Arik Ascherman

Can we be non-binary this Purim?

I recently was sent a picture of an International Women’s Day demonstration on behalf of Israel. I thought, “With Israeli women murdered, raped and taken hostage, and thousands of Gazan women and children dead from our bombings, and hundreds of Palestinian women in West Bank expelled from their homes because of State backed settler violence, the question (as I learned from Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum) is whether it is possible to be non-binary in whom we stand for when so many want to be binary. Must it be “us or them?” I would love to see a demonstration  with signs saying “We stand with both Israeli and Palestinian non-combatants.”

The Purim holiday this year is Saturday night to Sunday. Shushan Purim in Jerusalem and other cities that were walled at the time the Purim story related in Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther) was said to have taken place is Sunday night to Monday night. Below I will share some concrete thoughts on how to make our Purim non-binary.

Without a doubt the Purim story particularly resonates with us this year.  We are fighting to defend ourselves against a hateful enemy whose behavior certainly is reminiscent of Amalek, the people who mercilessly attacked us when we left Egypt, and whose descendent Haman is the chief Purim villain.  Many are buoyed by the hope that, as in Megillat Esther, we will again today wipe out those seeking to kill us. Many take to heart the commandant we read on Shabbt Zakhor (the Shabbat before Purim) “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:19)

Might we also recall that in Megillat Esther the Jews only killed those who actually sought their harm, and that many in the provinces of King Ahasueras were actually the allies of the Jews? Today also we have allies.  Not everybody who also shows concern for Palestinian lives is against us.

Could we learn from the fact that although the letters dictated by Mordechai stated that “The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions,” (Esther 8:11) that is not what the Jews did?  They fought and killed their enemies, but didn’t exterminate women and children. Even as our military prosecutor general has opened an investigation into allegations that our soldiers have engaged in plunder in Gaza, Megillat Esther specifically repeats three times that although they were permitted to do so, the Jews did not plunder.

Could we publicly work into our Purim observances this year a public declaration in synagogue that we do not identify the Palestinian people as Amalek, even if some Palestinians have acted in ways reminiscent of Amalek?

Could we take to heart the explanation of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch how to understand the apparent contradiction in the command to never forget  to blot out the memory of Amalek?

“Blot out the memory of Amalek
Not Amalek, but the memory and fame and glory of Amalek. This endangers the moral future of humanity. As long as the history books will glorify military heroes…as long as people will want to emulate them.”

And, yes, as much as many of us find it infuriating to even consider the possibility, Hirsch teaches that we are commanded to remember when the day comes that we Jews will be tempted to act like Amalek. He teaches that day is most likely to come when others are acting like Amalek towards us:

“Don’t Forget:
Don’t forget a thing if the day will come when you will want to be like Amalek, and like Amalek you won’t want to remember your obligations or to know God, but will look for the opportunity in small or big matters to exploit your advantage to harm other human beings. Don’t forget this when the day will come, and you will want to rid yourself of your role and mission as the Jewish people that you accepted among humanity. Don’t envy the laurels of those that the world of foolishness gives to those who are happy when they sacrifice the happiness of other human beings. Remember the tear drenched land that cultivated those laurels.

Don’t forget this when the day will come when you yourself will suffer from the cruelty and violence of Amalek. Stand tall and preserve your humanity and the value of justice you learned from your God. They are the future. In the end, humaneness and justice will prevail over uncouthness and violence. You were sent to herald and bring this future closer through your fate and your example—this victory and this future.” (Hirsch commentary to Deuteronomy 25:19)

When others attacking *our side” are being binary, the natural reaction is to respond in kind. Davka because on the other side so many are also binary, we need to find a way of not falling into the same trap,and playing the same game, but rather breaking the ice and thereby signaling also to others that the binary approach is not necessary and doesn’t bring anything good to anybody.

But is it possible to be non-binary in wartime? Is it in fact true that in war it is “us or them,” including women and children and other non-combatants “on the other side?” Above I wrote that today we are bombing women and children. However, the reality is that not to bomb puts our ground soldiers in more danger. That is what seems to have been the case in recent fighting in Khan Yunis’ Hamad neighborhood, including the well-publicized incident in which two Maglan soldiers were injured.. It is also true that the air force did eventually precision bomb and could have done so without soldiers engaging and getting injured, or endangering non-combatants.  They bombed when it was already known that there weren’t non-combatants on the first 4 floors and combatants were on the top floor. The soldiers could have withdrawn from the building as they eventually did without engaging.

The dilemma of the risk to our children if we observe what is theoretically the IDF doctrine of “purity of arms” is inescapable, but not always.

An additional fact being realized by more and more Israelis is that we cannot entirely wipe out Hamas, even if we continue to take the position that the lives of women and children are necessary collateral damage when Hamas is hiding among the civilian population.

Few Israelis would truly contemplate genocide, if we define genocide as intentionally killing all Gazans, despite the accusations to the contrary. However, in addition to taking the lives of thousands of non-combatants, we have allowed the spread of extreme hunger.

