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We have met Haman: Is he us?

The global Jewish community needs to figure out how to express outrage without speaking outrageously

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” This is probably the most memorable line of legendary political cartoonist and creator of the comic strip, “Pogo,” by the late satirist, Walt Kelly. With the holiday of Purim on our heels, it’s easy to focus on the many contemporary external reincarnations of the Biblical Haman who seek our destruction simply because we’re non-conformists. In Haman’s infamous words to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8).

That old canard of “dual loyalty” predates the Book of Esther and has taken on virulent forms today: in America, where there was a 67% increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the U.S. from January 1 to September 30, 2017, in comparison with the same period and more menacingly in places like Hungary and France where Jew-hatred is rapidly rising. And Israeli Jews must now confront major military threats on Israel’s northern and southern borders because of the willingness of Iran and Russia to supply sophisticated arms to terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizbollah.

But as Kelly noted in his comic strip, sometimes, we’re an even greater threat to ourselves. In fact, we seem to have reached toxic new lows internally as a community in our disparagement of one another. Sometimes I fear that we have internalized the anti-Semitism of our enemies and use some of the same language against one another that mortifies us when spoken by an external enemy. (Nor would this be the first time in Jewish history of “when they go low, we go even lower.”) Jews on the extreme left can be found leading cultural and academic boycotts on college campuses of other Jews who have views that they consider too “right wing,” and Jews on the extreme religious right use vile language to disparage secular and religious Jews (and that includes Reform, Conservative and even more moderate Orthodox Jews). Jews on the political right and left are too willing to call one another traitors to the “true” vision of Judaism, Zionism, or many other Jewish “isms.” We have become at least as skilled as writing one another off and reading one another out as our external enemies. And the general external current climate of extremism of the right and left in the U.S., Europe and Israel, which has been shrinking the political center, seems to only further embolden our internal willingness to speak so disparagingly of one another.

So here’s our challenge: how do we express outrage without speaking outrageously? Can we as a global Jewish community enact a basic code of civility? I understand that creating a code of civility is not a high priority agenda item for extremists, so when I ask if “We can create a code of civility,” it doesn’t mean everyone, but at least most us. Here are a few things that we can do to restore some respect toward one another that we inherently deserve:

  • Be outraged but hammer away at facts and not personalities. For example, try to refrain from calling Prime Minister Netanyahu a liar for reneging on an agreement over equal access to the Kotel (the Western Wall), with separate but equal sites for different kinds of prayer, and instead talk about Jewish values of truth, equal dignity, damage to the Jewish people; and, also support Israeli organizations that take legal action against him on these and other matters related to Jewish pluralism in Israel. That doesn’t mean that you should trust him, but don’t stop with harsh verbal denunciations, stay focused on facts, and most importantly, take some action.
  • I’m unable to locate the details, but I recall that the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of blessed memory, one of the great rabbis and faith leaders of the American 20th Century, once gave a series of sermons about the varieties of Judaism, and how each movement had something of value to offer to the greater good of the Jewish people. (I may not have articulated his idea precisely, but I love it.) Find the good in people who practice (or don’t) being Jewish differently than you do. Take a wide-angle lens of the Jewish community, and understand that if we were too homogenous, more people would leave Jewish life because their entry and participation points would be too few.
  • Establish a “compliment department” at your organization. We’ve forgotten how powerful gratitude can be. It’s much more motivating than insult and fear.
  • And for professional and volunteer leaders at all levels: make a greater effort to compliment your competition. We do that when, for example, at seminary graduations, one denomination honors a person from another for their outstanding achievements, but not too many people have a chance to see that happen because these are small-scale, annual events. As leaders, look for other local and more frequent ways to model our own security in our expression of Judaism by having the confidence to honor someone else’s good work, too.
  • Put energy into things that you can change instead of wasting it on things that you can’t. Do you really think that extremists are going to moderate their views because they hurt your feelings? Better to invest more energy in collaborations and coalitions with those whom we can at least work with some of the time, than none of the time.

The last verse of the Book of Esther (10:3) is an assessment of Mordechai’s leadership of his Jewish community: “For Mordecai, the Jew ranked second to King Ahasuerus and was great for the Jews and popular with the majority of his kin. He sought the good of his people and spoke peaceably on behalf of all of his people.” As brilliant medieval commentators like Ibn Ezra noted, you can’t please everyone because those who have less power will be jealous of those who have more. What makes Mordechai a remarkable leader is that despite the fact that he was generally but not universally popular, he still thought about the collective welfare of the community, and not only his supporters. And as a leader who belonged to a minority group, I bet that he also knew that the broader political powers would take note of how he advocated for his people — in a partisan way, only working on behalf of his supporters, or trying to model what it means to lead an entire community, including its disagreeable members. That’s the kind of leadership that never goes out of style, and that could help rid ourselves of the internal version of Haman that we often express to one another. This year, let’s drink less to Haman and more Mordechai!

 

 

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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