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Harold Goldmeier

Hidden Women in Jewish Community Leadership Roles

THE MATILDA EFFECT AND JEWISH COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP

The focus of attention in politics seems to be on leading personalities rather than issues. This situation interrupts progress on solving essential matters at hand. But sometimes, outcomes supersede personality hostilities.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out it is inevitable “there will be competition as to who is the alpha male.” Politics is dominated by alpha males today as much as at any time in history. Think Putin versus Zelenskyy.

Media shape our perception of who is an alpha leader, good and bad. Men are more alpha than women in the leadership landscape, though Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Bella Abzug certainly qualified as alpha leaders in my lifetime. Books including The Bible and Books of Prophets, newspapers and magazines, and social media like American Thinker record events for posterity, but their attributions also shape perceptions of actors leading on the world stage.

  • Batman versus The Joker
  • Superman and Lex Luther
  • Hamilton and Burr
  • Hitler and Stalin
  • Nixon versus Abzug
  • Arafat versus Rabin
  • Netanyahu versus Lapid
  • Trump and Obama

Then there is the Matilda Effect dominating Jewish community leadership. It claims a bias against acknowledging the achievements of women; their contributions to achievements are attributed to the men. Name the Jewish women community leaders of today. We always turn back to Queen Esther and Golda.

I find The Book of Esther (Megilat Esther) one of the most enlightening stories about alpha male leaders. The story is one of power politics but female ingenuity wins in the end. The 4th century BCE story highlights the intricacies of a highly developed civilization facing internal dissent. Minimalist Mordecai versus the bougee Haman. Then there is Queen Esther. There is a comparable story in our recent history complementing Esther’s machinations; i.e., the story of the dashing, but most powerful man of his time, President Clinton versus the fearsome terror proponent Yasser Arafat. In the mix is the ingenue, Monica Lewinsky.

Benjamin J. Segal’s new book, The Book of Esther: A Commentary and History (Gefen Publishing, 2023) offers unique and traditional translations and commentaries of the original classic. Segal’s goal is to undergird the festival of Purim. This holiday was being forgotten over the centuries by the wandering Jews.

Haman was constantly seeking ways to curry favor with the king. Mordecai’s public refusal to bow to the passing king of Shushan piqued Haman’s interest. Who was this rude and defiant character? He hoped to cement his relations with the king and receive a generous reward for protecting the monarchy from religious extremists.

Haman’s plan was to rid Shushan (southwestern Persia) of its traitorous Jews. Haman may have believed the drastic measure justified to punish and forefend this Fifth Column from overthrowing the king. The duo Mordecai and his niece Esther set out to save their people.

Mordecai, “the Jew, a new ethnic appellation,” Segal tells the reader, is “a veteran Jewish leader who has made his way into the foreign court.” He launches a campaign to undermine Haman; when Esther situates in the royal’s harem, Mordecai “tells Esther to hide that identity, reflecting some degree of unease.” But the story explodes with mystery and intrigue. We come to view Esther as an undercover agent with all the wiles, beauty, and brains of a femme fatale.

She, not Mordecai, executes a plan to educate the king about his Jews. Esther convinces the king that Haman’s intentions are evil and a threat to his monarchy and her people. Purim is now the most joyously celebrated Jewish holiday. Children dress in Haman, Mordecai, and Esther costumes; they march in parades, have school parties, and read the original Megilat Esther to raucous throngs of synagogue patrons.

Segal’s book explores all the avenues and meanings of words, phraseologies, sentences, and commentaries in 132 pages of single space type. Chapter 6 reflects on the meaning of the Book of Esther for today’s Jew and Gentile, common person, and community leaders. The issues are ancient but the same today.

There is nothing new under the sun: antisemitism, ethnic cleansing, and “new societal interests in gender roles, intergroup relations, secularism, and armed violence” are discussed by Segal. Many first-world countries still face these same issues, guided by leaders demonstrating alpha male hierarchy proclivities.

The author does not pay short shrift to the questions of vengeance and revenge. He incisively discusses theology, noting that “the Book of Esther was written purposely to avoid any reference to God.” Esther and Mordecai, Haman and the king controlled all the events in this world history story. Segal supports his interpretations with 16 pages of “Notes” and an extensive bibliography.

As an afterthought of Segal’s critical work, one might recall in my lifetime how another Jewish femme fatale may have saved the State of Israel. Its towering enemy had intentions to curry favor with “King” Clinton. But the President was busy grooming a beautiful Jewess to be his love consort. The tenacious and most successful enemy of the Jewish people was Yasser Arafat. Arafat told Americans he was ready to trade armed resistance for land.

Clinton flowered Arafat with coveted invitations to the White House. But, as Sally Quinn reported, the President’s entire thrust to bring peace to the Middle East was short-circuited by another reporter’s first question at a press conference, “Would the president say ‘here and now’ the exact nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky?”

Clinton is neither Haman nor a king, but his plans “deteriorated into a free-for-all about the president’s character, integrity, and personal life.” Lewinsky distracted Clinton and the press to the extent that Netanyahu and his arch-competitor, Arafat, swirled in a stewpot spoiled peace process (Washington Post, Feb 8, 1998). The release of archival materials, Clinton’s discussions about Arafat’s conniving, and recordings of Arafat’s speeches in Arabic to the Palestinian people demonstrate the essential role Lewinsky played. Intentionally or not, but akin to Esther, Monica’s critical actions led to the Jewish state’s survival.

Three days before President Clinton left office Arafat called to bid him farewell. “You are a great man,” Arafat said. “The hell I am,” Clinton said he responded. “I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.”

In the case of the Jews of Shushan, the struggle for Jewish survival was fought between two alpha males. Likewise with Arafat. His sole purpose in negotiating was to use it as a tool, he told his followers in Arabic, to “drive the Jews into the sea.” Whether negotiating with Prime Ministers Rabin or Barak, Arafat had won for a while the admiration of President Clinton. It was two women who made the ultimate sacrifices that keep history books telling the stories about alpha males.

About the Author
Dr. Harold Goldmeier is an award-winning entrepreneur receiving the Governor's Award (Illinois) for family investment programs in the workplace from the Commission on the Status of Women. He was a Research and Teaching Fellow at Harvard, worked for four Governors, and recently sold his business in Chicago. Harold is a Managing Partner of an investment firm, a business management consultant, a public speaker on business, social, and public policy issues, and taught international university students in Tel Aviv.
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