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March 10, 2017 7:38 am

Purim’s Warning for Modern-Day Antisemitism

avatar by Pini Dunner

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Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim. Oil on canvas, 1685. Photo: RISD Museum of Art, Rhode Island.

Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim. Oil on canvas, 1685. Photo: RISD Museum of Art, Rhode Island.

The United States has seen a surge in antisemitic activity that is unprecedented in modern times. Bomb threats against Jewish community centers, desecrated cemeteries, offensive graffiti and social media attacks are among the hundreds of recorded incidents over the past several months.

When I was growing up in Europe, antisemitism was more open and prevalent than it is the United States — and while violence against Jews may have been infrequent, it was not unheard of. Therefore, what has surprised me most about this recent turn of events in the US hasn’t been the antisemitism itself — but the genuine shock that it’s triggered in Jewish America. It’s almost as if American Jews have come to believe that antisemitism can only be a fringe phenomenon, and that no clear-thinking, middle-of-the-road American could ever harbor such views.

I believe it is this collective denial that has led some American Jews to blame the rise in antisemitic attacks on Donald Trump. Advocates of this view associate Trump with extremism and extremists, which they say has empowered fringe radicals who hate Jews to feel emboldened in their views. This approach is superficial and self-serving, and it fails to acknowledge the dangers posed to every one of us by the “antisemite next door,” whose hate is just as real as the antisemitism of the Neo-Nazi.

It is far too easy to fall into the trap of turning the new president into an unwitting or even calculated catalyst for the antisemitism we are witnessing — just as it is to blame the radical Left and its anti-Israel rhetoric for the attacks we are seeing.

The battle against antisemitism, and against any existential threat to Jews, will only be successful if antisemitism is properly understood — and if the action taken to combat it is apolitical, surgical and decisive.

The story of Purim is a wonderful resource when looking for a model of a measured, but effective, reaction to an outbreak of antisemitism in a country where Jews lived in safety and security.

There was ostensibly no antisemitism in ancient Persia. The leading Jew — Mordechai — was a palace official, and the Jews of Shushan were on the guest list at King Achashverosh’s celebratory party. And yet, lurking below the genteel veneer of social tolerance and an integrated society, was a burning hatred for Jews that was ripe for exploitation by an individual with access and a plan.

When news of the decree to annihilate Persia’s Jews reached Mordechai, he sent a message to Esther. He told her to immediately go to Achashverosh and lobby for the decree to be repealed. Esther refused, saying that she had not been summoned, and that any attempt to gain an audience with the king without an invitation was dangerous. But Mordechai insisted, adding that although he was certain that the Jews would ultimately be saved, if Esther did not do her part right away, she would not be there when the moment of salvation arrived.

The back and forth between Esther and Mordechai happened in Nisan, a full 11 months before the genocide was scheduled. So Esther’s argument made perfect sense. What was the point of putting her life in danger? There was plenty of time to act — and at some point, the king would surely call her in for a visit, enabling her to address the issue. But Mordechai maintained that it was imperative for her to see the king immediately. As far as he was concerned, this could not wait.

Mordechai understood from Esther’s initial response that she did not feel that she was in any personal danger. Her life was fine, and would remain fine. It was others who were more acutely at risk. Mordechai told Esther that she had to feel the danger personally, and act accordingly.

Similarly, our reaction to any threat must never be complacency or distraction — as this will only delay an effective response. In the end, the threat of antisemitism is much wider than we realize, and it affects us all personally. Our reaction at this critical time must be urgent and focused.

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