and its aftermath.
    Want to run for Prime Minister?

  • Jonah Newman says

    When will the Israeli right (you included, Mr. Gordis) get it? The problem isn’t that Israel might *look* like Qaddafi or Mubarak or Assad, but that we’ve put ourselves in a position where we have *become* like Qaddafi and the other dictators, robbing people of their civil and human rights.
    In the NY Times piece about the J Street Knesset hearing yesterday, MK Otniel Schneller said that it is a “debate between those who care what non-Jews will say and those who believe in being a light unto nations,” claiming that J Street is part of the former group and the right-wing MKs who launched this “investigation” are the latter. In reality, it’s the other way around. It is J Street, and the progressive groups in Israel like NIF and B’Tselem that are so vilified by the right, that are focused on ensuring that Israel sticks to the Jewish values that it was created upon, that it continues to be an Or LaGoyim. The right, like you say in this piece, are concerned about what Israel’s actions might “look like” to outsiders.
    We can only hope that sometime in the near future Israeli leaders will wake up and realize how far we’ve strayed from our values as a Jewish people and will change course.

  • Excellent article. The problem is way too many people whether right or left are tied up in their own ideologies, and do not understand that Israel does not live behind one big wall. We are not China and cannot ignore the rest of the world, therefore every action must be taken with that thought taken in consideration. It may get votes in Israel to say that what counts is not what the world says but what Jews does not help and the ministers of the present government are clueless as to the world.

  • l Wynman says

    yasher koach You have written something that will open up your readers eyes to the realities of the situation…at least partially.
    But let’s put it a little further. What happens if (and i pray when) 10,000 palestinians sit down on the road from ariel to tel aviv and demand the free right of movement and all the other rights under israeli law (or independence) as the jewish residents of ariel. Who will it be fair to”blame” for their condition ? abbas or bibi ? and what happens when a couple thousand jewish residents of tel aviv join them ? As abbas told israeli tv: if bibi were as serious about negotiations as olmert was an agreement could be signed in 72 hours, but bibi unlike the PA and Olmert wont show his map

  • lw says

    i think the purim logic is still at work:
    That Israel has done more to create a Palestinian state than have the Palestinians may also be true, but that fact, too, will fall on deaf ears.

    chose to announce the construction of 500 more housing units across the Green Line. Whether the building is justified or not is not the point

    expanding the settlement activity may or may not be a good idea but you are sure israel has done more than the palestinians to create an independent palestinian state ?

    well you may be right in that the years of occupation have created a far stronger palestinian national identity than ever existed before but i dont that’s what you meant and i am sure that wasnt the aim of israeli settlement policy

  • Henri Goettel says

    Danny, how can you write “what if…?” This Facebook page, promising the third Palestinian intifada beginning on May 15th, went live on March 6th:

    http://www.facebook.com/Palestinian.Intifada.

    A translation can be found at:

    http://daphneanson.blogspot.com/2011/03/we-are-coming-palestine.html

  • Stephen G says

    Absolutely 100% right. None of these uprising are presently blaming Israel for their woeful state. We need to create a Palestine-yesterday. These people have been exposed to democracy thanks to Israel and have the best chance to achieve it. We don’t know what will take the place of the regimes in power if more open to Isreal-than thank God and if more bent on Israel’s destruction than we have a buffer state between them and Israel even if that state allows Israel’s enemies carte blanche it does slow them. Let’s not have it said of Israel that they never took the opportunity to do the right thing-that’s suppose to be Arafat’s legacy not Isreal’s.

  • HOWARD STEVENS says

    We should note that the threat to the Jews in the Esther story arose because Mordecai refused to bow. Was this an act of virtue or stubborn stupidity? The rabbis struggled with this dilemma and came up with all sorts of extra textual reasons, attempting to excuse Mordecai’s seeming irrational, potentially suicidal conduct.

    Who will save Israel today from the seeming folly of its government?

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