We are all pretty familiar with the story of Purim. There’s the mock-worthy king who controls the vast Persian empire. We got Mordechai, a pious Jew who doesn’t flinch in the face of evil and on the other end, Haman, a sinister minister (BOOOO!!!) who holds a personal vendetta against Mordechai and the whole Jewish people (cuz why not?). And then Queen Esther, the outstanding heroine in the story who at the climax of the story is given a choice. “For if you remain silent at this time,” says Mordechai, “then relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews from elsewhere, but you and your father’s house will perish, and who knows whether it was for a time like this that you have attained this royal position.” (Megillat Esther 4:14). In other words; Esther, this is your moment of truth.
Esther takes up the task, approaches the king, has her request accepted to put together a party where she assembles a trap against Haman, has him and his family executed and reverses an evil decree in which Jews can now defend themselves. The Jews win and thousands of years later, we celebrate Purim to commemorate the story.
Megillat Esther all in all is a fascinating body of work with endless insights but the one that stands out for many is the scenario just described in which Queen Esther has to make a hard decision and stand up for her people. And she delivers, making her one of the most outstanding Jewish characters in the Bible. The question is, how can we take this story and use it in our own personal lives? It isn’t everyday that we are confronted everyday with such major threats like the one in the story of Purim, so are there really that many opportunities to make choices that can make a difference?
It turns out there are but they are a little more tricky.
The bystander effect
Imagine, for example, witnessing a random stranger in distress. Most of us would like to believe in such a case that we would step in to help, and indeed if we are one of the few around to help, it is likely we will respond. Yet, it’s been found that when we are in the midst of a crowd and others are not stepping in, we tend to follow suit. This idea is called the bystander effect and it has helped understand a few extreme cases like the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 as well as the more recent murder of George Floyd. I was also somewhat doubtful of this until I recently witnessed it firsthand. Several commuters and myself were all riding on one of those shuttle buses and we got to the last stop. Usually, the driver opens the doors and everyone is expected to get off. However, this time, only one of the doors in the back opened and a lady with a stroller was now stuck. A few of us called out to the driver to notify him of the problem. And then the majority got off the bus from the front. Very few actually lingered to see if anything was done and if the problem was resolved. This is a little odd considering this woman was pretty much trapped inside with her baby but nobody really gave notice and almost all deferred the issue to the driver.
June 23rd, 1988. US Senate. It was a particularly hot start of the summer which played particularly in favor for NASA Director of Space Studies, Dr. James Hansen that day. And he needed all the advocacy he could get for the statement he was about to make. The world is getting warmer and due with 99% certainty to greenhouse gas emissions. The following day, his message made it to the front page of the New York Times. That was around almost 35 years ago. Since then, there has been a lot of discussion and also a lot of denial. Today, 97% of scientists are confirming what Hansen brought to public attention along with predictions that include future droughts, forest fires, raised sea levels, loss of species, food shortage, extreme storms. You would expect with so much consensus and such a frightening future ahead of us, we would all be stirred enough to make changes in our everyday life. But most of us just don’t seem to be that phased. Why is that? Are we acting similar to those commuters who didn’t respond to the call of duty? Seemingly, yes.
Rationalizing the Global Threat
First, let’s start with the corporate end. One tactic that many oil companies use nowadays is a form of deferral. Carbon Footprint. We have heard the term before. It means the amount of greenhouse gas we as individuals are emitting and it was coined by the oil company BP. “Wait,” you might be asking. “Why would an oil company advocate for the reduced use of their own product?” Simple. It shifts the focus on the individual and not on them.
And what tactics are we, Jon Doe, using?
There are good amount of reasons but here are a few:
- Flat-out denial. Yes, they still exist.
- Implicit denial. One very fascinating example of this was a study of a village in Norway, where despite the highly educated and progressive population, many seemed to become numb or even defensive when it came to the topic of global warming. The reason being that the country whose citizens were enjoying a high standard of living was also at the time a major exporter of oil. In short, when the stakes are high, we seek out a rationale.
- Construal level theory. It sounds wordy but the idea is that if the threat seems far away, whether in time or space, it doesn’t really seem real. So in effect, we are likely downplay the issue or ignore it
- Feelings of Inefficacy. The idea that if I am the only person changing my difference, then what’s the point
- Politics. Don’t ask me why but for some reason, being Republican automatically makes one more skeptical.
For the majority of us, it’s not so much that we don’t care about global warming. We do. And asked point-blank, we will say it’s frightening. But like the case with the woman in the bus, we often resort to mechanisms that simply hinge us from doing the right thing.
And next up, folks…Kanye West!
