Purim, Omar & Jewish Identity

The irony is almost inescapable.  The Jewish community around the world is about to observe Rosh Hodesh Adar II.  As Tradition tells us mi she’nicnas Adar, marbeh b’simcha…when you enter Adar, one increases in joy…It is the month that we observe Purim and celebrate our freedom.  This year, as we are preparing for Purim, we are sadly seeing shades of the holiday’s story played out in America in 2019.

Over the last few weeks, there has been a wave of controversy over statements by Rep. Ilan Omar.  These statements have centered around what many of us in the Jewish community feel range from veiled anti-semitism, to flat-out, undeniable anti-semitic statements.  The latest is over the age-old charge of dual loyalty.  With the white-noise of labels coming from both directions , it is nearly impossible to hold a rational and nuanced conversation over these statements.  What is the conversation we need to be having  and who gets to shape the narrative?

It seems that the conversation must be about who gets to determine what is anti-Semitic (answer: Jews) and who gets to decide the best way to address communal pain around it (answer: also Jews).  It does not escape us that in just a few weeks, the Jewish world will be celebrating Purim.  Those familiar with the story will remember the infamous scene of Haman speaking to King Ahashuerus in his private chambers. Haman says: “there is a populace among you that is different from you, whose loyalty you cannot rely upon…”. Politically speaking, Haman may have been the first to charge Jews of dual-loyalty, arguing that Jews had greater allegiance to their own laws than the laws of the State and the King.

Whether or not Rep. Omar understood the history of the claim of dual loyalty as a specifically anti-Semitic charge is not worth speculating. For the Jewish community responding to the surge of anti Semitic attacks worldwide, and in Pittsburgh specifically, still suffering from the wounds of the worst anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history, it strikes far too close to home.  It has become increasingly clear that all too many cannot understand these wounds and slurs, and that apologies only go so far.  Given the current climate, it is up to us to educate and engage in dialogue, without excusing or being apologists for what has been said that has caused hurt.

Whatever our politics, many of us celebrated seeing women of color being represented on the political stage. We also understand that Rep Omar’s race, gender and religion plays a role in media coverage and that she is being held to a different standard than others whose hurtful comments don’t get the same attention. For those in the Jewish community so quick to condemn and label Rep. Omar, what could we possibly gain by this tactic, except to create greater division in already divisive times? Can we envision a way to engage with her without labeling her, especially in ways that will not foster hateful language and assumptions?

Yes, the comments are painful.  Yes, the comments are shadows of anti-Semitism.  Yes, it is beyond shocking to hear them from an elected U.S. official.  But we gain nothing by failing to establish a relationship with Rep. Omar, and working to change the language of those who would label us with these millenia-old charges.

Anti-Semitism, much like racism, is deeply internalized and does not disappear overnight. It is up to us to ensure that anti-Semitism is not simply labeled with other “isms” and is dealt with as its own issue, while simultaneously working with other marginalized groups to stand united against attacks on our “otherness.” Why should we leave the conversational space to those who disagree with us?  What is to be gained if the Jewish community does not engage with these leaders; leaving the space open instead to those whose motives are suspect and potentially harmful? We know that there are many who do not have the best interests of the Jewish community in mind who are using this scenario to play out their own agenda.  It is all that much more important that we Jews remain actively engaged in determining the next steps in the dialogue.

The Purim story ends by saying that “there was light, joy and gladness for the Jewish people”.  Why?  Because Mordecai and Esther wrote themselves into the story- they didn’t engage from the sidelines. They built real relationships, based in trust, which elevated the Jews to seats of honor.  It is only through having a true relationship with Ahashuerus that Esther ultimately got him to change his mind.  This is real power. If we fail to create the relationship, then who will be the one with the ear of the leader?

(*written in collaboration with Sara Stock Mayo, Director of Ruach and Music at Temple Ohav Shalom)

About the Author
Rabbi Weisblatt is the rabbi of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, Pa (a Pittsburgh suburb). He is also a doctoral student at HUC-JIR with a focus on Talmud, Halakah and Responsa Literature.
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