Zionism and Diaspora Politics After Haman

It can be questioned whether moving from one place to another was anything but a short-term panacea for a wounded community.
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

We leave the Megillah with the following reality. Haman has been defeated and is gone from our picture. Esther and Mordechai are the acknowledged heads of the Jewish community and are people with great influence at court. Esther is queen and Mordechai second only to Ahashverosh (10:3). The community is clearly thriving and, if this were a fairy story, one would suspect that the conclusion would tell us that “they all lived happily ever after.”

But what has really changed in substantive terms from the beginning of the story to the end?

The Jews are in Persia ruled over by an autocratic king whose personality we know is such that he can be swayed by the slightest breeze. They have more power than at the outset, to be sure, but we have just witnessed how easily that can change. Haman had fallen and, in theory, Mordechai could go the same way.

It is important to remember what we so often tend to forget: Mordechai had not risen, nor had Haman fallen, because of any moral reason, because of the triumph of good over bad. The switch had occurred because of factors such as personal jealousy and paranoia on the part of the king, with a great deal of chance thrown in as well.

Precarious in Diaspora

There had been no institutional change that strengthened the position of the Jews in Persia. If the Megillah shows us the precariousness of Diaspora life, life after the Megillah remained just as precarious as it had been previously.

A theological interpretation of the book might suggest a different conclusion, namely that God was standing behind the Jews of Persia and that therefore their success was assured. If God had delivered them out of the hands of one Haman, that could be repeated any number of times.

The problem with this picture is that it is refuted by Jewish history. Whatever one’s belief system regarding God’s existence and interaction with the world, it is difficult to make a strong argument for divine action in history by looking at Jewish history. For every Purim story – i.e. a story of the semi-miraculous rescue of a community from the brink of disaster, there are far too many counter stories.

Many communities instituted a local Purim in memory of a local event in which the community was unexpectedly saved from disaster. But the local Purims in Spain, for example, (of which there were several) need to be seen against the larger story of murder, massacre and expulsion that represents the last chapters of the Jewish story in Spain.

Similarly, local Purims in Central and Eastern Europe need to be seen against the background of pogrom and Holocaust that punctuated and finally ended the great community story there.

Thus we are, it seems, left with the unmistakable conclusion that the Megillah story ends with a large question mark hanging over the future of the Persian community. Instead of the “happy ending” that, perhaps, we would like to perceive, we are left with uncertainty and a great deal of serious food for thought.

Inadequate response

There are a number of major questions that need to be considered in this context. What conclusions should the Jews draw from their miraculous escape?

If the Persian Jews simply draw the conclusions that life can go on as usual and that now that Haman is out of the way, their future situation is guaranteed, one can suggest that this is an inadequate response. It might be that there are acceptable answers that can be sought within the borders of the Persian Empire. Plenty of Diaspora Jews over the years have sought institutional safeguards in their countries that are aimed at preventing random violence from threatening their communities.

However, there are many Jews in different parts of the world who have come to the conclusion after a serious bout of violence that they need to move to a more promising social and political climate. Was this on anyone’s agenda in the post-Megillah Persian Jewish community?

Lastly, it can be questioned whether in the larger picture of Jewish history, moving from one place to another was anything but a short-term panacea for a wounded community. In most places in the world, a Jewish community fleeing to some new land, would as often as not meet violence in their new place if they stayed there long enough.

Only the Zionists

Around 700 or 800 years ago, Jews fled Ashkenaz in large numbers because of the dreadful post-Crusade violence and moved to Poland. After a couple of centuries of relative calm, enormous violence broke out that would ultimately engulf the Polish communities.

Jews who fled from Spain at the time of the expulsion would meet violence in Portugal, in North Africa and in Italy within a relatively short time.

Looking at the whole of Jewish history, there is only one group who had a substantially different response to the questions of the precariousness of Diaspora existence.

These are the Zionists, who came to the conclusion that the whole idea of life in the Diaspora was basically untenable. Piecemeal reforms in a potentially hostile world where the Jews were by definition, a minority, could guarantee nothing, they said.

Moving from one Diaspora environment to another that looked more promising, in search of safety, was an illusion. Sooner or later, instability would lead to violence in even the most promising of places. There was something inherently hostile about Diaspora or “galut” they said.

The only way out of the perpetual dilemma of Jewish life in exile, was to leave it behind. The exile – the Galut – must be eliminated. The way to do that was to eliminate the Jews from out of the Galut by an act of liberation, before the life in Galut eliminated the Jew physically.


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