Purim – A Memorial Day for Anti-Semitism

The colorful festival of Purim, with its banquet and mirth, is actually a Jewish Victory Day celebrating one of our many battles in the long, unending war against anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism changes its form in every generation: from feelings of animosity, envy and rejection to brutal, catastrophic violence. Yet anti-Semitism is still a total mystery. The many contradictory arguments with which anti-Semites explain themselves are proof that the phenomenon simply exists, and is not the result of any rational thought process. Individuals  as well as groups may, of course, always have reasons to feel rancor or hatred toward Jews; but these reasons are only an addition to something that is already there, even if hidden. At any rate, anti-Semitism – just like the very existence of the Jewish people – defies logic, and is not likely to disappear until the coming of the Messiah.

Purim and the Scroll of Esther do not just commemorate a certain event; they document the very essence of anti-Semitism. This is why our Sages say that even if all the other festivals were to be annulled, Purim and Hanukkah will never be cancelled, because they commemorate prototypical events that are woven into the very fabric of history.

It is often said that the first anti-Semitic event in world history was Amalek’s war against the Jews as they left Egypt. But this war is described only externally, recounting the events that transpired there, without revealing the motivating factors. The first clear and explicit manifestation of anti-Semitism is actually found in the Book of Esther.  To be sure, when the Israelites were living in their land, and even earlier, they had enemies. Their extended wars, some of which ended tragically for the Jews, were not anti-Semitic in nature, but were justifiable, national wars resulting from clashes of interest. Warring parties often hate each other, but such feelings grow out of such universal factors as competition over resources or the struggle for power.  Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is always latent, and all the “reasons” brought to justify it are merely rationalizations for an existing sentiment.

The psychological basis for Haman’s actions is laid out for us in the Book of Esther.  It is typical of the “reasoning” used by anti-Semites – successful and unsuccessful alike – throughout the many generations that have passed since then. The trigger was a personal insult which Haman suffered from a certain Jew, Mordechai.  Haman’s hatred of one specific Jew is natural and understandable; but not so the conclusion that he draws from it – that he must settle accounts with that Jew’s entire nation. We see that Haman’s hatred actually preceded its alleged cause.

Haman uses classical anti-Semitic arguments to convince Ahasuerus that the Jews must be annihilated:  the Jews are a small and insignificant nation, whose greatest sin is in being different from all the other nations; therefore the Jews are unreliable and cannot be trusted. And the inevitable conclusion is that this “problem” must be solved once and for all, namely, by annihilating this small nation.

Ahasuerus does not share Haman’s sensitivities; indeed, later on he grants the Jews the right to defend themselves, and even appoints a Jew as his chief minister without feeling any particular aversion to the idea. It seems, then, that for him, the Jews are a nation like any other in his large and highly diversified empire. But just as Haman is the archetypal anti-Semite, Ahasuerus, too, is an archetype: the archetypal neutral person. And he is no less frightening for that, because of the unbearable ease and lack of conscience with which he accepts Haman’s plan. This seemingly impartial neutrality – which makes it possible for Ahasuerus to switch from the annihilation to the protection of all the Jews – actually enables anti-Semitism to operate and thrive; Haman cannot possibly realize his plans without Ahasuerus’ support, even if only a tacit one. History tells us that this archetype – the neutral bystander – exists, and is just as active and activating as the blatant anti-Semite.

The Jewish response to Haman’s story does not call for vengeance; it wants to assure that these events will never be forgotten. The past is to serve as a warning for the future, even at times when reality seems to have completely changed. And on Purim we do the same things we did during the time of Haman: we forge ties among Jews by giving to the poor and by sending gifts to our friends.  Finally, there is our reaction to anti-Semitism itself: we laugh.