By Dr. Erica Brown
Every Purim as we celebrate the victory of the Jewish underdog in exile, we are reminded of antisemitism’s most ancient roots. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, enemies of the Jews killed for “rational” reasons. Pharaoh worried that the meteoric population increase of the Jews in Egypt would create a fifth column. Israelites at risk in their desert wanderings were regarded as a military threat. Even when Amalek attacked the young and the elderly, theirs was a detestable strategy but one used in a state of war. Elie Wiesel once asked a perplexing question: “Which is worse: killing with hate or killing without hate?” Enter Haman. Haman might have the dubious honorific of being the first recorded antisemite. He was the first to kill Jews simply because he hated them, a hate that was deep and irrational.
In addition to all the revelry, the Book of Esther reminds us to take time to reflect on the phenomenon of antisemitism and note its pernicious origins and its stubborn constancy. This year, to aid us in this reflection, Deborah Lipstadt’s new bestselling book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, frames antisemitism (her spelling – and explained in the book) as an outgrowth of prejudice: “Prejudice is the act of negatively prejudging or assessing someone’s personal character and behaviors based on stereotypical beliefs about the racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, political, or geographic group to which she belongs.” Lipstadt, in accessible language, contends that the antisemitism of Haman’s variety is not a thing of the past but is, tragically, here and now. To enhance Lipstadt’s reading, The Covenant Foundation supported the creation of a study and teaching guide to the book that contains chapter-by-chapter questions, an interview with the author, case studies and interactive exercises to enrich and personalize the reading experience.
Using Lipstadt’s definition, Haman, in making his case against the Jews, notes how different Jews are from all the others in Ahasuerus’ vast empire: “Haman then said 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].
The fragment – “there is a certain people” – alerts us immediately to Haman’s evil machinations. He has singled out the Jews by observing their differences, a claim that, in and of itself, was true for every one of the king’s 127 provinces, an empire of multiple languages, faiths and customs. Sixteenth century commentator R. Joseph ibn Yahya from Portugal, explains that in concept Haman’s claims were true: “There is a nation whose characteristics and behaviors are different from others. They don’t eat, drink or marry others…” Hatred of difference is despicable enough. But Haman drew two extraordinary conclusions based on his observations that lace religious intolerance to this day: this certain people do not observe the king’s laws, and, as a result, they should be killed.
The claim that Jews did not observe the king’s law profoundly troubled exegetes for centuries, given the Talmud’s insistence that “the law of the land is law” [See, for example, BT Bava Kama 113a-b, BT Gitten 10b]. Jews must always observe the laws of their reigning government. This principle is derived from Jeremiah’s remonstration that Jews in exile must pray for the welfare of their government [Jeremiah 29:7]. Rashi, among others, ponders what Haman could have meant and concludes that Jews did “not pay taxes for the king’s work.” Yet Jews must have paid taxes because Haman had to bolster the king’s coffers to compensate for the revenue from the empire’s Jews. Haman scapegoats the Jews, all the while covering his own barely disguised desires for the king’s throne. Perhaps what ultimately undoes Haman is that far from the Jews being disobedient, the Jews of the ancient Persia were far more loyal and devoted to the king than Haman and his devotees.
In Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther, Bible professor Michael V. Fox departs from his own scholarly tone to share his emotions as he listens to the megillah each year, “As the annual reading of the Esther Scroll comes to an end, I breathe a sigh relief, but this expresses a prayer more than a certitude…” This Purim, as we hear the megillah, we are more likely to hold our breaths than collectively breathe a sigh of relief. The antisemitism of there and then has sadly become the hatred of here and now as Haman’s canards return to haunt us again and again. Most of us respond to antisemitism with the heart. Antisemitism: Here and Now reminds us that the only way to combat antisemitism is with the mind. Inspired by Purim, this year let’s make a commitment to be better informed.
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.