A Zionist holiday
The story of the Diaspora in a nutshell
Purim is, in fact, the story of the Diaspora in a nutshell. It is the story of living at the mercy of capricious kings, being called “globalists” and “disloyal,” being always “different,” always “tolerated,” never fully accepted.
Let’s face it, on Purim we Jews look pathetic. Yeah, I know, it’s supposed to be a happy holiday in which we were miraculously saved, but for me, Purim inspires more shame than joy.
Let’s go back to the basics of the story: King Ahasuerus of Persia tries to publicly humiliate Queen Vashti. The Queen refuses and Ahasuerus sends her away. He replaces her with Esther, a Jewish woman who is the cousin of a Jew of some renown, Mordechai. Mordechai subsequently uncovers a plot to kill the king, but does not immediately receive any reward. A showdown takes place between Mordechai and the evil viceroy Haman, who demands that all subjects bow to him. Mordechai refuses and Haman convinces the king to exterminate all the Jews, because they are a people, “Scattered among the peoples of all the countries of your empire, whose laws differ from every other people, and they don’t obey the laws of the king,” (Esther 3:8). Haman draws lots and determines that the 14th of Adar will be the day of the massacre (Purim means “luck” or “lots”). Esther plans a convoluted plot to expose Haman in front of the king by revealing her own true identity and accuse the viceroy of disloyalty. Haman is hanged on the same tree on which Mordechai was supposed to be executed, and the Jews go on a rampage to kill those who sought to harm them. Since then, and for some 2,500 years and counting, we party and get drunk.
So why are we pathetic? Are we proud to celebrate that a woman was conscripted into the king’s harem and forced into servitude? The other hero of the story doesn’t inspire either, Mordechai discovers a plot against the king not by any act of bravery, but by overhearing conversations while sneaking around the courts of the palace. Not a very dignified image.
It’s also a story in which everything seems to be random. Vashti happens to fall out of favor; Esther happens to win a beauty contest; Mordechai overhears a conversation and uncovers a plot against the king; the king who happens to have insomnia. Even the name of the holiday “Purim” (“drawing lots”) relates to the randomness of our salvation. Think about it: on Passover, we confront the mighty Pharaoh and gain our freedom with bravery and portents; on Hanukkah, we defeat a Hellenist empire with a gutsy resistance, and on Purim… we win by trickery, seduction and dumb luck. Jews seem to be at the mercy of the whims of a frivolous king and an evil viceroy. Frankly, if you read it like that, it sounds like a story written by antisemites.
OK, now that I’ve ruined Purim for you, let me share what I consider to be its most redeeming quality: Purim is, probably, our most Zionist holiday.
Why? Because no other holiday portrays the fragility and the lack of agency of Jews in the Diaspora like Purim does.
Purim is, in fact, the story of the Diaspora in a nutshell. it is the story of living at the mercy of capricious kings, being called “globalists” and “disloyal,” being always “different,” always “tolerated,” never fully accepted. Like German Jews in the 1930s, Esther and Mordechai were fully assimilated, their names derived from the Persian deities Ishtar and Marduk; they even served in the palace and yet, luck turned and all their efforts to fit in became useless. Like American Jews are realizing now, it didn’t matter that Persian (or Spanish, or Polish or French) Jews had been loyal citizens and faithful servants of the king. They were always “the other,” the weak link, the ones that can be easily discarded when politically expedient. Jews were (and are) always on probation; always needing to show their bona fides, always trying to reach to moving goalposts for their acceptance.
I know; the Diaspora wasn’t only that. It was also enormous creativity, cultural richness and incredible works of genius. But it was a traumatizing life, always dependent on others, always under the sword of Damocles of people’s intolerance. As Isaiah Berlin said, even our best works, like the novels of Kafka, the symphonies of Mendelssohn, or the insights of Freud are marked by trauma and an almost pathological desire to be accepted.
Zionism came to correct that. It made Jews masters of their own destiny again. It demanded to change history, from something that happens to us to something that we make happen.
Since 1948, our fate has not been dictated by luck or by the whims of a frivolous king, but by our own achievements and blunders. Like the Israeli Declaration of Independence says, we exercise, “The natural right of the Jewish People, to be, like all other nations, master of their own fate, in their sovereign state.”
Maybe we drink in Purim not out of happiness, but to forget how helpless we were, how vulnerable and fragile.
But we don’t need to forget. Instead, we need to remember that the alternative to Zionism is a permanent state of despondency and defenselessness, like the one we remember on Purim.
This Purim finds Zionism fighting for its life on two fronts. On the one hand, there’s the external enemies of the Jewish People, those that seek to destroy us with violence, terror and hatred; and on the other, there’s the specter of internal dissolution, the attempts to pervert Zionism into an ideology of authoritarianism and intolerance. In a way, the people fighting antizionism in America, the IDF soldiers and the people marching in the pro-democracy rallies in Tel Aviv are part of the same battle: That of not letting us revert to a Purim-like scenario of powerlessness and dependency. We may have bitter fights over the nature of our state, but as bad as they are, they’re our fights. Thanks to Zionism, we make our own destiny instead of being the collateral damage of other people’s stories.
Our rabbis were very smart people. They obviously saw the problematic nature of Purim. So why did they include it in the Biblical canon? Especially when the Megillah is the only Biblical book in which God is utterly absent.
I think that hidden in this tale of despondency and randomness, there are clues of a hidden message. Maybe the absence of God from the story is an invitation to us to take the initiative. The story seems to say, “Listen, you are on your own, don’t wait for Me to save you, take your destiny in your own hands.” And redemption happens precisely when the people in the story accept the challenge and don’t surrender to fate. That was the essence of Zionism, to stop waiting for an outside redeemer and act as though our destiny is in our hands. Because it is.
In that light, the self-deprecation of the Megillah acquires a new meaning; the fragility of the Jews in the story doesn’t shame us, but inspires us to never be like those Persian Jews again, to fight for independency and to be comfortable — and responsible — with finally having a modicum of power. The miracle of Zionism was achieved, most likely, under the watchful eye of a benevolent God. But it was brought about not by randomness, but by the sweat, blood and tears of our People. When we see this, we feel not just the relief of having been saved from tragedy, but the deep joy of accepting the ultimate challenge of existence: That of being masters of our own destiny.
Andres Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.