Victims or victors?

Elliot Horowitz tackles the myth of the long-suffering Jew.

reckless book 88 298 (photo credit: )
reckless book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence By Elliot Horowitz Princeton University Press 356 pages Although perhaps not as pervasive today as it has once been, the myth of the weak, defenseless Jew who is always the victim and never the victor - which scholars call the "lachrymose conception of Jewish history" - has nonetheless consistently endured for hundreds of years. According to this theory, Jews since the Roman expulsion from Israel have suffered time and again through verbal and physical assault, and have never - until, many proponents of this theory would hasten to add, the founding of the State of Israel - adequately responded to that suffering. The lachrymose conception of Jewish history is, for the most part, a broad and sweeping generalization. And, while true in part (Jews have clearly suffered much in their Diaspora history), the theory, like most broad generalizations, has numerous flaws. On one count, the almost 2,000 years between the exile of most of the Jews from Israel and the founding of the modern state were not all blood, sweat, and tears. On another, Jews did not always flock like lambs to the slaughter. Recent historiography has revealed numerous instances in which Jewish communities and individual Jews defended themselves (or strove to defend themselves) from would-be attackers. Without a doubt, the most famous story of Jews physically defending themselves in lands not their own is that recounted in the Book of Esther. There, as any child with a basic Jewish education could tell you, Haman's plan to destroy the Jewish people is unsuccessful. With the king's approval, the Jews take up arms and slaughter those who would slaughter them. The story recounted in the Book of Esther is the trope around which Elliot Horowitz builds his well-researched but critically confused scholarly work Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. His book claims (or implies a claim) that, contrary to the lachrymose conception of Jewish history, Jews have actually been a militant people throughout their years in exile. The problem is that, beyond a few piercing examples - examples that, one might say, are the exceptions that prove the rule - Horowitz never really substantiates this claim. While the reader is repeatedly told that Jews have been an incredibly and consistently violent people throughout their exile, the same few stories are cited time and time again to prove this point. The book is divided into two parts. The first "is devoted primarily to the Book of Esther and the difficult questions it posed - and continues to pose - for both Jews and Christians since late antiquity." The question posed in this first section of the book is a potentially useful one. It is important for people who celebrate the victory of Esther and her people over Haman every year to think about what they are commemorating, and why they are commemorating it. To deal with the moral and ethical questions inherent in the Book of Esther, however, one would have to be both a biblical and a philosophical scholar, and Horowitz is neither. He is a historian, through and through. And while he is adept at telling the reader what others thought of Esther, Horowitz is clearly uncomfortable with making judgments on his own, even with synthesizing the strangely localized information that he does impart. THE SECOND part of the book, which is much more interesting than the first - partially because Horowitz the historian is clearly on firmer ground when dealing with history - claims to be about Jewish violence through the centuries. In fact, it is about many things - and actual incidents of Jewish violence play only a small part among them. The interested (though often disappointed) reader is told, for example, of the story of Purim, of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 and the alleged murder by Jews of the city's Christian inhabitants (this is the one great instance of Jewish violence in the book); and of the relationship between Purim and the Catholic festival of Carnival. While claiming to look at Jewish communities through the ages, Horowitz's focus often narrows to the Jewish and Christian communities of 19th century England - specifically focusing on how those communities dealt with what many of the time considered the problem of Purim. Many Christians, on the one hand, took the remembrance of the annihilation of Amalek at Purim as a sign that Judaism, as opposed to Christianity, was essentially a brutal religion. Some prominent Jews, for their part, strove to have Purim all but eliminated from the Jewish calendar. The writer has clearly done his research. And his primary argument - that Jews have not always been defenseless victims - is an important one. But Horowitz is seemingly unable to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Without a thesis to anchor his mishmash of facts, Horowitz is free to demonstrate how much he knows, but is at a loss when it comes to putting the information together. He begins and ends his book by referencing Baruch Goldstein, the American-born settler who killed dozens of Arabs on a murderous rampage in Hebron. Throughout, he tries to make this fringe character represent a latent strain of Jewish violence that has supposedly run through history. This is nothing more than political propaganda. Goldstein was a single man, representing nothing more than a single man's delusions. To make him a stand-in for the Jewish people is more than a little disturbing. One begins to suspect that the motives of this (mostly) well-researched book are far more political than historical.