Purim story parallels todays anti-Semitism

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

There’s more than passing irony in the fact that the most infamous anti-Semite of antiquity, the hater whose downfall Jews celebrate on Purim, was a prominent official of an empire centered in modern-day Iran.

Like the Persian royal adviser Haman, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reeks with his own considerable animus for Jews, having not only endorsed the destruction of the Jewish state but called into question the murder of 6 million Jews not 70 years ago.

And just as his evil antecedent is today recalled with mockery and laughter, so too is Mr. Ahmadinejad providing future rejoicers rich comedic material — like his recent blaming of the terrorist bombing by Sunni Muslims of a Shiite Muslim shrine on “a group of Zionists” who nevertheless “failed in the face of Islam’s logic and justice.”

Similarly creative anti-Semitic rants are no farther away than the nearest Arab newspaper.

At the end of January, the Middle East Media Research Institute informs us, a Syrian government daily suggested that Israel created the avian flu virus in order to damage “genes carried only by Arabs.” That the virus first appeared in East Asia was carefully fit into the theory: the germ was planted far from where Arabs live in order to mislead the world about its true origin. Clever, those Jews.

And February saw newspapers in Mogilev, Belarus, calling on citizens to boycott a new kosher bakery since, as the city’s leading paper put it: “It is a well-known fact that Jewish bread is made kosher by using sacrificial blood.”

Haman, more than 2,000 years ago, was more subtle, preferring snide insinuations to outlandish conspiracy theories. And he focused on Jewish cohesiveness and dedication to Jewish law.

For instance, says the Talmud, he informed the king of the sinister fact that Jews marry their own. And, having discovered the rabbinical forbiddance of drinking wine that had been touched by a non-Jew (because of the possibility that he may have silently dedicated it to an idol), Haman told the Persian king: “If a fly should fall into their cup, they will discard the insect and drink the wine, but if your majesty should so much as touch the cup, they will cast it to the ground.”

Even today, although most contemporary Jew-haters claim to have only respect for Judaism — objecting only to things like Jewish “influence” (read: intelligence) or the Jewish state’s “mistreatment of Arabs” (read: acts of self-defense against terrorists) — common motifs in even the current arsenal of Jew-hatred include Jewish religious practices and religious Jews.

A glance at the Arab media’s cesspool of anti-Semitic (but Muhammad-free!) caricatures suffices to show that it disproportionately inspires images of black-hatted, black-cloaked and bespectacled men carrying oversized volumes of Talmud.

That fact, like the example of Haman, should serve to remind us how ugly is the derision of Jewish practices and ideals. It’s something even we Jews may not always sufficiently realize.

Take a recent article in an Israeli newspaper. It reported how a mobile communications company has seen fit to offer a cell phone without Internet access, in order to capture a larger share of the haredi, or “ultra-Orthodox” market (which, out of concern for clear Jewish standards of propriety, prefers its phones to be just phones). The article’s tagline reads in part: “Company succumbs to haredi pressure.” Pushy, those haredim.

In a similarly ungenerous vein, a “progressive” advocacy organization in Israel not long ago issued a press release describing (with words like “scream,” “yell,” and “sneer”) a scene on an Israeli bus, where a haredi passenger (the subject of the verbs) objects angrily to a woman who dared to sit toward the front of the vehicle.

Comparing the scene — which, it turns out, is an entirely imaginary one — to Montgomery, Ala., in the 1950s, the release characterizes as “an affront to the basic principles of a democratic society” what in reality is a bus company program providing gender-separated buses in haredi neighborhoods. Many haredi men and women prefer such travel arrangements and, since they had been patronizing private bus companies that provide it, Israel’s national bus company decided to compete for the haredi ridership.

At just about the same time, an Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics survey revealed that, among the country’s Jewish volunteers, 36 percent were haredis; 27 percent non-haredi religious; 14 percent traditional; and 13 percent secular. Nevertheless, Israel’s Orthodox are routinely, and almost exclusively, depicted negatively.

Their shunning of much of contemporary society’s materialistic desiderata, their dedication to full-time Torah study (especially as it results in deferments from military service) and their insularity are regularly portrayed as backwardness, ingratitude and arrogance. Yet no one disparages the Dalai Lama for his asceticism; conscientious objectors and some artists also receive draft deferments; and the ubiquity of crudeness in popular culture leaves religious Jews little choice but to remain, to the degree they can, within their more rarified world.

On Purim, Jews are exhorted to seek to strengthen what binds them. As a demonstration of unity and good will, they traditionally send packages of food items to one another.

Now there’s a Jewish tradition it would be hard for anyone (except perhaps Haman) to disparage. And what a powerful opportunity it presents for disowning intra-Jewish negativity.

Those of us who are haredis should consider sending such mishloach manot to Jews who are not, and vice versa.

Not only will that help bring us all closer, it will help us merit that Mr. Ahmadinejad and company more quickly meet the fate of Haman and his.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization