Archive for the ‘Iran’ category

Cuba & Iran: The U.S. Then & Israel Now

November 18, 2013

Over the years, I have amassed quite a collection of DVDs, much to my wife’s chagrin and my daughters’ delight.  The other night, to fill the void of my loneliness, as my children have grown and moved away and my wife’s job has relocated her to Detroit, with only brief weekend visits every other week, I decided to pop in a movie and lose myself in the story on the screen in front of me.  Since we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I thought I would commemorate the event by watching one of my “Kennedy” films.  So I perused my shelves of DVDs and decided on the film “Thirteen Days,” starring Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood.  For those unfamiliar with the film, it is a powerful drama about the struggles within the Kennedy administration over how to address the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I imagine that those younger than me can watch this film and find it interesting but a little too talky.  But I have always found this film compelling.  Then again, I remember living through the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For me, the tension that this film seeks to recreate is not just history.  It is memory.  When the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, I was one month short of my 13th birthday and one month passed my Bar Mitzvah (my parents wanted my Bar Mitzvah reception to be a garden party and a garden party is not a very good idea for November in New York).  I remember sitting in my living room, with my parents and sister, glued to the television as the President addressed the nation, informing us of this very real threat so close to our borders.  This was just the danger for which they had been preparing us in school with those duck-&-cover drills.  It was just the danger which had led so many people to build fallout shelters.  We, in our neighborhood in the Bronx, couldn’t build such shelters.  While we all lived in private homes and had back yards, beneath those back yards were our cesspools, for city sewage pipes had not yet reached our neighborhood.  Unlike so many of my classmates, who lived in apartment buildings with fall out shelters in their basements, in our neighborhood, we had no place to flee in the event of a nuclear attack.  I remember so clearly, the day after President Kennedy’s historic broadcast, standing outside my house with Neal DeLuca, my next door neighbor playmate, sharing our fears and discussing what it would be like to die in a nuclear holocaust.  Over the years, many were the times that he and I played at war, which was common for boys in those days, whether we were playing Cowboys-&-Indians, World War II, acorn fights or snowball fights.  But this was completely different.  This was not our pretend noble deaths of  brave soldiers in combat.  This was a death by fire, completely beyond our control and from which there was no escape and no possibility of being wounded instead of killed.  Nor was it make believe.  It was all too real and all too imminent.  But of course, as school children, we could not help but wonder whether or not school would be cancelled the next day in anticipation of the nuclear holocaust (it was not).  We truly felt that our lives were about to draw to a frightening close and, as you can imagine, especially as children, we had a great deal of difficulty processing this.

Watching that movie reawakened within me all those memories and feelings.  Yet as I reflected upon them, it struck me that what I – and the rest of America – experienced then was probably not that different than what the people, and especially the children, of Israel are experiencing now in regard to the Iranian nuclear threat.  Granted, the threat of nuclear extinction is not as immediate to them today as it was for us during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but still it is no less real.  In some ways perhaps more so because the Iranians have made their intentions abundantly and consistently clear.  They intend to wipe the State of Israel off the map.  Up until now, they have affirmed this intention not only through words but through deeds, such as their significant material support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in their terrorist war against Israel and the West.  They have done nothing whatsoever to lead us to any other conclusion but that if allowed to continue to develop their nuclear capabilities they would add their nuclear weaponry to their arsenal in their war against Israel and the West.  They would employ them against Tel Aviv & Jerusalem, Washington & New York, London & Paris.  In the movie “Thirteen Days,” upon first learning of the Russian missile sites in Cuba, Ken Costner’s character said, “I feel like we caught the Jap carriers steaming for Pearl Harbor.”  In terms of our situation today with Iran, it is as if we uncovered the Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor while their aircraft carriers were still under construction.

With the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was no acceptable middle ground.  Slowing down the installation of missiles in Cuba, with their ability to strike targets in the U.S., was never considered an option, not should it have been.  When it came to the safety and security of the American people, there was only one acceptable outcome; the complete elimination of those missile sites, either peacefully or militarily accomplished.  Anything less constituted just cause to go to war.  The same can, and should, be said about the Iranian nuclear program.  There can be no middle ground.  Their ability to develop nuclear weapons must be completely dismantled.  They must be left with no possibility of ever waging nuclear war against Israel or any of their enemies, which by the way includes the United States.  Anything less constitutes just cause for war, especially as Israel is concerned.

