Commentary Magazine


The Purim Parallels

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often deploys historical analogies to help other world leaders understand the mindset of the Jewish people when faced with current threats or challenges. Tomorrow is Purim, the story of which Netanyahu brings up this time of year, each year, because of certain (mostly geographic) parallels.

The story begins on an alarming note when the evil Haman engineers a decree from the king he serves, Ahasuerus of Persia, calling for the annihilation of the empire’s Jews. The story ends with the humble Mordechai saving the king’s life and Queen Esther convincing her husband the king to sign a second decree discouraging the slaughter of the Jews and allowing and enabling the Jews to defend themselves against anyone who still attempted to carry out their annihilation. Esther, who was Jewish, fasted before making this request of the king, and so we fast today, the day before Purim, in solemn recognition both of Esther’s fast and the close call. But the point of the story and of Netanyahu’s decision to give President Obama a copy of the Book of Esther have been slightly misinterpreted.

First, the story of Purim is not about the “defeat” of the Persian empire, per se. Indeed, Mordechai went on to serve in the administration of Ahasuerus, and Esther remained the queen. Nor is it a story about Jewish power—the Jews needed the king to enable their self-defense, and the prayer and material deprivation of Jewish fast days is about faith and divine providence, not proud self-reliance. That’s why the primary purpose of raising the Purim analogy is to elucidate the differences. The Economist doesn’t like Netanyahu’s use of the Purim story and is tiring of his “Auschwitz complex,” as the magazine refers to it in a post on its Democracy in America blog.

“Mr Netanyahu is less attractive than Esther, but he seems to be wooing Mr. Obama and the American public just as effectively,” the Economist writes in a clumsy and undercooked metaphor of its own. The magazine faults Netanyahu for saying the following:

After all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state, to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. That’s why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains master of its fate.

“News flash: Israel is not master of its fate,” the Economist interrupts. But neither, it says, is the United States–or Britain, Serbia, China, or Sweden. And that’s just fine. But that misses the point. It’s true that Israel isn’t, in the literal sense, the master of its own fate. Part of the lesson of Purim is about faith. But Netanyahu doesn’t mean Israel is in total control of everyone’s actions. In a January article for the New York Times Magazine, Ronen Bergman asked Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak about those within the Israeli military and political establishment who vocally oppose a strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. Barak offered a memorable response:

It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions. But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.

Another way of saying this would be the old Hebrew National slogan: “We answer to a higher authority.” The Economist calls this the “ghetto mentality,” and says Netanyahu’s gift to Obama of the Book of Esther proves “he’s still in it.” But the Economist gives the game away when faulting Netanyahu for Israel’s siege mentality, claiming “As prime minister in the late 1990s, he did more than any other Israeli leader to destroy the peace process.” The Economist elaborates:

Violent clashes and provocations erupted whenever the peace process seemed on the verge of concrete steps forward; the most charitable spin would be that the Israelis failed to exercise the restraint they might have shown in retaliating against Palestinian terrorism, had they been truly interested in progress towards a two-state solution.

That paragraph says it all. When the peace process gained momentum, the Palestinians engaged in terrorism to destroy the process. But “the most charitable spin” is that Netanyahu deserves blame for not rolling over. Even the Economist’s phrasing tells you where they are coming from: “the most charitable spin” is a dismissive way of saying “attempting to see the other side’s point of view.” But the Economist prejudges that view. It’s spin–no matter what it is, it’s spin.

Doubtless that same hostility will be displayed toward Netanyahu if one day the Economist wakes up to the news that Iran’s nuclear installations have been reduced to rubble. And that will be a sign that Netanyahu didn’t give Obama the Book of Esther as a map to the current reality. He will have been reminding the president of just the opposite: this time, the decree allowing and enabling the Jews to defend themselves won’t be signed, sealed, and delivered in a foreign capital.

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