Startling parallels between ancient Persia and Israel’s predicament today
Twenty-five hundred years after our confrontation with one genocidal Persian madman, the Jewish people face another – Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mad mullahs of Iran, who have repeatedly declared that “Israel must be wiped off the map.”
Tension is thick in Israel these days as 6 million Jews await the course of events to unfold. Will Israel bomb Iran? Will the world support such an attack? And perhaps most important of all: What can we do about it?
Some important parallels are found right here in the Purim story. By examining the ancient text, we can gain guidance on how to proceed in today’s frightening situation.
Religious fanaticism – Haman fastened an idol to his chest and decreed that everyone must bow down. Mordechai’s refusal caused Haman to become enraged and to formulate his plan of annihilation.
A thousand years after the Purim story, Islam was born. When the Jews refused to acknowledge Muhammad as a prophet, he lashed out:
“Allah has cursed [the Jews] and transformed them into apes and pigs.” (Koran 5:60)
“The Jews are covered with humiliation and poverty, and the anger of God is cast upon them.” (Sura 2:61)
“Salvation will not come until Muslims kill all the Jews, hiding behind rocks and trees.” (Sahih Muslim, 41:6985)
This is no mere rhetoric. In the region of Mecca, Mohammed expelled, plundered and slaughtered the Jews. Today, these Koranic statements encourage Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to declare: “The Zionist regime is a cancerous tumor and must be cut off.”
Legalized anti-Semitism – Rather than move forward unilaterally to slaughter the Jews, Haman expended considerable money and effort to get his decree legally enshrined.
Today, too, Iran’s supreme leader has laid out the legal and religious license to attack Jews around the world and destroy the State of Israel – declaring “jurisprudential justification to kill all the Jews and annihilate Israel, and in that, the Islamic government of Iran must take the helm.”
Willingness to self-sacrifice – As a descendent of Amalek, the prototype rabid anti-Semite, Haman is driven to hatred of the Jews even at great cost to himself – offering Achashverosh a fortune of his own money for the right of annihilation (Esther 3:9).
This same illogic operates in Iran today. The standard concept of nuclear weapons kept in check by Mutually Assured Destruction (i.e. no country would dare launch a nuclear strike, given that the other side would retaliate in kind and bring about annihilation of both parties) does not apply to an Iranian regime driven by apocalyptic messianism. In fact, the opposite may be true. Just as Muslim extremists have perpetrated hundreds of suicide bombings, Iran advocates the ultimate suicide bomb: While a nuclear exchange with Israel could cost Iran 15 million people, Iranian leaders have said they regard that as a “small sacrifice” for wiping out Israel’s 6 million Jews.
Psychological warfare – In an effort to reverse the decree, Esther did not confront Haman directly. Instead, she invited him to two banquets (Esther 5:4, 7) – diffusing his wrath, causing him to let his guard down, and becoming vulnerable to Esther’s plan.
Today, Israel may well be waging a war of misinformation designed to fool the Iranians into thinking that Israel lacks both the military might and the internal cohesion necessary to strike. Does ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan really believe that an Israeli attack on Iran is “the stupidest thing I have ever heard”? Did an advanced Israeli drone airplane – key to any potential operation against Iran – really crash and burn in a recent experimental flight? Do these reflect reality, or, in the Purim spirit, are they intentional decoys?
Infiltration – In the Purim story, Esther’s selection as queen gave her unprecedented access to the king – enabling her to infiltrate the inner sanctum of Persian power and save the Jewish people.
Today, Israel’s primary weapon against Iran’s nuclear program has been wreaking internal havoc: dozens of Iranian nuclear scientists have been mysteriously assassinated, and the Stuxnet computer virus destroyed 1,000 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility. The virus contained the code “MYRTUS,” a possible reference to the myrtle tree – in Hebrew, Hadassah, the birth name of Queen Esther.
Destined to be Different
One final similarity reveals the deeper root of challenges historically facing the Jewish people. In seeking permission to annihilate the Jews, Haman asserted:
“There is one nation scattered and split apart… whose laws are different from every other people’s” – i.e. they won’t eat our food, they keep Shabbat, and they don’t marry our daughters. (Esther 3:8)
Haman charged the Jews with being a disloyal, foreign element who could not be trusted. It is a theme repeated throughout history: the medieval Crusaders and Spanish inquisitors slaughtered Jews for not conforming to European religious norms; Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason, falsely portrayed by the French government as representing a Jewish conspiracy; the Russian secret police fabricated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, depicting the Jews as nefariously plotting world domination.