Concerning the current situation with Iran, it is easy for some Americans to fail to feel the imminent threat experienced by the Israelis, and therefore to assume that the Israelis, especially in the person of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are just being war mongers; that all they want to do is embroil our nation in another costly, drawn out, and inconclusive Middle East war, as we have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is easy for some journalists to speak about how a “war weary America” is simply not interested in another military venture.  It is becoming easier and easier for President Obama to compromise his assurances of American protection of Israel and our other Middle Eastern allies from an nuclear armed Iran as he futilely strives to salvage his presidential legacy by disengaging from his failed Middle East policy strategies, leaving a vacuum which Russia is all to happy to fill.  All this is so easy for us Americans because we do not feel the threat as Israel and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt and Turkey feel it.  Indeed, we have forgotten what that threat feels like as we have two generations of Americans who knew not the Cuban Missile Crisis, just as there “arose a pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  Yet the threat remains real.  Not only does it remain real for our allies in the Middle East, but it remains real for us as well.  As for those who never personally experienced the fears brought on by the Cuban Missile Crisis, somehow or other they need to be reminded of the fears they felt after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  For those September 11th attacks were conducted by terrorists, not unlike the terrorist today whose violence and bloodshed is primarily sponsored by the same nation of Iran which is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability; one which they will direct, not only against Israel and their other Middle East opponents, but against all who they perceive as the enemies of their way of life, and on their list of enemies, America ranks near the top.

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What Do We Do About Syria?: One Jewish Perspective

September 8, 2013

Over a week ago, I received a phone call from a dear friend and colleague.  He was seeking my advise as he was preparing some remarks about the situation in Syria which he was planning to deliver to his congregation on Rosh Hashanah, should the United States take action against her by then.  At that point, I told him that I was not going to prepare such a text because the situation was so fluid.  If the need did arise, I most likely would speak extemporaneously.  However, that was before President Obama decided to turn this decision over to the Congress.  With the matter now up for debate in the Congress, with all the variables which that implies, I changed my mind about prepared remarks.  Below are the remarks that I did prepare and present to my congregation at the beginning of our Rosh Hashanah evening service.  They constitute, as my title states, ONE Jewish perspective; obviously one with which I agree.  It is not the only Jewish perspective, but it is mine.  Since these remarks were in addition to the sermon I had prepared for the evening, they were as limited in scope as I was limited in the time I could set aside to present them.  I wish that I could have fleshed them out even further, especially in terms of my vision of what actions the U.S. should and should not take.  In particular, I would have liked to address the multitude of humanitarian actions that the U.S. has yet to take, and should be taking, regarding aid to the thousands of refugees who have fled across the Syrian borders into the lands of several of her neighbors, seeking to escape the ravages of war.  I do want to acknowledge my indebtedness to the authors so many excellent articles, many written by colleagues.  I particular want to mention an article written by Donniel Hartman, entitled “Syria, Moral Responsibilities and Ambiguous Circumstances,” for I found his reflections most stimulating and inspiring.  I now share with you the remarks I shared with my congregation:

As we gather on this Rosh Hashanah eve there is a cloud hanging over our nation and the world.  It is the cloud of war.  President Obama has, in the strongest of terms, expressed his view that it is absolutely necessary that our nation take punitive military actions against Syria in response to that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.  In just a few days our Congress will begin to debate whether or not to affirm our President’s call to action.  To read the newspapers and listen to the electronic media, it is clear that public opinion is torn over whether or not to act, and if to act, how to act.

There have been those who have asked me, “What is the Jewish perspective on this issue?”  That is a difficult question, yet a very important one, for how can we gather on the High Holy Days and not ponder the rights and wrongs of this dire situation?  Therefore, I have taken advantage of the early High Holy Days and have chosen to postpone to Yom Kippur my annual Rosh Hashanah Hunger Appeal, which I usually share with you at this time in order that I can take this opportunity to at least open the discussion of how Jewish texts, teachings, values, and experiences can aid each of us in our own decision making as to whether or not to support the President’s call to action.

