The Book of Esther: A political analysis

The Region: The Book of Esther, which is read on Purim and to which that holiday is dedicated, has been interpreted many ways.

Purim Jerusalem370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Purim Jerusalem370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Book of Esther, which is read on Purim and to which that holiday is dedicated, has been interpreted many ways. Yet there is much to be understood by analyzing the story in terms of political ideology and strategy.
Ahasuerus is the powerful king over Persia and much more. He holds a banquet and invites the leaders of all of the provinces to weld together his diverse empire by showing his wealth, strength, ge erosity, and bringing together his political elite on terms of fellowship and equality with each other.
While drunk, he orders Queen Vashti to come to the banquet to display herself. She refuses, for unspecified reasons, and his advisers urge him to depose her and select a new queen. A young Jewish woman, Esther, is among the candidates.
Urged by her uncle Mordecai, she conceals her religion and ethnicity, enters the competition, and eventually wins.
At this point, the story introduces a new theme. The king makes Haman prime minister. Mordecai, for unspecified reasons, refuses to bow to him. On discovering Mordecai is a Jew, Haman resolves to destroy all the Jews in the empire.
The story provides a sophisticated analysis of anti-Semitism: First, Haman’s antagonism toward all Jews springs from a personal conflict. This has often been true in history.
Second, that conflict is then dressed up in political language to justify it to the ruling authority and the masses.
Third, Haman provides the classic, non-theological statement of anti-Semitism that could easily fit into the 19th and 20th centuries, or even today, mirroring the kinds of things hinted at, for example, by nominee for US secretary of defense Chuck Hagel: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples... of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s law, and it is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”
In other words, the Jews comprise what would later be called a separate national group. It is impossible to assimilate them; they have dual loyalties; and despite their apparent weakness they plot against you.
Fourth, antagonism against the Jews camouflages a desire to loot their wealth.
The king agrees – after all, his most trusted courtier tells him it’s a kill or be killed situation – and issues the decree for genocide.
In contradiction to these claims is Mordecai’s good citizenship. It would later become a major theme of Jewish assimilation – I don’t use the word in a pejorative sense here – that Jews must prove they are the best, most loyal citizens. Mordecai saves the king by uncovering a real plot against him. By his example, Mordecai shows Jews are not disloyal subversives.
Especially remarkable is the behavior of Esther. Warned of Haman’s plan, Esther wants to do nothing. After all, she is a fully “assimilated,” even hidden, Jew. She believes her situation makes her immune from anti-Semitic retribution. But Mordecai reminds her: Do not imagine that you will escape because of your high position.
It’s easy to suggest that this can be compared to the Nazi desire to kill all Jews on a “racial” basis. But there are many types of such situations.
What’s especially interesting is that Esther’s situation shows how Jews, in an attempt to protect themselves or even to prosper from persecutions, can try to set themselves apart: converted Jews against stead- fast ones in medieval times; Modernized, semi-assimilated Jews against traditionalist immigrants in America and Western Europe; and anti-Israel Jews against pro-Israel ones and Israel itself today.
Esther, fortified by her beloved uncle’s advice and the hint of a divine role – that her position was the Creator’s doing so she could fulfill this task – risks her life to stop the mass murders.
For his part, Haman reveals part of his motivation. All his wealth, influence and power, he explains, mean “nothing to me every time I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the palace gate” and refusing to bow to him. In other words, Haman’s anti-Semitism exceeds the bounds of rational calculation. Out of blind hatred, he is willing to risk his own destruction to wipe out those whose existence he refuses to accept. That’s pretty relevant for our times.
In contrast is Mordecai’s behavior.
Made prime minister with absolute power by the king in Haman’s place, Mordecai does not seek to make the Jews the rulers (belying The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Islamist ideology) but only utilizes his authority for defensive purposes.
The king’s decree permitted the Jews to “Assemble and fight for their lives, if any people or province attacks them” and inflict unlimited vengeance. True, the retribution is horrible in modern-day terms, extending to the innocent members of families, but limited in the con- text of that era.
In contrast to Haman’s claims, they do not take their enemies’ property nor do they seek to conquer the empire, the Middle East, or the world. They just want to live and be left alone.
What does this story mean for us today in political, strategic and intellectual terms? The indecisive “Esthers” who so often populate the ranks of West- ern elites should take notice of how she resolved her dilemma. True, in their modern societies they can escape persecution because of their high positions. Indeed, by joining the lynch mobs they can even secure or better their positions. Yet in doing so they are not so much betraying a people they do not recognize as the principles of justice and intellectual honesty they claim as their new, post-ethnic and post- religious loyalty.
And, finally, the Hamans of our age are gunning for them, not solely because they are Jews – since this applies equally to their Christian counterparts – but because of their countries’ policies and their societies’ values.
Haman could have lived in peaceful coexistence with the Jews. Only since he behaved otherwise could the king decree, “Let the evil plot...
recoil on his own head.” In the Middle East’s modern history this has often happened. Those who have sought to destroy Israel have brought disaster onto their own heads and that of their own peoples.
Yet it is equally true, in the Middle East and in lands far away, that the ideology of Haman remains very much alive, even unto Persia itself.
The author is the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.