The Fifth Column: A Purim to remember

For more than 3,000 years, we’ve been victims aplenty. But from time to time, we’ve also done some pretty nasty things ourselves.

A Palestinian girl drinks from a public tap at the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
A Palestinian girl drinks from a public tap at the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip
The Shabbat before Purim – this Shabbat – is called Shabbat Zachor. On Shabbat Zachor synagogues read from two Torah scrolls: from one, the regular weekly Torah portion, which this year is Parashat Tetzaveh. From the other, we read Parashat Zachor – “the Portion of Remembrance.”
Said remembrance is of the Amalekites’ attack on the Israelites en route from Egypt, and the commandment to smite their memory for all eternity: “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Lord our God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
Hammedatha the Agagite, who in the Book of Esther, attempts to persecute the people of Israel. Agagite means descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites.
It is often jokingly said that the common theme of Jewish holidays is “They tried to kill us, we killed them instead, let’s eat!” There are a lot of Jewish holidays. It seems that the commandment to remember is one which the Jewish people are happy to fulfill with gusto.
We remember the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Moabites, the Philistines, the Midianites, the Greeks, the Romans – just to name a few – not to mention the Spanish, the Christians generally, the Muslims, and of course, the Germans and their accomplices in Norway, the Netherlands, Poland (yup, I said it, arrest me, Poland!) and on and on. They don’t call us the “People of the Book” for nothing. As Rabbi Akiva put it, “The ledger is open and the hand writes” (Avot 3, Mishna 16).
MOST NATIONS around the world need to come to terms with their troubled past, and many have. Every child in the States comes to terms with the fact that the founding of their country was fraught with the suffering of Native Americans, with its past with slavery, with its use of nuclear bombs. Pretty much every British person I speak with about the Middle East will start by saying something like, “Well, we made a right pig’s ear of it, didn’t we?” And coming to terms with its past is a major part of German education and everyday life, and even current political discourse, 73 years later.
I mentioned Poland before, which is struggling with its past, being very much the victims of Nazi Germany’s occupation, but in many cases, also complicit with or the perpetrators of the atrocities committed in Poland during that period. Israel is being very vocal in its opposition to a new Polish law that limits what can and cannot be said about Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust, and in this context I would ask: What kind of example does Israel set, in terms of a nation’s ability to take responsibility for its own wrongdoings?
For more than 3,000 years, we’ve been victims aplenty. But from time to time, we’ve also done some pretty nasty things ourselves. We’ve smitten entire towns, massacred entire peoples. We remember Amalek – that they once attacked us when we were weak – but fail to call our retribution by its proper term: genocide – all the way down to the cattle. For the crime of aiding the future King David, King Saul massacred the entire priestly city of Nob – all men, women & children, and again with the cattle – all but one boy who escaped and later became the High Priest Evyatar. Fast forward a bit, Israel had a major role in the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, and we killed 2,000 people in the last Gaza conflict. And this, of course, this is a very anecdotal list, where I managed not to mention “occupation.”
WHY AM I doing this?
I’m doing this because I believe it’s good that American kids learn about slavery, Australian kids about their history with the Aboriginal community, Spanish kids about the Inquisition, and German kids about the Holocaust. It’s because we are all people, capable of amazing things, but also of horrible things. A nation that doesn’t teach its kids about its inner demons is a nation that could become very dangerous. That’s why Polish kids should learn about the Jedwabne massacre, and Jewish kids should start taking a more reflective approach to the Amalek story.
On Purim we disguise as something we are not, which is fun. When it’s over, let us take the opportunity to really take our masks off and reveal our true selves: Sometimes they killed us. Sometimes we killed them. Let’s stop killing people. Let’s eat.
P.S. – I mentioned that this Shabbat we read two Torah portions, Zachor, which I discussed, and Tetzaveh. Tetzaveh is an exhaustive list of instructions relating to the holy Temple and the priests therein. Among the garments prescribed for the high priest is the hoshen – the breastplate. As part of the assembly instructions for the breastplate we read: “Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. The first row shall be carnelian, chrysolite and beryl. The second row shall be turquoise, lapis lazuli and emerald. The third row shall be jacinth, agate and amethyst. The fourth row shall be topaz, onyx and jasper.” (Exodus 28, 17-20). Twelve different precious stones represent the 12 Tribes of Israel, each engraved with the name of one. It could have been 12 of the same stone and keep things simple, but it’s not. I think this wishes to remind us how diverse people are, each with his own unique colors, but all precious, and all worthy of being worn over the high priest’s heart. And in our own.
Happy Purim!
The writer is the director of Amnesty International Israel and formerly worked for the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Greenpeace and the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer. He can be reached at