I would like to be able to say that Jewish sources are clearly on one side of this issue or the other, but they are not.  Just as there are those in our country today who say we must respond and those who say we must not put ourselves at risk by getting involved in another people’s war, so we will find Jewish texts of equally divided opinion.

In the Torah we read “You must not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is being shed”[1] – in fact we will read that very text on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Yet the rabbis saw a limitation to that requirement.  They tell us that even though we are required to rescue others, we are not required to do so at the cost us our own lives.  In the Talmud, in Tractate Baba Metzia, there is a case presented in which two people are in the desert but only one of them has a bottle of water.  If they share the water, they both will die while if only one drinks, that person will survive.  What should be done?  The rabbis decided that the owner of the water should keep it for himself, and survive, for one’s own life takes precedence over the life of another.[2]

In these two texts we see the core of both sides of the argument as being waged today.  On one side, in the spirit of Leviticus, there are those who claim we have a moral obligation to rescue those who are being callously slaughtered in Syria.  On the other side, in the spirit of Tractate Baba Metzia, there are those who argue against intervention lest it cost more American lives.  It is this very ambiguity between the perspectives of Leviticus and Baba Metzia which has kept us out of the Syrian conflict up until now.

But now the game has changed as the Asad regime has introduced the use of chemical weapons even though they are illegal and constitute weapons of mass destruction.  What is a weapon of mass destruction?  It is a weapon which when deployed kills on a mammoth scale, making no distinction among its victims between combatants and non-combatants.  In utilizing such weaponry, the Syrian government forces have crossed the line from waging conventional warfare to perpetrating atrocities.  This is the red line of which President Obama has often spoken.

Why is this red line so important?  Because failing to take action when chemical weapons are used because, at this particular time, somebody else and not our people, are the targets, is to give tacit approval to the use of chemical weapons in general; it is to send a message to any despot, any terrorist group, any evil doer that they, too, are free to employ such weapons against any target they so choose.  Today, the target is the Syrian rebels.  Tomorrow it very likely could be Israel.  But it could also be London or Wash­ington or New York.  If our experience with terrorism has taught us anything, it has taught us that if left unchallenged, there is no containing terrorist activities and everyone is a potential target.

That brings us to the argument of self defense; that taking action against Syria now is actually an act of self defense lest at some future time someone chooses to use such weapons against us.  Here, too, Jewish texts have something to say.  In the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Laws, we are told that we are obligated to take the life of the “pursuer” – someone who is attempting to kill us – in order to save our own life.[3]  So if we view Syria’s use of chemical weapons as potentially opening the door to the proliferation of such use, which in turn would endanger the American people, then  taking action against Syria is necessary.

Stepping away from classical Jewish texts, we also need to look at historical Jewish experience.  One most certainly can draw a parallel between Syria having crossed the line in its use of chemical weapons against its people with the Nazi’s crossing the line in their use of chemical weapons – the gas chambers – against the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  After the Holocaust, we said “Never Again!”  When we said it, we did not just mean, “Never again will we permit them to do this to Jews.”  Rather what we meant is that “Never again will we permit one group of people to do this to any other group of people.”  We have already failed in that commitment when we turned a blind eye to the slaughter in Rwanda.  And though we spoke a good game about our opposition to the genocide in Darfur, our response was painfully slow and inadequate.  The question becomes, will we once again fail to live up that pledge?  If we do fail, then we have to face up to the fact that there is a great deal of hypocrisy ever time we hold a Yom HaShoah service.

If we choose to act, what should be the outcome we seek?  It should not be regime change or supporting one side over the other in the Syrian civil war.  A civil war is just that; a civil war; an internal national struggle between citizens, which must be resolved internally.  Rather the outcome we should seek is to send a clear and decisive message that if you need to fight to resolve your internal differences, the go ahead and do so, but you must do it with conventional weapons and not with weapons of mass destruction.  We will not tolerate the use of such weapons and we will not stand idly by if they are used.

