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Haman and the Jewish Question – Still Relevant Today

No other book in Tanakh is as suggestive of vulnerability of Jewish community to foibles and malice of internal politics as Megillat Esther.
Noam Zion, Steve Israel
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Steve Israel

One of the best-known passages in the Megillah is Haman’s description of the Jews to Ahashverosh in Esther 3:8.

There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the nations in all the provinces of your kingdom, who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws. [It is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them].

It has been noted correctly that this is an interesting mix of the truth, half truth and falsehood. As the comment proceeds, it descends increasingly into the realm of the false.

It is clear why the sentence has received so much comment through the ages. Not only does it contain the true seeds of the Jewish dilemma as a minority group in a majority culture, but it also contains the basis of many anti-Jewish accusations that have been made throughout the ages. Many of the commentaries that have been written on the verse have indeed tended to reflect the timeless nature of Haman’s remark by making reference to contemporary situations and contemporary charges.

Dependence on ‘court Jew’

There is no other book in the Tanakh that is so suggestive of the vulnerability of the Jewish community to the foibles and malice of internal politics as the book of Esther. The dependence on the courtier Jew and his influence at court was clearly relevant for the long period of Diaspora history right up to the beginning of the modern democratic age

In the age of reason and liberal democratization there was a hope that politics would be more rational and ethical and that individuals would be judged as individuals. The defeat of both Nazism and Soviet communism reinforced that hope.

However, the rise of anti-Semitism in new and old international forms and the revival of particularistic nationalism and fundamentalist religious groups have raised old issues once thought to be on the wane. Politics of ego, self-interest and manipulation seem as vital as ever underneath the facade of democracy.

Therefore, the predicament described in the Megillah seems again hauntingly relevant for our period, when Jews are active in shaping the democratic politics in the West and in the UN. On one hand, Jews must contend for influence in world where ego and self-interest are the rule; on the other they must face renewed malice and virulent propaganda from anti-Semitic forces (right-wing white supremacists, Black Muslims, New Left, radical feminists, radical and even moderate Muslim nations in the United Nations that shape Third World opinion, media and Western policymaking).

Megillah a prism

Not only are minority Jewish communities exposed, but the whole State of Israel begins to look vulnerable to the same kind of politics that brought Haman to power.

The real threat of terrorist violence, as well as genocidal war, requires constant struggles over image, as well as coalition building. For these reasons, the Megillah is an excellent prism to examine certain dilemmas of Diaspora living that have bothered Jews throughout the world and in certain ways, continue to bother the Jewish world today.

The State of Israel does not seem to be exempt from these issues as a tiny nation-sate within a system of nation-states and dependent on the outcome of regular elections in the United States and constant opinion polls that shape and are shaped by the media.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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