Our first year in Jerusalem, I heard that neighborhood kids were ringing the doorbell of the local church, then cursing into the intercom. I was appalled. We did not establish a Jewish state to do to “them” what “they” did to us – but to model different behavior. That Purim, my family and I delivered Mishloach Manot – Purim treats – in costume -- to our neighborhood nuns. We were, I admit, a tad uncomfortable when we rang the bell outside their imposing door. We were stretching, unsure what the reaction would be.
Greeting us in German-accented Hebrew, the nuns welcomed us warmly. It seemed as if they never interacted with their neighbors. They knew the Purim ritual but never had received Hamantaschen. That Easter, we received painted eggs and chocolate. That Rosh Hashanah, we delivered apples and honey. That Christmas, we received little Santas and more chocolate. We now have a ritualized gift exchange four times a year.
I think of our little family “tikun,” our minor attempt to repair a breach, whenever I hear stories about this disgusting phenomenon of some – note the word some – ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting at priests and Seminary students in the Old City. While it is hard to know how widespread a phenomenon it is, we must have zero-tolerance for such appalling behavior. It violates a central commandment from the Torah, Vayikra Leviticus 19, to “treat the stranger who sojourns among you as the native.”
But objecting is not enough. Israelis must demand that the perpetrators be caught, prosecuted aggressively, and jailed for assault. We must determine which communities are teaching such anti-humanistic, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian ideas and pressure their leadership to follow the true Torah teaching. Moreover, each of us should make our own “tikun,” reaching out to Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere, welcoming them somehow, reassuring them that this pathological minority of hooligans does not represent Israelis or Jews. Here, our guiding principles should be, how do we want to be treated outside Israel? What do we expect from Christians when a synagogue is defaced, a kippah is knocked off a head, an anti-Semite barks out a hurtful curse like “Dirty Jew”?
Purim has emerged as one of the great Israeli holidays (he writes after fighting off the crowds at the local toy store cum costume shop). It highlights the culturally invigorating opportunities that arise from establishing a majority Jewish culture in our homeland. With school cancelled, the weather improving, and masquerades charming young and old alike, it is a rare Scrooge who does not participate in Purim. The streets fill with happy kids wearing costumes – and delivering treats, not demanding them to avoid some “trick.” The range of hamantaschen fillings is dazzling, from the Troy family favorite – chocolate – to halva. And the spectrum of venues for megillah readings is impressive, from private homes to grand synagogues.
While all societies need the occasional Mardi-Gras style release, and the value of a good shtick should never be underestimated, these rituals transmit important values and narratives. There is, for example, a jump in serious charitable giving as modern Israelis fulfill the ancient tradition of “matanot le’evyonim,” gifts to the poor. While formal philanthropic opportunities for giving in Israel abound, Israel also has a broad network for personal giving to the poor, which helps thousands without generating tax receipts or donor recognition plaques. It is also worth thinking about the deeper question too, after a summer of social protest, namely, how to develop a capitalist society that maximizes freedom and opportunity for all, while minimizing the suffering for some that inevitably results.
This Purim, with the Iranian nuclear threat climbing higher on the geopolitical agenda, with Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, Obama administration officials and critics, all meeting at the massive AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, and with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting again for one of their periodic, awkward encounters, the Purim lessons are resonating, left and right. In fact, Netanyahu handed Obama a megillah – a Purim scroll.
Given Esther’s role in subverting Haman’s plans, the modern Zionist message of Jewish self-reliance, emphasizing the need for Jews to identify the enemy, highlighting the greater risks we as a minority face in the world, warning of the risks of complacency amid existential threats, all ring true. But, ultimately, Esther and Moredechai had to convince Ahasuerus that Hamanidejad, er, Haman, posed a threat to the kind of king he wanted to be, and the kind of kingdom he wanted to lead. If we only learn from the Purim story that “goyim” are bad like Haman and Amalek, we miss learning how to befriend non-Jews, whom we still need, even with a sovereign Jewish state.
While in the Diaspora, knowledgeable Jews talk about “adloyada,” celebrating until we cannot distinguish between Mordechai the good and Haman the bad, savvy Israelis talk about “nahafochu,” let’s reverse things. With the Iranian threat looming, with an American President who lacks a clear, constructive foreign policy vision, we cannot afford to indulge in “adloyada” confusion or relativism when assessing world threats, especially from Iran. But we need more “nahafochu.” The Zionist revolution achieved two clear “nahafochus,” from powerlessness to power and from minority to majority status. Israelis need a “nahafochu” with our Christian neighbors, actively protecting and reassuring them. Jews needs a “nahafochu” with our Christian friends, emphasizing our common values and interdependence, especially with American Christians. And Israel needs a “nahafochu” with its enemies –seeking to turn the tables on them – hopefully by fomenting internal tension that helps the regime implode but being prepared, if all alternatives fail, to defend Israel – and democracies throughout the world, including the “Big Satan,” the United States, which Iranian radicals constantly threaten too.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections. Follow Gil on Twitter: @Gil_Troy