Lastly, what about Israel?  People on both sides of this issue have claimed that they have Israel’s best interests at heart.  First of all, we need to understand that no matter how the Syrian civil war ultimately resolves, Israel is the loser.  If the rebels win, then Israel will find the rebels’ allies – Al Qaeda – camped along its borders, ready to strike.  If Asad’s forces win, then the hands of Hezbollah will have been strengthened and Iran emboldened.  Yet as great as those threats are to Israel, far more does she fear that American inaction at this time will give her enemies the green light to employ chemical weapons against her.  Nothing could make that clearer than the fact that Israeli leaders from such opposite ends of the spectrum as are Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres agree on this matter.

It is no easy task to keep the world safe from those who revel in death and destruction.  May we find in this quagmire an all too hidden path to peace.

AMEN


[1]LEVITICUS 19:16.

[2]BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Baba Metzia 62a.

[3]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 72a and Shulchan Aruch 425.

Responding to a New York Times Editorial Calling Upon Israel to Show Restraint

March 6, 2012

In today’s New York Times, there is an editorial which calls upon Israel not to “doubt the President’s mettle” when he states that he will not stand by and permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons; that Israel should trust the President and refrain from a unilateral attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities.

In response to that editorial, I feel I must point out philosopher George Santayana’s often quoted statement: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” It is precisely this principle which Israel’s critics are forgetting or simply ignoring.

So what should have been learned from history?

1. When a national leader threatens to destroy the Jews, and has or is developing the means to carry out that threat, he should be taken at his word. This was Hitler’s stated intention throughout his rise to power yet few took him seriously. Well, we know how that turned out! Now Mahmoud Ahmadinejab is making a similar threat – that he will wipe Israel off the map – and he is moving forward with the development of the nuclear weapons to accomplish that task. So why should anyone, especially Israel, doubt his intention? She must act upon the premise that he means what he says and will do it at the first possible opportunity.

2. Talk is cheap, especially when it comes from a U.S. President who says he has Israel’s back and that Israel should refrain from engaging in self defense. But at the end of the day, how can we be assured that the President will follow talk with action? In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson kept assuring Israel that America would never let her fall. He did so when Egypt insisted that the U.N. remove its peacekeeping forces from the Gaza Strip, and the U.N., without a moment’s hesitation complied; when the Egyptian and the Syrian armies amassed their forces on the Israeli border; when the Egyptians and the Saudis threatened to close the Straits of Tiran, effectively blockading the Israeli port city of Eilat. But when the they announced that the blockade was in effect then Johnson announced that there was nothing that he could do. Israel found herself standing alone. So she conducted a preemptive air strike, destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground. Thus began the 6-Day War; a war which too many were all to ready to label as an Israeli act of aggression rather than self defense. In 1967 Israel thought that America had its back but wound up standing alone. How can she be expected to maintain confidence that this time will be different? How can she be certain that Obama will not bow to the pressure not to engage in another Middle East war?  After all, this is an election year and there will be plenty of Americans who will be more than ready to remind President Obama that one of the pillars of his last election was his promise to withdraw us from the war in Iraq. Perhaps if the President was to deploy the forces to the Middle East which would be necessary for the conduct of a strike against Iran then he would show in some tangible way his resolve to back his words with deeds. Talk is cheap, but not cheap when it very well may cost Israel countless Israeli lives or even its survival. If, at the end of the day, Israel is to be left to face the threat alone, as she was in 1967, then let her face it while she has a chance to counteract it.

Good Out of Gaza

June 6, 2010

Ever since the Israeli boarding of the Mavi Marmara turned tragically violent, accusations and counter accusations have filled the air like the shells of an artillery engagement.  Who was is in the right?  Who was in the wrong?  Who were the villains?  Who the heroes?  Who the perpetrators?  Who the victims?  As some commentators have correctly pointed out – painfully so – there has been so much debate over issues of responsibility that no one, on either side, has taken the time to honestly lament for those who were killed or injured.  Yes, both sides have decried the bloodshed, but to be truthful, their outrage has been far more politically motivated than humanely so.  The dead and injured on both sides quickly ceased to be human beings, having been transformed into political pawns.  Sounds harsh?  Then consider this.  How many articles and news reports or releases have you seen that actually have mentioned these individuals by name?  Names do not seem to be important here; just numbers, as though we have been keeping some sort of macabre score card.