Thank God, the world is now forcing us to allow humanitarian aid to prevent starvation and disease. The current rampant extreme hunger is awful enough. Thank God, the world will not allow us to expel all the Gazans from Gaza. Eventually, Gazans are going to return to their homes. We may be able to set up an alternative governing structure and maintain our ability to move soldiers in and out of Gaza. We may even be able to maintain an ongoing military presence in Gaza. However we forget that before the disengagement, that led to soldiers being killed more or less constantly.

Even if we could entirely wipe out Hamas without killing all Gazans, that would not bring us the peace and security we deserve. Were we to kill every Hamas member, there will be something else as bad or worse until there is a just peace with Palestinians that dries up the support among Palestinians for the hard core Hamas idealogues who will never rest unless Israel is destroyed. Our oppression of Palestinians, including the ongoing expulsion of West Bank shepherding communities, or inducing them to flee (another community yesterday) does not in any way justify Amalek like behavior on the part of Hamas.  However, “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied, and the improper teaching of Torah” (Pirkei Avot 4:8).

Given the fact that this war alone will not bring us the peace and security we deserve, the loss of life on both sides is all the more tragic and unjustifiable. Even for those who insist on being binary and zero sum, and are not concerned about the number of dead Gazan non-combatants, it is very seductive but tragically wrong to think that through military action alone we can achieve peace and security or bring our hostages home. There must be a non binary approach here backed by non binary allies abroad.

These are the reasons why the only way to truly stand with both “our” and “their” non-combatants and hopefully to bring our hostages home is a cease fire followed up by a genuine effort to achieve a just peace ending the Occupation and our oppression of Palestinians. More or less all Israeli human rights organizations are now calling for a cease fire, and unconditional return of hostages.

Standing with all non-combatants of course includes our evacuated non-combatants from the southern and northern borders.  The only way to have a cease fire without continuing to condemn Israelis close to the border from continuing to live in constant fear and danger is a just peace combined with effective defense setups, technology and heeding effective intelligence.

Purim could be a time to signal and teach the desire to be non-binary for our sake and the sake of all, rather than the time to reinforce a binary approach. Here are a few ideas.

  1. Many have been debating whether we should “celebrate” Purim this year. Do we not celebrate given the ongoing death and suffering, or do we need to celebrate to show that our spirit has not been broken? Th Shulkhan Arukh  – the standard for Orthodox halakha (Jewish law)  – asks whether mourners should observe Purim. While thank God most of us are not halakhacly mourners who have lost close family members, many of us are mourning, and we should all see ourselves as in mourning. The answer in the Shukhan Arukh is that even mourners must fulfil the basic Purim commandments to hear the Megillah, to give mishloakh manot (portions of food and drink ) to friends and family, and also to give matanot l’evyonim (tzedakah to those in need). However, mourners are instructed to observe Purim quietly and modestly.
  2. This year we need to read the Megillah not just because it is halakha, but because it speaks to our experience on October 7th and after. However, as I have advocating for years, it is now more important than ever that read the lines about the killing in a whisper, as we read verses in the Torah about curses.
  3. Our Megillaah readings can be less raucus, perhaps without groggers.
  4.  No parties or purim shpiels.
  5. We can give a small and modest number of mishlokhei manot.
  6. We can direct our matanot l’evionim to displaced Israelis and Israelis living in poverty who have been disproportionately and negatively impacted by the war. Torat Tzedek has also been part of a Ramadan Food Aid campaign bringing parcels of food to West Bank Palestinians from the shepherding communities that have been expelled or fled because of State backed settler violence, and others negatively impacted by this war.
  7. We can publicly and ritually declare in synagogue and elsewhere that we do not believe that the Palestinian people are Amalek, our concern for all non-combatants, our desire for a ceasefire, unconditional return of the hostages,, a just peace, and the return to their homes of displaced Israelis, soldiers, Gazans and the West Bank Shepherding communities that have fled or been more directly expelled.
  8. We can forgo dressing up, drinking, or attending parties and celebrations this year.
  9. Those who drink might choose to remove drops from their cup, as we in the Passover Seder, to symbolize there is no joy in the deaths of either Israelis or Palestinians. (Or the deaths of victims of war anywhere in the world.)
  10. We can read in synagogue and elsewhere Rabbi Hirsch’s teachings and or Rashi’s teaching that discriminatory behavior opens the door to Amalek.
  11. Come up with your own non-binary ways to observe Purim.

Even as we remember the evils of Amalek this Shabbat, may we recommit to the non-binary shleimut (wholeness) which is derived from the same Hebrew root as shalom that is the essence of Shabbat.

Even as we are buoyed by the redemption from our enemies we remember on Purim, may we make this Purim a time in which without being naïve we recommit building a non-binary reality in which we will not need to fight our enemies. If a central theme of the Megillah is a reversal of fate – “nahafokh hoo,” may  there be a true “nahafokh hoo,” a turning of the tables in which we and God bring about a world in which all humanity respects the Image of God in each other.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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