Queen Esther and the ‘distancing’ of liberal Jews

A new edition of the Book of Esther does much to explain liberal Jewish attitudes toward Israel.

Illuminated Esther scroll. Ferrara, Italy, ca. 1615. (photo credit: Courtesy Ardon Bar-Hama)
Illuminated Esther scroll. Ferrara, Italy, ca. 1615.
(photo credit: Courtesy Ardon Bar-Hama)
It’s become fashionable in certain circles to say “the occupation” and Israel’s “right-wing” government are distancing liberal Jews from Israel. But a new edition of the Book of Esther published by the Conservative Movement’s Israeli wing offers a truer explanation for liberal discomfort with Israel.
The new edition includes an introduction that seeks to explain parts of the story liberal Jews find problematic – first and foremost, the killing at the end. “We felt it was important to explain what happened in the context of that period,” the Israeli movement’s executive director, Yizhar Hess, said in a media interview last week. “For that reason, the introduction we’ve written takes both a loving and critical approach.” In short, such bloodshed would be unacceptable today, but norms were different then.
Yet what Esther unambiguously describes is a war of self-defense against people seeking to annihilate the Jews, undertaken only after repeated efforts to avert the threat non-militarily failed. So if liberal Jews find the text problematic, either they’re not paying attention to what it actually says, or they’ve become so pacifist that any war, even one to preserve the Jews from annihilation, is unacceptable.
To understand the parallels to Israel’s situation today, a closer look at Esther is instructive. In the popular imagination, Haman’s plot to kill the Jews is foiled when Queen Esther reveals herself as a Jew to King Ahasuerus. But then, “the reveling Jews embark on a massacre,” as Hess’s liberal Jewish interviewer put it. 
In the actual text, however, Esther’s dramatic revelation doesn’t save the Jews: Ahasuerus kills Haman, but ignores Haman’s edict that every Jewish man, woman and child be killed on the 13th of Adar. So two months later, Esther again risks her life by visiting him uninvited and reiterates her plea for the edict’s repeal. This time, Ahasuerus refuses point-blank. Do anything else you please for the Jews, he tells her, but “An edict written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.”
Only then, lacking any other option, do Esther and her cousin Mordechai resort to war: They order the Jews “to gather and defend themselves” on the 13th of Adar and kill “all the forces of every hostile people and province.” The enemy casualties ultimately total 75,800 – a fairly modest number for multiple battles spanning 127 provinces “from India to Ethiopia.” 
How is this relevant to modern-day Israel? Because on Israel, too, it often seems liberal Jews either pay no attention to actual events – just as they ignore Esther’s actual text – or simply oppose any defensive measures that involve harm to others.
Take, for instance, their insistent demand that Israel just make peace with the Palestinians already. Israel has thrice offered the Palestinians a state – in 2000, 2001 and 2008, the latter an offer so far-reaching US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice couldn’t believe she was hearing it – only to have them reject it without even a counteroffer. Yet to liberal Jews, it’s as if this never happened: They still blame Israel for the lack of peace.
Ditto for senior Palestinian officials’ persistent refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or acknowledge any historic Jewish connection to this land; their insistence on flooding Israel with millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees (just last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared the “right of return” a “personal decision” that “neither the PA, nor the state, nor the PLO, nor Abu-Mazen [Abbas], nor any Palestinian or Arab leader has the right” to concede); their glorification of anti-Israel terror, repeated threats to resume it and payment of salaries to terrorists; their indoctrination of children to view Israel as the enemy who must someday be destroyed; their grotesque anti-Israel incitement (like accusing Israel of infecting Palestinians with AIDS). To liberal Jews, either none of this exists, or it’s dismissed as unimportant. The absence of peace is still always and only Israel’s fault.
Or take the fact that every previous Israeli withdrawal of the last 20 years – from part of the West Bank in 1993-95, Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 – produced not peace, but suicide bombings and rockets targeting Israeli cities. Indeed, 20 years of “peace process” have produced twice as many Israeli deaths from terrorism as the 45 preceding years. But liberal Jews, if they know this at all, certainly don’t see it as justifying Israeli qualms about ceding even more sensitive territory, from which rocket fire could shut down all of Israel’s major cities and its only international airport. They’re sure this time will be different. Or perhaps “ending the occupation” is simply more important than protecting Israeli lives.
Then there’s the “siege” of Gaza, the “wall,” the checkpoints and military operations – measures that have saved countless Israeli lives. The security barrier and the reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002 together reduced Israeli deaths by Palestinian terror from about 450 a year to a handful. Similarly, military operations in Gaza reduced rocket launches from thousands per year to dozens (if only temporarily). Defending yourself against people who are trying to kill you inevitably causes harm: Even nonviolent measures like checkpoints cause hardship, and military operations kill.  But to liberal Jews, harming others isn’t acceptable, even in self-defense. There must be a better way, they insist: Just make peace – whether the other side wants to or not.
Because Israelis have paid attention to events of the past 20 years, an overwhelming majority don’t believe peace is achievable anytime soon. Nor are they willing to take egregious risks on the off chance that it is, because if the effort fails, it’s their children – not those of liberal Jews overseas – who will pay the price in blood.
But liberal Jews don’t want to see these unpleasant truths or cope with their unpleasant consequences: They want to cling to their faith that all problems can be solved peacefully if we just try hard enough. So instead, they “distance” themselves from the pesky country whose experiences, if taken seriously, would undermine that faith – just as they distance themselves from the Book of Esther’s description of another time when that faith proved unfounded.

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on Twitter here.