With all the heated rhetoric of the moment, it might appear as though the world is falling apart.  Maybe it is.  But then again, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe the Arab world will unite under the leadership of the extremists in Iran and make one more attempt to annihilate the “Zionist entity.”  But then again, after all the shouting dies down, few Arab nations will really be interested in aligning themselves with Iran and fewer still will be willing to actually go to war with Israel.  And all this will turn out to be just another one of those earth shattering momentary crises, as the world, and especially the Middle East, returns to the status quo.

But then again, maybe out of this painful tragedy some light might be shed.  Maybe what today may be perceived as possibly “the end of the world” may actually wind up turning out to be the birthing of a new future.

Let’s admit it!  The naval and land blockade of Gaza is not exactly new news.  Yes, pro-Palestinian supporters and sincere human rights activists have voiced their protests over the suffering of the residents of that besieged strip of land for some time now.  Israelis themselves have expressed their deep regret – indeed anguish – over what they have perceived as their need to impose such a stranglehold on Gaza and the suffering which it causes.  Yes, Israel has presented massive amounts of compelling evidence as to why they must control Gaza’s borders so diligently in order to prevent a steady influx of weaponry which would be directed against Israelis, and especially against Israeli civilian population centers.  The thousands upon thousands of rockets and mortar shells which have rained down upon communities such as Sderot, launched by Hamas from Gaza, have been pointed out to the world as proof positive of the very real dangers that the Israelis are attempting to address.  Yet, while everyone in the world has made note of this situation, expressed their concerns and regrets, still, at the end of the day, no one has really stepped forward with any real energy or creativity in an attempt to resolve it.  While everyone had an opinion, and many expressed their opinions, still beyond the talk, people just seemed willing to let the matter stand as it, accepting the simple alternatives of blockade or no blockade, with nothing in between.

But not any longer.  Now, as a result of this tragedy, everyone, including the Israelis, are looking at the blockade of Gaza with new eyes.  Everyone, including Israel, have come to the conclusion that the status quo simply will not continue to work.  Change is in the air.  Change is inevitable.  Maybe.

Today, outside of the Arab world, the critics of the blockade are no longer simply staying, :Lift It!”  They are recognizing that raw pressure will never succeed in budging Israel.  Indeed, seeing how serious Israel is about maintaining this blockade – even at the high cost we have witnessed – they are coming around to recognizing that there can be no change in this situation without seriously addressing Israeli security concerns as well as of the humanitarian needs of the residents of Gaza.  One need look no further than at the Obama administration, which has been coming down heavily on Israel as of late and has been talking more and more about Israel being a strategic liability rather than an asset to witness such a broadening view.  When the 7th vessel set off on its journey, the United States chose to join Israel in encouraging them NOT to attempt to run the blockade but rather to allow themselves to be escorted into the port of Ashdod, where their cargo could be inspected, off-loaded, and then sent via land to Gaza.  The Israelis even agreed to permit the transport into Gaza of concrete, which the humanitarian activists claim is for building homes but which Israel has seen Hamas sidetrack in the past to be used in the building of bunkers.

Perhaps the day is not to far off when such cargo ships can be inspected at sea; when the nations of the world will respect Israel’s responsibility to protect its citizens from the import into Gaza – into the hands of Hamas – of weapons intended to be used against Israel.  Perhaps the nations of the world will cooperate with Israel in the thorough conduct of such inspections.  Perhaps, if Israel could be convinced that by such inspections, Hamas could effectively be denied the receipt of more arms, then once inspected, she will permit these ships to continue on their journey and reach the Gaza shores, where the humanitarian aid could be delivered direct.

Of course, the wild card in all this is Hamas.  So far, Hamas has claimed that they will not permit the humanitarian supplied, off loaded in Ashdod, to enter Gaza.  It is obvious that the “breaking” of the blockade is a far higher priority for them than alleviating the suffering of their people.  But can they sustain that posture?  Any gains which they have made as a result of the recent events can easily slip from their fingers if they expose themselves to the eyes of the world as the true barrier denying the people of Gaza the help they need.  But, of course, that would only happen if the nations of the world would open themselves to admitting that in this situation, Israel may not be the only villain, nevertheless the primary villain.