Today as well, the State of Israel is the target of intense demonization – condemned at the U.N., placed under a magnifying glass by the media, and deligitimized with a unique double-standard far out of proportion to its size.
The solution is not for Israel to erase its differences and become a nation like all others. We must pay heed to Bilaam’s prophetic description of the Jews:
“Behold, it is a people that dwells alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” (Numbers 23:9)
The secret to Jewish success is our distinct identity. The Netziv, a great 19th century rabbi, explains that the Jews have a holy mission to bring morality and monotheism to the world. Assimilation draws us away from that mission. As long as we retain our special character, we will assuredly survive. But when we weaken our national identity, we become an endangered species.
It has been said that “if the Jews do not make Kiddush, the non-Jews will make Havdallah.” Either we sanctify our unique identity (Kiddush), or – if we choose to erase those lines and become like all other nations – then anti-Semites will rise up and forcibly impose that distinction upon us (Havdallah).
To wit: When the Jews of the Purim story were invited to Achashverosh’s gala 180-day feast, they chose to join the crowd. It was precisely then that Haman’s slander against Jewish distinctiveness was aroused.
When we Jews falter in our mission to represent Godliness in the world, that’s when other distorted theologies step into the void. This may manifest in the blowing up of buses, flying planes into skyscrapers, or threatening nuclear apocalypse. It is a “measure for measure” consequence of inverse proportion: To the degree that the Jewish people do not fulfill our role as a light unto the nations, that is the degree that others are emboldened to act against us in a very un-Godly way.
Which brings us to a crucial question facing the State of Israel today: What is our global persona? Do we celebrate our secular universalism – rock concerts, Olympic medals and beautiful beaches – or do we emphasize our unique spiritual heritage?
Menachem Begin always kept a kippah in his pocket and, at auspicious times when visiting foreign heads of state, would wear it to recite biblical verses or a blessing. His message: We are a unique and holy nation. Far from incurring the scoffs of world leaders, this display of Jewish pride earned Israel enormous respect.
With the spectre of nuclear annihilation now hovering over Israel’s head, what can we – Jews, gentiles, and all people of good will – do about it?
When Esther was informed of the impending genocide, she agreed to approach the king, while urging Mordechai with one request: Have the Jews fast and pray for three days. She knew that in times of peril, we turn our sights toward Heaven and recognize that strength and victory comes only through He Who declared us an eternal nation.
Esther’s message reverberates clearly for us today:
Yes, we must make efforts to influence governments to support Israel’s right to self-defense (at the very least, by signing this petition), while leaving the decision of mounting an attack against Iran’s nuclear sites to those who have the full necessary information.
Yes, we must expose the media for its biased downplaying of the existential threat to Israel’s existence.
But above all, we must be worthy of Divine assistance.
At the end of the Purim story, Esther successfully gained the king’s support for a Jewish battle against Haman’s decree. After spending months in military preparations, one day before the outbreak of war – on the 13th of Adar – all the Jewish soldiers observed a fast. Subjecting the troops to physical weakness would seem highly counter-productive. Yet the Jews understood that fasting helps to lower the volume on physicality in order to focus more acutely on the spiritual self, thus forging the Divine connection necessary to make our mission successful.
When the battle was over, the Jewish nation emerged victorious. It was a time of tremendous Jewish unity, a dramatic reversal of the description Haman used to denounce the Jews: “There is one nation scattered and split apart…” (Esther 3:8)
The commentators, reading between the lines, see the words “scattered and split” as a reference to Jewish division and strife. This is precisely what gave Haman the confidence to rise up against us. Esther therefore understood that to merit salvation, her people would need to come together in a spirit of unity. She thus told Mordechai: “Go, assemble all the Jews” (Esther 4:16) – i.e. I can only succeed if the Jews are united.
This, too, is the message for us today. We are all in this together. Everyone must take a role – whether spiritual, activist, military, or combination thereof. And just as Haman did not discriminate amongst us, so too we must respect and appreciate the role that every other Jew plays.
The threat from Iran goes far beyond an isolated targeting of Israel. It’s a wake-up call for everyone. Iran has made clear that it would treat any Israeli attack as an American attack and respond accordingly – unleashing terror cells against Jewish and American targets around the world.
This idea of a shared destiny was formalized in the Purim traditions established by Mordechai (Esther 9:22). We send Mishloach Manot, gifts of food one to another, to engrain in us the message: If we are to prevail, we must unite under the banner of Jewish pride – celebrating our unique heritage, our unique message, and our unique ability to bring that inspiration to the world.