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Purim and Antisemitism 2024

I’ve been thinking a lot about the upcoming holiday of Purim, a moment in our calendar characterized by much joy and not a small amount of silliness. Drinking is encouraged, cookies and costumes are an integral part of the celebration, lots of noise and things turned topsy turvy.

I’m not feeling so excited and happy about Purim this year. Instead, I’m thinking about Purim as one of the earliest instances of genocidal intention towards the Jewish people. We read the story in the book of Esther, named for the heroine, whose name, literally, means “secret.” Seter/Esther, though we are also given her Hebrew name, Hadassah. Mordecai and Esther were refugees, having been expelled from Babylon by King Nevuchadnezzar. Esther, along with many other women, is essentially taken captive into King Achashverosh’ harem. As the tale unfolds, her guardian, Mordecai, she lost both of her parents, emphasizes the need to hide her Jewish identity. The megillah repeats this fact in case we missed it the first time.

We know what happens, Ultimately Esther is chosen to be the queen, yet still does not reveal her Jewish-ness. And then, the history that is only too familiar to us. The king’s advisor, Haman, reaches out to the ruler with a request to be allowed to destroy the Jewish people and appropriate their property, with a significant donation to go into the king’s treasury.

Here are the words he uses to support his plan, (2:8), “There is one people, scattered and dispersed among the peoples across all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of all the other peoples, and who do not obey the king’s own laws, and it really is not worth the king’s while to leave them so. If it so please the king, let it be decreed in writing to destroy them.”

We know what happens and you can hear the rest of the story when we celebrate Purim on March 23. The charge of disloyalty, we learn, is not a contemporary phenomenon. From there, antisemitism grows and flourishes. Chanukkah is next, and there we are allowed to live as long as we renounce Jewish practice. After the turn of the millenium, deicide, the historically false notion that the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus emerges, and into the middle ages. Let’s take a moment and explore that history, for which I need volunteers to join me on the bimah. (Play two rounds of the game.) Following the Holocaust, we had some hope that Jewish difference was no longer perceived as a threat. Here in the US, the Jewish community was deeply grateful for the blessing and opportunities provided by democracy. We thought that antisemitism was relegated to history.

Today? Following October 7th there has been an unprecedented 360% increase in antisemitic incidents in America. The list is much, much, much too long to share. I am haunted by the words of Cynthis Ozick, who wrote prophetically, in 2004- “Naively, foolishly, stupidly, hopefully, a-historically, we thought that shame and remorse- world- wide shame, world-wide remorse- would endure. Naively, foolishly, stupidly, hopefully, a-historically, we thought that the cannibal hatred, once quenched, would not soon wake up. It has awakened.” 1 I wonder what she would say now. College campuses are unsafe for Jewish students, who face, what Dara Horn calls, “exhilaration escalat(ing) into death threats and physical assaults.” 2 It’s not just college campuses. Protestors marched in the streets of Flagstaff chanting, “From Flagstaff to Gaza, Intifada.” Ask our Executive Director about the massive increase in security costs Temple Chai faces.

Dara Horn writes of attending a Shabbat dinner at one college, where “students went around the table sharing what they wished to say to their non-Jewish friends: I wish I could say I want to spend a semester in Israel. I wish I could say I work at a Jewish preschool. I wish I could say I volunteered as a Jewish hospital. I sat at the table stupefied,” she shares, concluding, “They were in hiding.” 3 It's the return of Esther. Are we all feeling a bit like Esther?

Each of us is now faced with determining how to understand and live in this new/old reality. And how to explain it to our children. My 8-year old granddaughter recently told me, quite simply, “People don’t like Jews.” Eight years old. When she spoke at the recent JNF breakfast, Dr. Rachel Fish encouraged us to use the term “Jew hatred” rather than “Antisemitism.” Antisemitism, she suggested, is amorphous and subject to misunderstanding. Jew hatred is pretty clear. It’s something to consider, especially when Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism are conflated.

Just a few days ago, Time Magazine featured “The New Antisemitism” as its cover story. In it, author Noah Feldman reminds us of the importance of distinguishing “carefully between critiques of power that deserve serious consideration and the antisemitic ways in which those critiques may be deployed.” 4 In the Megillah, Esther is reluctant to plead for her own life and

the life of her people. Mordecai encourages her with these words (4:14), “. . . if you keep your silence at this time, relief and salvation will come forth for the Jews from some other place . . . And who can say; could it not be for just such a time as this that you came into royalty?”

When Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), he had a jarring message for the Jewish community in Arizona when it comes to defending itself against antisemitism: “There’s no cavalry coming for us. We’re the cavalry.” Perhaps it is for just this moment that we have nurtured our own Jewish identities, so that we can stay strong and proud and vigilant in defending our right to be Jewish? We are not in Shushan anymore. There is no relief and salvation coming from elsewhere.

WE are the cavalry!


2 Horn, Dara, “Why the Most Educated People in America Fall for Anti-Semitic Lies,” The Atlantic, February 15, 2024

3 Ibid.

4 Time Magazine, March 11, 2024, P. 39

Watch: "Can you survive the middle ages and remain Jewish?" ~ A New Game I Created

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