Violence and bloodshed are essentially meaningless.  Lives lost in this way are certainly lost in vain.  They are lost due to the failure of reason.  But if the suffering born of these recent events results in laying the foundations for a more effective, humane, and mutually workable resolution to the challenge of getting humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza without arming Hamas at the same time, then perhaps the suffering born of this tragedy might result in having served some higher purpose.  Only time will tell.

Purim: The Antisemitism Holiday

February 23, 2010

Around the world, we Jews soon will be throwing ourselves into our celebration of Purim.  We will be voraciously eating hamantaschen (Purim cakes), dressing up in all manner of costumes, reading the Megillah (the Book of Esther) while grinding our groggers (noisemakers) as loud as we can whenever the name of Haman is mentioned, having fun playing games and winning prizes; all of this being wrapped up inside a carnival – or dare I say a Mardi Gras – atmosphere.

Purim is a holiday of total abandonment to joy.  It is a mitzvah!  We are commanded by Jewish law to enjoy ourselves on Purim.  And such abandonment was never intended to be limited to just children.  Adults, too, are supposed to surrender to it.  I know that there are times when we adults can become too self-conscious or just too darn stuffy to let ourselves get into the spirit of Purim, but that is our shortcoming and not the shortcoming of the holiday.

Last year, at our Purim service in Davenport, Iowa, we had a family of adults who attended, all in costume, and it was obvious from their behaviors that before coming to Temple, they had liberally partaken of the fruit of the vine, or perhaps liquids somewhat stronger.  They had a great time!  After the service, there were those who commented about how inappropriate was their behavior.  However, those who made such remarks to me were surprised, and perhaps disturbed, by the response they received.  For rather than affirming their outrage, I told them, “No.  Not at all!  For these were the adults who, more than any others, had truly captured the spirit of the holiday.”  What?  Drunkenness in the sanctuary is appropriate behavior?  Not on Yom Kippur, and not even on Shabbat.  But on Purim – you betcha!  In fact, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Tractate Megillah, which is dedicated to instructing us on how to observe this holiday properly.  And in that tractate it says, believe it or not, “On Purim it is a man’s duty to inebriate himself to the point that he is unable to distinguish between the phrases, ‘ Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’”[1] In fact, there is a Purim tradition for adults – not for children but for adults – which is derived from that mitzvah, the very name of which comes from that Talmudic text.  It is called a Adloyadah and it is an adult drinking party.  The name Adloyadah literally means “until you are unable to distinguish.”  Purim is indeed our party holiday!

But why all the extreme celebration?  After all, while the story of Mordecai and Esther, Haman and Ahashuerus is an interesting one, it would not appear to be that significant.  Let’s face it!  It’s not Passover, with the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, and the liberation of our people from Egyptian slavery.  So what is this excessive joy all about?

You see, while the celebration of Purim centers upon merriment, the reason for the celebration of Purim actually centers upon the most painful and tragic challenge which has confronted our people, not just at the time and in the setting of the Purim story, but in practically every time and every setting throughout the history of our people.  I am talking about antisemitism; that seemingly eternal hatred of Jews merely because we are Jews, coupled with the desire to do away with, if not all of us, as many of us as possible.  Haman, the villain of the Purim story was a consummate antisemite.  His plan for the Jews of Persia was nothing short of genocide.  Indeed, this might have been the first attempted genocide in human history.  It is to this point that Rabbi Irving Greenberg, in his book THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING THE HOLIDAYS, says “Appearances can be deceptive.  Purim, which supports enormous theological freight, may well be the darkest, most de­pressing holiday of the Jewish calendar.  Its laughter is Pagliacci’s – a hair’s breadth away from despair.”[2]

