As Purim approaches, comparisons surely will be made between the current leadership of the USA and the characters in the Purim story, if they haven’t been made already.
However, rather than delve into the grotesqueness of the first family, I’d like to reflect on lessons that we can learn from our past, to help us process the present.
It is no coincidence that Purim is the first biblical tale to chronicle the events of a Jewish community in the Diaspora whilst also being an account of age-old anti-Semitism.
Much has been written about the phenomenon of anti-Semitism. The Jewish Book Council capped their list of must-reads on the subject to 39 books. And yet, the seminal piece written on the subject precedes the Council itself, one of the oldest organizations providing continual service to the American Jewish community, by nearly 30 years.
They were written over 120 years ago, and yet the words of a Hungarian-born law graduate who instead worked as a journalist, still speak to us today like they must have done to the Jewish world which saw in Herzl’s observations and analysis an explanation and empathy for what they were experiencing.
So without further ado, the following are excerpts from Theodore Herzl’s “The Jewish State”:
“The Jewish question still exists. It would be foolish to deny it. It is a remnant of the Middle Ages, which civilized nations do not: even yet seem able to shake off, try as they will. They certainly showed a generous desire to do so when they emancipated us. The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers. Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so, even in those highly civilized–for instance, France–until the Jewish question finds a solution on a political basis. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of Anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.
I believe that I understand Anti-Semitism, which is really a highly complex movement. I consider it from a Jewish standpoint, yet without fear or hatred. I believe that I can see what elements there are in it of vulgar sport, of common trade jealousy, of inherited prejudice, of religious intolerance, and also of pretended self-defense. I think the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one, notwithstanding that it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, which can only be solved by making it a political world-question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.
We are a people–one people.
We have honestly endeavored everywhere to merge ourselves in the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so. In vain are we loyal patriots, our loyalty in some places running to extremes; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow-citizens; in vain do we strive to increase the fame of our native land in science and art, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In countries where we have lived for centuries we are still cried down as strangers and often by those whose ancestors were not yet domiciled in the land where Jews had already had experience of suffering. The majority may decide which are the strangers; for this, as indeed every point which arises in the relations between nations, is a question of might. I do not here surrender any portion of our prescriptive right, when I make this statement merely in my own name as an individual. In the world as it now is and for an indefinite period will probably remain, might precedes right. It is useless, therefore, for us to be loyal patriots…
Oppression and persecution cannot exterminate us. No nation on earth has survived such struggles and sufferings as we have gone through. Jew-baiting has merely stripped off our weaklings; the strong among us were invariably true to their race when persecution broke out against them. This attitude was most clearly apparent in the period immediately following the emancipation of the Jews. Those Jews who were advanced intellectually and materially entirely lost the feeling of belonging to their race. Wherever our political well-being has lasted for any length of time, we have assimilated with our surroundings. I think this is not discreditable. Hence, the statesman who would wish to see a Jewish strain in his nation would have to provide for the duration of our political well-being; and even a Bismarck could not do that.
For old prejudices against us still lie deep in the hearts of the people. He who would have proofs of this need only listen to the people where they speak with frankness and simplicity: proverb and fairy-tale are both Anti-Semitic. A nation is everywhere a great child, which can certainly be educated; but its education would, even in most favorable circumstances, occupy such a vast amount of time that we could, as already mentioned, remove our own difficulties by other means long before the process was accomplished.
Assimilation, by which I understood not only external conformity in dress, habits, customs, and language, but also identity of feeling and manner–assimilation of Jews could be effected only by intermarriage.
Those who really wished to see the Jews disappear through intermixture with other nations, can only hope to see it come about in one way. The Jews must previously acquire economic power sufficiently great to overcome the old social prejudice against them…. [But] if the power they now possess creates rage and indignation among the Anti-Semites, what outbreaks would such an increase of power create?
Hence the first step towards absorption will never be taken… I think, therefore, that the absorption of Jews by means of their prosperity is unlikely to occur. In countries which now are Anti-Semitic my view will be approved. In others, where Jews now feel comfortable, it will probably be violently disputed by them. My happier coreligionists will not believe me till Jew-baiting teaches them the truth; for the longer Anti-Semitism lies in abeyance the more fiercely will it break out. The infiltration of immigrating Jews, attracted to a land by apparent security, and the ascent in the social scale of native Jews, combine powerfully to bring about a revolution. Nothing is plainer than this rational conclusion…
However much I may worship personality-powerful individual personality in statesmen, inventors, artists, philosophers, or leaders, as well as the collective personality of a historic group of human beings, which we call a nation–however much I may worship personality, I do not regret its disappearance. Whoever can, will, and must perish, let him perish. But the distinctive nationality of Jews neither can, will, nor must be destroyed. It cannot be destroyed, because external enemies consolidate it. It will not be destroyed; this is shown during two thousand years of appalling suffering. It must not be destroyed, and that, as a descendant of numberless Jews who refused to despair, I am trying once more to prove in this pamphlet. Whole branches of Judaism may wither and fall, but the trunk will remain”.
Statistics can be used to tell any story, but the shrinking number of Jews in North America is beyond question. I’ve often heard people doubting the figures, as if not believing them will make them untrue. Herzl’s talk of intermarriage is also relevant on this point. How often have I heard that rather than ‘losing’ Jews to intermarriage, Judaism is bringing more people in, and by congregations being more inclusive and welcoming of mixed marriages, we can all benefit. Even though I agree wholeheartedly that our communities need to be more receptive and welcoming, it’s simply nonsense to think that this is somehow affecting the demographic trend in a positive way. It is estimated that only a third of intermarried couples are bringing up their children Jewish, and these intermarried couples account for over 70% of marriages where at least one partner is Jewish.
Our history testifies to the fact that without political sovereignty, without the ability to assert control over our own national future and provide for our own security, Jews are vulnerable to the whims of whoever is holding political power at the time, and the consequent zeitgeist that this emboldens.
There is no doubt that the unprecedented incidents of ant-Semitism in the USA should rouse American Jewry and revive within them a consciousness that, like anti-Semitism itself, the Jewish Question still dwells amongst them and demands their attention.