The Purim Hubris of Benjamin Netanyahu

To many American Jews, the story of Purim in Ketuvim’s Megillah of Esther echoes the central narrative shared by Passover, Hanukkah, and Jewish history – a narrative of powerlessness and victimhood. Haman, the right-hand man to King Achashveros, tries to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire until his plan is ultimately foiled by the brave Mordechai and his cousin, Esther. As the joke about all Jewish holidays goes, “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat”. When the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, addressed Congress today about a new Persian threat – the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran – he invoked this age-old Purim narrative.

But the story of Purim actually ends with a much darker twist that Netanyahu did not mention. After Mordechai and Esther save the Jews from massacre by earning the sympathy of King Achashveros, the Jews over-retaliate in self-defense with a massacre of their own that leaves seventy-five thousand Persians dead and Haman’s ten sons hanging by the gallows. Purim is ultimately not only a story of Jewish powerlessness, but also a story at its end about the ethical test of Jewish power.

The Purim ending too often escapes our holiday conversation, yet it is more relevant today than ever before. Anti-semitism still thrives, but most Jews enjoy more prosperity and power now than ever. In America, where my grandparents once faced institiutionalized anti-semitism in college admissions and country clubs, American Jews now enjoy astounding success and privilege. This rapid power reversal is nowhere clearer than in Israel, where Jewish communities lived for centuries under the oppression of their rulers and the state once faced enemies on all sides, struggling just to survive. Today, while Israel remains vulnerable, it has rapidly become a technological powerhouse that enjoys remarkable military superiority, peace treaties with two of its neighbors, and offers for peace from all other Arab League nations in exchange for Palestinian peace in return.

With the Jewish state’s newfound power came the opportunity today for its Prime Minister to speak before the world’s most powerful legislative body. Instead of constructively offering peaceful alternatives to the Iranian nuclear issue, he abused the platform with hubris and disrespect toward our President and our political system. Moreover, as the Jewish state has grown from weakness to strength, Netanyahu’s unethical version of Zionism – a maximalist, uncompromising Zionism – has grown with it, corroding Israel’s reputation, democracy, and moral foundation.

Netanyahu’s concern about Iran is sincere and justified – indeed, there is a genuine and vibrant debate about how best to prevent a nuclear Iran. But his speech, widely dismissed as a re-election tool and concocted with Republican Speaker John Boehner behind the President and the Democrats’ backs, brought his cause more harm than good.

He has blatantly used Congress as his campaign prop before, but he even scheduled this speech just two weeks before Israeli elections at 11:00 AM so that, when broadcast through his campaign website, it would be during Israeli primetime.  The speech eroded the bipartisanship of the US-Israel relationship, and the alienation felt by many of my own divided pro-Israel friends echoed the condemnation he earned from Israeli intelligence and military officials, Jewish members of Congress, Knesset members, and former Israeli Ambassadors to the US alike.

Netanyahu could have used his unique power to speak here to effectively improve diplomacy with Iran, speaking at the right time in the right way. Instead, he actually undermined efforts to improve that diplomacy by using his power for political theater.

This speech is only one recent piece of the greater problem from Netanyahu at hand. Like the Jews in the Megillah of Esther, the greatest threat to the Jewish state today is not only external destruction from a Persian enemy, but also second to that an internal ethical destruction – in this case, from Israel’s continued hold since 1967 over the Palestinian territories and the Palestinian people.

I was born into a world where Israel, guided by the Zionism of Yitzhak Rabin, was the true partner for peace while Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Now, it is Netanyahu who pays empty lip service to the two-state solution in America while making Facebook posts criticizing it in Hebrew, setting unprecedented roadblocks to negotiations, and refusing to even look at a map when he finally does negotiate. When he finally relented under pressure in 2009 and endorsed the theoretical idea of a two-state peace agreement, his Chief of Domestic Security and his own father both acknowledged that Netanyahu endlessly watered down his statement of “support” because he never believed in such a peace agreement in the first place.

The Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank, which Netanyahu’s administration has heavily subsidized and supported, has driven Israel into diplomatic isolation and perpetuated the right-wing Zionist dream of making a two-state solution no longer possible. Its effect on the psyche, democracy, and security of Israel is anithetitcal to the Zionism of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin that I still share and cherish today.

The Jewish state remains as vulnerable from Iran as the Jewish people once were from Haman. But as Israelis decide in two weeks whether to re-elect Netanyahu and American Jews grapple this week with his abuse of power for political gain at the US-Israel alliance’s cost, the Jewish state and its supporters have a moral obligation to use our historically unprecedented influence to voice our disapproval.

The Jewish people of the Purim story eventually earned the favor of King Achashveros and saved themselves from annihalation, only to be plagued by the intoxication of their own newfound power. We must choose instead to thoughtfully use our newfound influence for good so that the true Zionism of the Jewish people is restored – an Israel, secure in its power and bipartisan alliance with America, that ensures peace, democracy, and justice for all.

Queen Esther felt torn between her unconditional love for Israel, her Jewish values, and her national identity. As a pro-Israel American Jew, Benjamin Netanyahu shouldn’t make me feel the same.

About the Author
Jacob is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently serves as Chair of Penn Hillel's Israel Sector and as a contributing guest columnist at
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