Rabbi David Hulbert, 10 March 2017
This coming shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the shabbat that falls just before Purim (Saturday night & Sunday). And at this time of the year, most Jews and synagogues will be making their plans for Pesach, our next springtime festival. Purim and Pesach always fall one Hebrew (lunar) month apart – and the two festivals have a lot in common. At each of them, we enjoy a festive communal meal that involves plenty of drinking – at least four glasses at Pesach; no limit at Purim! The central feature of both festivals is the retelling of a dramatic historical story, of Jewish communities living as vulnerable minorities in the diaspora, threatened with massacre by the decree of a wicked ruler. Pharaoh decreed the drowning of new-born baby boys, but Haman intended to exterminate all, on a single day. Why did Pharaoh and Haman hate the Jews so much? At least Pharaoh had a rational reason – he believed that if a war were to break out, his many Hebrew slaves would become traitors and join themselves to Egypt’s enemies. But Haman’s hatred was personal, irrational and vindictive. Just because Mordecai refused to bow to him, Haman sought revenge on all of Mordecai’s nation. At the end of both the Purim and Pesach stories, the Jews are saved, not by their own efforts, but through unexpected Divine intervention.
In the 21st century, we still live as a tiny minority in the diaspora, and anti-Semitism still rears its ugly head. 2016 was, according to the CST, the worst year ever for anti-Semitic incidents in Britain. 1,309 were recorded, a 36% increase on the previous year, including 107 violent assaults. So there are a lot of Hamans out there, who hate ‘the Jews’. Why should this be? A familiar reason is the 69-year-old State of Israel, which attracts the hatred of young politically-active students, what remains of the Left, and pretty much the entire Muslim world. But a new reason is the electronic media – websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter, all of which are have a global reach, are not legally regulated, and which give Hamans a new opportunity to express their Jew-hatred with impunity. They are now able to hide their real identities behind a Purim-mask of anonymity. One might argue that such people have always harboured anti-Semitic feelings – but only now can they express these feelings in public without fear of censure.
How should we react to this apparent resurgence of the oldest hatred? We certainly have to be aware of the threat and take pragmatic and proportional steps to defend ourselves. Purim and Pesach teach us also to put our trust in, and pray to God, the Guardian of Israel. Personally, I have always acknowledged the force of irrational anti-Semitism, but have argued that really it’s their problem, not mine, a sort of dangerous psychological illness. Despite living in a part of east London with a high Muslim population, despite the depressing statistics and news reports in the JC, I have never experienced any personal anti-Semitism. Indeed, as a ‘professional’ Jew, I tend to meet a lot of philo-Semites, non-Jews who respect and admire the Jewish people and our faith.
Both Purim and Pesach remind us to rejoice and feel pride in our Jewish heritage and identity. Whatever gaudy costumes we may find ourselves wearing as we go about our busy lives in the non-Jewish diaspora, under those costumes, behind those masks, essentially we remain Jews, living witnesses to our people, our faith, our high moral values and to our God. Have a really joyful Purim!
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