Unfortunately, in our own day and age, history has impelled us to memorialize another attempted genocide; the Holocaust.  Yet our Holocaust remembrance is most certainly a somber affair.  We recall both atrocities and instances of heroism.  We weep in our hearts, if not actually with our eyes, for all its victims so brutally slain.  We are nonplused by the evil of the evil doers and we, with grim resolve, vow “Never again!”  There is no merriment attached to Yom HaShoah; no noisemakers drowning out the name of Hitler whenever it is mentioned.  There is nothing lighthearted about it.  Yet the bonds which bind Purim to the Holocaust are incontrovertible and unbreakable. Probably the most compelling statement of this connection came out of the mouth of none other than Julius Streicher, the publisher of the virulently antisemitic Nazi newspaper, “Der Sturmer.”  Having been sentenced to death by hanging at the Nuremberg trials, his last words were “Purimfest, 1946!”[3]

So if Purim is all about antisemitism and attempted genocide, why is it so merry whereas Yom HaShoah is so somber?  The merriment of Purim is based, not so much upon the attempted genocide itself, but rather upon the defeat of the genocidal plan; the victory of the Jewish people over antisemitism.  For while Haman plotted our destruction, unlike Hitler, Haman never succeeded in killing one single Jew.  Gratefully, when it comes to Purim, we have no Jews for whom to mourn.  Thanks to Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai – true Jewish heroes – the implications of Haman’s hatred were not underestimated, but were effectively confronted before any harm could be done.  And that is a true cause for celebration.  The confronting of antisemitism – the confronting of hatred and bigotry – and stopping it in its tracks before it can take root – before it can draw blood – is a true cause for celebration.

There is much which the Purim story can teach us for our own day and age about both the nature of antisemitism and how to respond to it.  We make a serious mistake if we choose to believe that this story is just about the past.  It is about the present as well.  So what can we learn from it?

First of all, we should learn that while a certain amount of assimilation into the general society may serve us well, we are foolish to believe that assimilation in and of itself is the answer to antisemitism.

The Jews had a good life in Persia.  By most of their neighbors, they seem to have been completely accepted.  One of the ways that we can tell that the Jews were highly assimilated is by looking at the names of the characters.  Neither Esther nor Mordecai are Jewish names.  Greenberg believes that these names are based upon the names of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and the Babylonian god Marduk.[4] It is not uncommon for Jews, when they feel welcomed by their non-Jewish neighbors, or they wish to make themselves more welcomed by those neighbors, that they put aside their Jewish names in favor of more socially acceptable ones.  One only need consider the names of most American Jews today to see this at work.  My name, “Henry,” is not a traditional Jewish name, and neither is my wife’s name, “Gail.”  Even most of those who have traditional Jewish names don’t pronounce them in their Hebrew fashion.  My son, for example, is named “Joshua,” not “Yehoshua.”

Nor is the assimilation of the Persian Jews at the time of the Purim story witnessed just in their names.  How much more assimilated can a Jew become than Esther?  Here is a Jewish woman who becomes queen of the land.  But she does not become queen like Joe Lieberman when he was running for president.  She does not wear her Judaism on her sleeve.  Quite the contrary.  For her, Jewish identity is a very personal and private matter.  If no one mentions it to her, she doesn’t mention it to them.  As far as she is concerned, what the non-Jews around her, including her own husband, don’t know won’t hurt her.  She doesn’t look Jewish.  She doesn’t act Jewish.  She doesn’t talk Jewish.  And at least as long as people don’t ask her, there is no assumption that she is Jewish.  Sound familiar?  It should.  So, you see, the Persian Jewish community at that time was not that different than ours today.

Yet even in a society where most people, including the king, seemed to be comfortable with living side by side with Jews, still there were those who were fueled by their hatred of us; who, those who, like Haman, saw us as a community apart from society; an alien presence; a threat requiring elimination, indeed extermination.  These are Haman’s words to Ahashuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among all the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.  If it please your Majesty, let an edict be drawn up for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury.”[5] Indeed, such people seem to hate us all the more for our trying to “fit in.”  Even though today these haters of Jews may be on the fringe of society, they still pose a real danger.  They pose a real danger because they always have the potential of locking on to an issue which gains them an audience of otherwise tolerant people.

Did we ourselves not experience this for several years, with a personality no less than Bill O’Reilly, on the Fox network, ranting and railing about the so-called “War on Christmas”?  Suddenly, he had a surprising number of our fellow Americans believing that Jews, and other religious minorities, but especially we Jews, were dead set on denying our Christian neighbors their sacred holiday.  Why?  Simply because we preferred such inclusive December salutations as “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” over the Christian-only sentiment of “Merry Christmas.”