Here’s another story but just as for a little background info, I have a rule of thumb that any music that I come across where the musician or band has publicly stated something anti-Israel or anti-Semetic, I change the song. I hear Pink Floyd, I change the station. Coldplay, I change the station. Rage Against the Machine…change the station (I turned off that radio, Zach de la Rocha). It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate their music. On the contrary, I adore it. But the conflict in my head and the potential support I may be giving them even in an insubstantial way bugs me too much. So you can understand my reaction when on a rainy day as I was guiltily driving to work in my car, I heard the following; first, a solo singer spookily reminiscent of Ray Charles. “No way,” I thought, squirming in my seat. “Can’t be.” Then, the singing fades and in comes the iconic, repetitive bass drum segway of the song (you guessed it)….Gold Digger, by Kanye West. Kanye West. The rap artist who has been on the news for quite some time because of his really, really anti-Semitic statements. Like I am going to go “death con3 on the Jewish people”, and that Jews control the banks, media and politics, and that he could see “good things in Hitler.” These were some unprecedented, really chilling statements. I called the station up as soon as I was able to find their number. Surprisingly, they answered right away.
“Galgalatz,” someone answered.
“Shalom,” I responded in Hebrew. “I am very disappointed in you guys for playing Kanye West’s music.”
“We will pass this on to the music department.”
“Seriously?? He praised Hitler…” Click. The line disconnected.
The incident left an imprint on me and I really wanted to get to the bottom of this. Maybe the DJ didn’t realize what they were playing. Maybe it was a fluke. I sent an email to the station and waited. A day. Two days. A week. Finally, I get a response and all those credits I gave Galgalatz were busted.
“Galgalatz Station does not boycott any artist due to their personal opinions, or any measure that is not related to the nature of their work alone.” Galgalatz Public Inquiries
Uuuummmm. Really? You’re a radio station operated by the IDF. You don’t make a distinction? Ever??
After the steam dissipated, I wanted just to understand.. Am I alone in this disapproval? And for those who do still listen to this music that I avoid, what is their justification? So, I did what any good Israeli would do with maybe a little too much time on his hands. I made a survey. A very short and direct one just to see what at least those in my inner-circle would say. And here are some of the results:
First off, there were a good few who reported not encountering or being familiar with music of that description. Those responses I removed. After that edition, it seemed that most of the respondees did change the station when encountering music that was anti-Israel or Anti-Semetic. 54.5%. And over olim and Diaspora Jews, a larger percentage of Israelis would change the station. This was already fascinating though I am suspicious how much this illustrates the larger public. However, what I was really curious about were the reasoning for those who didn’t switch the station or song.
Of those who said they would either sometimes change the song or not change the song, the majority (50%) concluded that their listening wouldn’t make a difference. 30% claimed that the art was more important. One said the default expectation is that the world hates Jews. No one said that they were apathetic to the things said or that it doesn’t impact them (that’s a relief). So what at the end of the day is the deciding factor to this behavior? Are we prisoners to our own feelings of inadequacy or was there really something to the idea that Art conquers all?
I called a friend of mine who has been recording and producing music professionally for some time, hoping he could give some insight on the matter. At the end of the day, there could be some nuances about the whole thing I am missing so why not get a second opinion.
We got right to it. The first thing I learned is that we all have different red lines. For example, just because artists like Dua Lipa say something that’s critical of Israel won’t automatically put their music on his blacklist, especially considering the type of world they may be coming from. “It’s complicated and if you’re not familiar with Israel, what do you know aside from what’s on the headlines.”
We also had some contention about Pink Floyd, whose song-writer for a good portion of their albums is Roger Waters, a controversial character who has made very disproportionate and hateful allegations against Israel and insinuated that Jews are controlling the US and UK. One argument for continuing to listen to the 80’s progressive rock band, aside from that Waters wasn’t the only song-writer, is that the music could be perceived more as a canon than a representation of what Roger Waters is today. Like Beethoven or Mozart. So maybe Art is indeed the victor? On the other hand, the fact that Waters may be getting royalties today from our listening did create some dissonance. “I probably should stop listening to Pink Floyd.” And what about Kanye West’s songs or current works produced by Roger Waters? “I wouldn’t listen anymore…. They went passed whatever that line is.”
Making the Little Things Matter
We all aspire to be better people, seeking out role models such as Queen Esther, Churchill, Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. for inspiration. I will say for one that what we see now in the streets of Israel are a clear manifestation of living by their example and not standing idly in the face of injustice. But it’s not only in these grand scenarios and major decision-making that we can prove our self-worth and strive for true heroism. It’s also in the little things in life, like noticing if that pedestrian needs help crossing the street, or using a bike or the bus once in a while to get to work. You won’t find a massive wave of people suddenly idolizing you or being put on the front page news, but it’s a start. And one other thing. Seriously, Galgalatz. Stop playing Kanye West. He’s said some really bad things about us.