Purim: The Response to Anti-Semitism

Purim represents a victory over antisemitism. Haman was the preeminent anti-Semite. He didn’t need a reason to hate Jews. He hated them because they were Jewish. Any of his reasons were excuses on which to hang his hat, but they weren’t his primary reasons.

Let’s look at the story of Purim and this will become evident. The Megillah tells us that when Haman was appointed viceroy of Persia, he decreed that everyone bow before him. In and of itself, this decree reveals much about his megalomania, but let’s put that aside for a moment. Everyone bowed to him docilely except for Mordechai who declared that he would only bow to G-d.

This threw Haman into a rage and he decided to exact revenge not just against Mordechai, but against the entire Jewish nation.

Stop right there. If Mordechai raised Haman’s ire and broke his megalomaniac decree, what did his people do? The Megillah states clearly that Mordechai was the only Jew who refused to bow. It appears, to their eternal shame, that all other Jews did bow to Haman. Why do you think they bowed to Haman, did they believe in G-d any less than Mordechai?

No, not all. They believed in G-d as much as Mordechai, but they lacked the courage of their convictions. They feared that if they refused to bow, Haman would have them hanged. So, they bowed in the hope of allaying Haman’s hatred. Did it help? Not a whit. Though they all bowed, Haman plotted to kill them anyway. Why? Because one of them didn’t bow.

Painting the entire group with the actions of the individual is blatant antisemitism. But okay, before we go so far, let’s acknowledge that Haman might have had another reason to hate them and only used this one as an excuse. What might that reason have been?

Haman was rather open about it when he begged the king’s permission to annihilate them. He said, “There is a nation in your kingdom whose rules are different from all other nations and who don’t obey the rules of the king.” Why did Haman accuse them of having different rules? The Jews went to the king’s party and ate and drank along with the king. They also bowed to Haman. What was their crime?

Haman was clearly not talking about their refusal to bow. He was talking about the fact that they were Jews. Judaism has different laws. Yes, they went to the palace, but they didn’t drink your wine. Yes, they came to the party, but they insisted on kosher food. Yes, they bowed to me, but in their hearts, they didn’t want to bow. They are traitors to the king. They are not part of our people. They stand alone. They stand apart. We don’t need them. Let’s kill them.

The Jews could have prostrated flat on the ground and it wouldn’t have cooled Haman’s ire. Because anti-Semites don’t hate us for what we do, they hate us for who we are. They can’t stand that we are different. That we answer to a higher authority. That we believe as we do. That we love as we do. That we live as we do. That our value system is different.

Because they hate us, they castigate us. They single us out for opprobrium though we don’t deserve it. They accuse us of treason, though we do nothing of the sort. They tar us all with the brush of the individual, though we work hard to distinguish ourselves.

The Jewish Response
We can’t change who we are so we can’t stop antisemitism. We can change what we do, but that won’t stop antisemitism. They will hate us for what we are irrespective of what we do. They will find every excuse to hang their hat on. We can dot every I and cross every T and they will still find excuses to hate us.

So how should we respond to racism? As Esther responded. She called it out without reservation or shame. She stood up to Haman and called him on his antisemitism. This man, she said to the king, pointing at Haman, wants to kill us. He doesn’t know that I, the queen, am a member of the people he wants to kill, but I am. That was enough. We all know the end of the story. Haman was killed and the Jews were saved.

Why didn’t Esther answer Haman’s allegations? Why didn’t she try to prove him wrong and demonstrate her loyalty to the king?

Because no matter what she would say, Haman would find another excuse to hate the Jews. Antisemitism can’t be overcome by debating it. Antisemitism can only be overcome by calling it out. As to the actual accusations, Esther didn’t need to respond because her unspoken response was resounding. Haman says we are all traitors, well you know me, am I a traitor? Just as Haman lied about me, so did he lie about every Jew. He knows nothing about us. He tarred us all with a negative brush because he hates us not because we deserve it.

Don’t debate an antisemite and don’t argue with antisemitism. Just call it out for the scourge that it is and live as a Jew with pride. Don’t hide your Jewishness and don’t hang your head in shame. Don’t let antisemitism make you believe the canards that they sell. Don’t change anything about you because no matter what you change, they will make the same vile claims. Call out their claims for what they are and hold up your head with pride.

Contemporary Antisemitism
In the Covid era, the antisemitic canard has been floated that Jews, as a whole are spreading the virus. Every community has members who are dismissive of the virus and these people are correctly called out. But with Jews it is different. Because Jews, like all communities, have members who dismiss the virus, all Jews are accused of spreading the virus.

We can argue that it isn’t true, and we can argue that it isn’t fair, but these arguments won’t overcome antisemitism. We can argue that we all have good reasons for what we do, but this too won’t change antisemitism. The only thing that we can do when antisemitism raises its ugly head, is call it out. We don’t cower and we don’t hide. We don’t hang our heads in shame, and we don’t concede the points that they make. We stand tall with our heads held high because we are proud to be Jews.

Let’s be clear. They are not attacking Jews because they don’t like our response to the virus. They are attacking Jews because we are Jewish. This is the only issue at hand. Everything else is a distraction. So, let’s not allow antisemitism to write the script. We call it out for what it is as Esther did to Haman. We stand tall with our heads held high, as Esther did before Achashverosh. And before long, this claim too shall fade as every other antisemitic canard has faded.

Not to worry, the antisemites will be back. They will find another excuse for their hatred and make it seem that it is the only reason they hate. Once again, we will stand tall with our heads held high. We will know what they are really saying, and we call it out. Antisemitism is just that. Revolting and disgusting.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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