While being at one with the general society can never be the complete answer to antisemitism, it most certainly can be part of the solution.  We must remember that Mordecai was not just a good Jew.  He also was a good Persian.  Remember that it was Mordecai who uncovered the plot to assassinate King Ahashuerus.  He literally saved the king’s life, and for that he was rewarded, much to Haman’s chagrin.  But more than the reward he received at the time, it was his actions and his proven loyalty, as well as the love and loyalty of Queen Esther, which sowed the seeds for Haman’s undoing.  If Jews are to have any hope of safety in a society, then they must prove themselves, time and again, to be good citizens who contribute to well being of all.

Purim also teaches us that we must take the threats of antisemites seriously.  When Mordecai reported to Queen Esther Haman’s dark plot against our people, it would have been easy for her, in the safety of the royal palace, to tell him that he was blowing the situation way out of proportion; that it was inconceivable that Haman could ever achieve his goal.  There are still plenty of Jews today who would respond that way.  “I don’t want to rock the boat.  I don’t want to put myself at risk, simply because I am Jewish.”  Sad to say, this was the response of too many American Jews to the Holocaust, while it was happening.  Their fears for their own security kept them from protesting and from demanding that the United States open its doors to Jewish refugees; to demanding that the Allies bomb the extermination facilities.  If they had done so, God knows how many of our Europeans brothers and sisters would have been saved.  But they failed, and we know the results of their failure.

Esther, rather than hiding in the safety and security of the royal palace, chose to take Haman’s threat seriously; so much so that she took great personal risk in confronting and subduing it.  As a result, our people were saved.

Like Esther and Mordecai, the rabbis of the Talmud understood:  “Kawl Yisraeil aravim zeh ba-zeh” – “All Jews are responsible for each other.”[6] First and foremost, we are Jews, and as such, we need to take care of each other.  It is foolishness for we Jews to think that we can dissociate ourselves from our fellow Jews and from the challenges they face.  For in the end, those challenges will engulf us all, even if we try to hide from them in the deepest, darkest places, or for that matter, in the palace of the king.

Today, in Iran, there is yet another Haman, making similar threats – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  He has been seriously pursuing the production of nuclear weapons, coupled with unabashedly announcing his goal of using those weapons for the total elimination of the State of Israel.  He has proudly proclaims that “Israel must be wiped off the map!”  If we have learned anything from the Purim story – from the actions and the courage of Mordecai and Esther – then it is that it is imperative to take seriously those who make such threats, and to act according so as to insure that such plots never come to fruition.

Mordecai and Esther took Haman’s threats seriously, and they nipped his genocidal plan in the bud, and therefore we celebrate at Purim.  On the other hand, far too many refused to take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late, and therefore we mourn on Yom HaShoah.  Today, there are those, like Ahmadinejad, and Hamas, and Hezbollah, and a frightening number of Neo-Nazi hate groups, who continue in the tradition of Haman, threatening to extinguish the existence of the Jewish people.  The sad and hard truth is that once antisemitism is unleashed in a society, we Jews have little choice.   We have to be willing to fight long and hard to eradicate it.  And that job is not just the job of any one Jew or any one group of Jews.  It is the job of all Jews.  It is our job.  We have to do it.  We cannot stand by silently, waiting for the threatened danger to disappear like a cloud of smoke.  For it is not a cloud of smoke.  It is tangible.  It is lethal.  And it will remain so unless we act to dismantle it.   To such threats, Purim challenges us to respond in the manner of Mordecai and Esther, for the future of our people is in our hands.  In the years to come, will the nature of our response to such antisemitism give rise to another Purim celebration or another Yom HaShoah memorial?


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillot 7b.

[2] Greenberg, Rabbi Irving, THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING WITH THE HOLIDAYS, p. 224.

[3] Conot, Robert E., JUSTICE AT NUREMBERG, p. 506.

[4] Greenberg, 227.

[5] ESTHER 3:8-9.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shevuot 39a.