Todd L. Pittinsky

Queen Esther and the IDF

The Jewish holiday of Purim, starting Saturday evening, centers on the biblical Book of Esther. Set during the Persian Empire (modern-day Iran), the story recounts how King Ahasuerus marries the beautiful Esther unaware of her Jewish identity. Haman, a wicked royal advisor, hatches a heinous plot to have all Jews slaughtered in a one-day genocide, and convinces the King to agree. Esther discovers this plan and bravely reveals to the King that she is Jewish. The King, furious with Haman, has him hanged. However, the decree calling for genocide remains in effect, as the King is unwilling to publicly reverse himself. At Esther’s urging, the King issues another decree granting the Jews the right to defend themselves. On the appointed day for their genocide, the Jews rise, fight back, and some 75,000 Persians are killed. To further ensure the safety of her people, Esther convinces the King to have all ten of Haman’s sons publicly hanged, so that his lineage—and threat—will end.

The Purim story is one of stunning reversals, none more consequential than Esther’s transition from passivity to action. She begins the story an abandoned orphan. She is taken in by her cousin, Mordecai. She is instructed, by Mordecia, how to win the King’s favor. She is chosen to be Queen. She obeys the court protocols and follows Mordecai’s counsel to conceal her Jewish identity. But once Esther learns of Haman’s plot, she is—through to the story’s conclusion—all action. She visits the King uninvited, an act that—even for the Queen—is punishable by death. She makes plans she then skillfully carries out. She orchestrates the hanging of Haman and then his sons. The Book of Esther is unique in the Hebrew Bible; it has no direct references to G-d. This underscores Esther’s transition from passivity to action, obedience to agency.

But does Esther undergo a more problematic transition as well? Up to the moment at which she gets the King to let the Jews defend themselves, Esther is clearly all hero. But then, at the end, comes the death count of the Persians. While undeniably heroic in saving her people, is she a hero? Does Esther’s support for violence in the defense of her people cross the very thin line between justice and vengeance, self-defense and aggression?

Jews talked of and argued about and prayed for a homeland since they were first exiled from their ancestral homeland, Israel. But it was not until Zionists acted on scale that Jews again had both a country and the military ability to defend themselves.

Today, the great majority of Jews live in just two countries in the world: 41% of Jews live in Israel and another 41% in the United States. Israel is still the only country where, whatever other threats Jews face, no antisemitic government will turn against them. One may think the U.S. is also such a country—and thankfully, it is for now—but rising and increasingly violent antisemitism here show that this cannot be taken for granted. Israel is the last bulwark.

If Esther were alive today, how far would she go to fight her enemies? How far should she go on the offensive in the name of defense?

The West has grown accustomed to waging half-hearted wars with poorly defined objectives. We seem embarrassed by the goal of victory in war. But indecisive wars, fought with poorly defined objectives, and a strange aversion to victory, are a false mercy. Hesitance grants enemies time to regroup and perpetuates conflict. Sometimes, military defeat—devastating as it is—is necessary. Forest fires clear away deadwood to promote new growth; decisive defeat in war creates space for societal transformations. The examples of post-World War II Germany and Japan, their old regimes dismantled and rebuilt with democratic values, serve as potent reminders of this truth.

Benjamin Netanyahu, with the full backing of his political rivals in the Israeli war cabinet, has said that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) will go into Rafah because victory for Israel—that is, survival and future safety—comes when all Hamas fighters, and their leaders, are dead. It has recently been reported that President Biden told Netanyahu that this would be going too far. Netanyahu has stayed course. Israel, he says, will fight until “total victory.”

In a similar vein, Volodymyr Zelensky has said that victory for Ukraine—that is, survival and future safety—is to get Russia out of its territory. All of it. Meanwhile, many of Ukraine’s declared allies are beginning to signal that they think this—full victory for Ukraine—is going too far. They want Ukraine to concede territory to end the war (and end the mounting expenses). Zelensky has stayed course. Ukraine, he says, will fight until “absolute victory.”

At Purim we are reminded that Esther, too, had a clear goal for victory—eliminate those who would eliminate her people. She did not stop fighting until a decisive victory was won.

The Western political and diplomatic classes haven’t heard talk like this in a long time, not since World War II. It is no coincidence that that was the last war from which the worst of our enemies never came back.

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY). Prior, he was an Associate Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he also served as Research Director for the Harvard Center for Public Leadership. Todd was a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center (2020-2022) and a Faculty Fellow of Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College (2018–2020). He has published in leading academic journals and has authored or co-authored general audience pieces in outlets including The Atlantic, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Post, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, Phi Delta Kappan, Science and The Wall Street Journal. Todd’s most recent book is “Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy” (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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