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‘The next Haman’ beauty contest!

Contemporary politics remind us to stifle any knee-jerk association between evil and ugly
Illustrative: Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt.
Illustrative: Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt.

What does Haman look like, sound like? What picture comes to mind? Black hair, a mustache and a big nose? What do you picture him doing with his hands? If the megillah is read in different voices in your community, does the reader use a snively, whiny voice for Haman?

Haman
“The Villain Haman” under Purim. (colornimbus.com, Creative Commons)

How is it that nearly every portrait of Haman looks like an anti-Semitic cartoon? (See this awesome but copyrighted example on Chabad.org. And here’s a Mordechai with a tiny nose.) How is it that Haman’s often-mimed hand-wringing looks just like the cartoon Jew slavering over his money?

Why would anyone think that the voice of this man who for a time charmed a king and a kingdom would sound villainous? For that matter, why would a villain sound any different from anyone else?

Haman mask, (jewitup.com, public domain)

Evil comes dressed up in expensive suits, in statistics and logical arguments. It comes from the mouths of people who look like fashion models as much as it might come from a warty face with beady eyes.

Steve Bannon (AP Photo/Evan Vucci via The Times of Israel)

Last year, the target of many liberal Purim shpiels was the new Trump administration. Steve Bannon was ascendant, joined by Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka — three Trump advisers who hated immigrants as much or more than Trump himself. If Trump was Ahasuerus, then Bannon was cast as Haman. In some shpiels, a Bannon Haman played alongside Ivanka as Esther. His strangely blotchy face fit the stereotype of an ugly villain behind a drunken king to a T.

Except now there is no Bannon in the White House, but the hatred issuing thence has not lessened. Of the three advisers, who might be called “crypto-fascists,” the only one left is Stephen Miller, the Jew. And beautiful blond Jewish Ivanka has not turned out to be an Esther.

The obvious conclusion that shouldn’t need saying: who is the most ugly doesn’t tell us anything about who is good or evil.

Paul Manafort (AP/Matt Rourke via The Times of Israel)

So for the role of Haman, I would very belatedly like to propose Paul Manafort, the handsome one. Even though Bannon empowered the alt-Right with its neofascists and sympathizers, Manafort is the one who has done more in his career to support and keep in power the actual dictators and warlords who torture and kill citizens, like Jonas Savimbi and Ferdinand Marcos, and authoritarians like Viktor Yanukovych, who attempt to assassinate their opponents. It was Manafort who provided entrée to Senators and Congressmen, and access to millions in arms and aid, to some of the worst human beings of our age. As The Atlantic reports it:

He took figures who should have never been permitted influence in Washington and softened their image just enough to guide them past the moral barriers to entry. He weakened the capital’s ethical immune system.

It was greed that turned Manafort toward Trump, who was going to be his ticket to paying back millions and preventing the collapse of Manafort’s personal empire. Here’s how The Atlantic described his affinity with Trump:

The president bears some likeness to the oligarchs Manafort long served: a businessman with a portfolio of shady deals, who benefited from a cozy relationship to government; a man whose urge to dominate, and to enrich himself, overwhelms any higher ideal.

Admittedly, there are factors that push against Manafort as Haman besides his good looks. Most importantly, he doesn’t seem to be motivated by hatred. Hating humanity just enough so as to promote people who are murderers doesn’t seem to rise to the level of genocidal mania — at least not on the scales of passion. But which is more damaging to humanity, to the human spirit, to our future?

Of course, Trump’s finely-tuned performance as a drunken stupid Ahasuerus doesn’t need any Haman. He’s doing fine in the role all on his own. Even though both Manafort and Bannon fell, in a manner as befitting to a Greek tragedy as to a Purim comedy, switching around Trump’s advisers just doesn’t seem to make a difference.

Sheldon Adelson (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 via The Times of Israel)

Then again, if we want to typecast a behind-the-scenes Haman who’s still a player this year (though not in the White House), kingmaker Sheldon Adelson would be a good choice on looks alone, and he does often use his “ten thousand talents of silver” to undermine democracy and human rights in the US and Israel.

Shaked
Ayelet Shaked (Flash90 via The Times of Israel)

But there are so many Israeli leaders who share similar or worse goals that we could cast as our villain. Do we want to typecast or go against type? If Netanyahu weren’t also the king and relatively good-looking, his racist campaign against African asylum seekers would easily fit the Hamanic pattern. And Ayelet Shaked, who is such a help in getting us over the association between evil and ugly, would easily make the callbacks.

There is of course an opposite side of the Purim coin. Adelson and most of Israel’s right-wing truly live for the idea of the Jewish people. What could be further from Haman? The full package Haman, hatred of the Jews plus genocidal ideology, can be easily found in places like Iran, home of the Purim story. Given the penultimate chapter of the Purim story, where the Jews are reported to have killed 75,811 anti-Semitic haters (11 for Haman and his 10 sons), you couldn’t be blamed entirely if you viewed Mordechai as the model for Adelson and friends, rather than Haman.

Perhaps what we need is a Haman beauty contest, instead of a contest for the Esthers of the world. Perhaps then we would learn that all evil men don’t have big noses, that they don’t all snivel, or wring their hands in anticipation of their own triumph. There might still be a resemblance, even with those on “our side.”

And isn’t that the problem and lesson of Purim as crafted by the rabbis? The evil and the good in our real world, the ugly and the beautiful, aren’t they bewilderingly transactional and sometimes interchangeable? Just the opposite of the story in the megillah.

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a liturgist well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting. David is also an avid dancer.
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