Persecuted or persecuting?

Purim has always been my least favourite festival as an introvert. It is somewhat just a 24 – 48 hour period of commanded social engagement. But that is relative, and I know many people enjoy it for that very reason. Each to his or her own.

However, this year I spent my first Purim (Shushan Purim technically) in Jerusalem. I want to avoid lambasting the whole time as “awful” because on an insular level – inside time with friends and family – it was lovely. That is… until I hit the external level and walked outside. Literally.

The drunkenness was appalling. People swaying their way down the street, bottle in hand, singing at the top of their voices. Spilling wine while handing it out on the train and bus. Of course, by “people,” I mean “men.” Teenagers, yeshiva students, married, old, etc. Drunk beyond words.

I know, this is hardly novel. We all know that’s what Purim means – Jews getting drunk. As I’ll pick up on at the end– that’s what non-Jews know too. But what I saw yesterday was not “Purim alcohol” but a very ugly society, and I’m not talking about alcoholism.

I saw a man get on a bus with his wife and screaming children. Before he had even stepped inside fully, he had yelled at several Chinese passengers having a quiet conversation in Mandarin.  “SHUT UP!” he screamed. The irony of his children being the ones that needed to shush was not lost on me. The one young man retaliated, but for the next five minutes that I had to endure this man’s company, he ranted on about “Chinese violence” “Chinese spreading covid” etc., etc., etc. He said it with the vilest smile and in the clearest voice. It was sickening, and when I yelled at him to shut up, the bus coincidentally rattled and lost my words in its roar.

When my stop arrived and I was exiting deliberately by him, I looked at him.

You should be ashamed to be a Jew.”

I don’t know if he heard my words, but I – me, myself and I – did. Because that wasn’t the first incident.

After suffering through unbearable, but harmless, singing (musical yelling) on the Light Rail, I switched to another bus. In front of me, there was a veiled Muslim woman sitting peacefully. Within two stops, a group of drunk men arrived, and one promptly started screaming at her in Hebrew: “you bloody Arab!” The bus was in an uproar and other men grabbed this individual as he tried to attack her. The Arab driver threatened to stop, kick everyone off the bus, and it was only with a lot of apologies and “you’re okay, driver, we’re so sorry” (like what on earth does “you’re okay” mean – what, he’s a “good Arab”?) that he drove onward.

On Purim, we talk about our survival as a persecuted people. We talk about the very theme of discrimination and hatred. We actively hate the haters. But who are we now? Are we haters? Are we the ones persecuting?

My relief that people reacted on the second bus does nothing to mitigate the feeling of fear that I have. Is this the society I have now joined? These two perpetrators of racism and hatred were not of the same class or sect, but they were Jews. I ashamed to be anything like them.

What shocked me further was the indifference from the friend I shared the second bus ride with. I had already been pleading to get off the bus when a few drunkards arrived as I was frightened, but when this happened, all she could say to my fury was “yeah, of course it’s a chilul Hashem (disgrace of g-d), but there’s no point in getting worked up about other people’s actions when you can’t do anything about it.”

I vehemently disagree. Because we can do something about it. A specific situation may be too far gone to be saved, but not the situation after that. Silence is as worse as consent. If we stand by and just condemn but say nothing, we are the persecutors too.

Maybe that’s the message we should take from Purim: we need to think about who we actually are in the “hater” scale. We need to ask questions such as: what does it mean to hate? What does it mean to be discriminatory? What does it mean to celebrate in g-d’s name? And instead of looking at our own national suffering over the ages, why don’t we look outwards and do some self-reflection?

The drunkenness and the “true opinions” of Jews are what non-Jews see on Purim. We have the opportunity to show real Jewish values – love, concern, charity, education – or to emulate our haters.

About the Author
Raised in South Africa, Tanya graduated cum laude with a BA in French and Philosophy in 2020. An aspiring academic, she is currently studying for her MA in Jewish Studies at Hebrew University.
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