This post is based on the D'var Torah I gave at services on Saturday, March 9, 2019. I also plan another post with some thoughtful articles on the topic from other sources.
I always set out extra books for services in addition to the Siddurim (prayerbooks), on the cart outside the Sanctuary and in the small Chapel too. They are not just for you; when I am not leading a service, I use them too! On Thursday evening in the Chapel, I took a Tanakh (Bible) instead of a Siddur and read from the Megillah, the story of Esther. We are in the month leading up to Purim in less than two weeks.
For most of us, the Bible that’s most familiar is a kind of Sunday School Bible. The Book of Esther that we have learned that way is a hilarious story. Even in the parts related to Haman’s plot to get rid of all the Jews, the story is funny and over the top. The Megillah is like that all the way through Haman’s being finally exposed and then executed by the king.
In the real, complete Tanakh, that’s not the whole story. There’s a lot more text, and it is not at all funny.
On Thursday night, what I did was to read the Megillah to myself, but starting at chapter 8. That chapter follows immediately the demise of Haman. Mordechai is installed in power by King Achashverosh in Haman’s place. But when Queen Esther asks the king to revoke his original edict against the Jews, the king says he is powerless to do that. All he can do is to authorize them to fight back legally, with another royal edict. Chapters 8-9 tell about the many people Jews kill all over the empire as they defend themselves, and they tell the fear that the Jews elicit because of their fierce response. Here is a verse you most certainly did not learn in Hebrew School:
וְרַבִּים מֵעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ מִתְיַהֲדִים כִּי־נָפַל פַּחַד־הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם: …V’rabim me-amay ha-aretz mityahadim ki nafal pachad hayehudim alayhem -- "many among the peoples of the land passed themselves off as Jewish, because fear of the Jews had fallen over them” (Esther 8:17).
Achashverosh, the king, comes across in the last three chapters as someone who loves his Jewish wife Esther, who appreciates or at least respects his new Jewish vizier Mordechai. And as someone who possibly feels intimidated by them, doing what he needs to do in the moment to restore peace and to stay in power.
Once the fighting dies down, Esther and Mordechai institute the annual festival of Purim. It’s a celebration of the reversal of fortunes for the Jews, and includes also mishloach manot and matanot la’evyonim -- bringing gifts to each other and helping those in need.
Chapters 8-10 of the Megillah are about Jewish power established in the immediate wake of vulnerability. They are about having powerful allies and knowing that alliance comes from both love of us and fear of us. They are about figuring out what to do with Jewish power and the power of our allies. And they are about what it’s like to remember a recent threat, to remember fear, from the vantage point of more recently achieved power. They are about figuring out what to do with this power going forward -- when to unleash it and when to worry about what it does to us.
I selected this part of the Megillah to read and meditate on Thursday evening, because it was a spot-on text for this past week. Reading it felt unsettling and reassuring at the same time. Which is exactly how I have felt all week as the controversy surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar from my great home state of Minnesota continued to unfold. The words of hers were straight out of the Megillah -- fear of the power of the Jews. I had all these kinds of reflections during the week: It was good to see the power we have as American Jews at work against repeated slanders rooted in anti-Semitic stereotypes. It felt strange and weird to be the center of attention once again, so soon after Pittsburgh, which I have certainly not yet gotten over. I wondered whether I am living up to the responsibility that comes with so many people paying attention to anti-Semitism -- whether I have been a person who fights against hate directed at others as fully as I expect others to fight against hate directed at us.
It is important, it is spiritually critical, to have a swirl of these kinds of reactions, and not to let ourselves settle on only one. If we are only thinking one thing right now -- if we are not acknowledging the many such reactions within our own community -- we are lying to ourselves, and hiding from ourselves and from each other -- and from our responsibilities.
I want to fill in some information, and then propose a way of thinking about our responsibilities. What’s the mitzvah here always has to be the grounding Jewish question.
Part of what I say I hope has merit for you because I personally hear Rep. Omar and am horrified out of my own religious, leftish Zionism. I have said from the bimah (pulpit) in the past that the eventual freedom of Palestinians as a nation will become part of our own Jewish story of being agents of freedom in the world. I have been involved for a long time in AIPAC, where my view about the Palestinians is widely and openly shared, though probably not by the majority. If your perspective in anywhere near that, or anywhere to the right of it, I think you’ll be able to hear me.
Part of what I can tell you is because I’m a Minnesotan, and I know rabbis who live and work in the Minnesota 5th, Rep. Omar’s congressional district -- particularly rabbis involved in progressive circles. They have been right in the middle of trying to fix things; they are the people most frustrated by Rep. Omar's repeated slanders. The district includes the city of Minneapolis and many of its first-ring suburbs, including St. Louis Park, which is the Brookline-Newton of Minneapolis. Some of the Jews you may know of who grew up there: former Sen. Al Franken, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Columbia University development economist Jeffrey Sacks, the Coen Brothers. When I was young, that’s where you would go for kosher meat and Jewish books. There are today about as many Jews in the Minnesota 5th as in the state of New Hampshire.
When the district elected Rep. Omar, an immigrant from Somalia and a Muslim and a woman, a lot of us native Minnesotans were very proud. The story of Somali immigration in Minnesota has at times been very difficult, and Jews have been active in fighting the anti-Muslim and anti-African bigotry surrounding the integration of Somalis. And that’s what has made the congresswoman’s recent statements particularly painful, for the rabbis and progressive Jews in the district.
Beyond what you’ve read in every article, Rep. Omar said a couple of other things at the DC bookstore where she spoke at length about a week and a half ago. She said that the Jewish constituents who have met with her to speak about her AIPAC comments talk about Jews in Israel as their family, but don’t seem to have actual family in Israel. She also said that the Jewish activists who have come never talk about the Palestinians and their suffering.
Rep. Omar is not telling the truth about the Jewish people she has been in touch with about all of this. I know who they are, and I can tell you that they include both moderates and progressives, including people from an organization called Jewish Community Action, a social justice group that my parents are often involved in. JCA members are people who have stood up previously to vouch for Rep. Omar publicly even when other Jewish groups haven’t, and who have been in vocal and active solidarity with Palestinians, even when that puts them at odds with others in the Jewish community. So Rep. Omar is either misrepresenting them, or somehow unable to hear them.
My friends who are in the thick of this in Minneapolis are befuddled and confused and angry. They don’t understand why Rep. Omar is invested in misrepresenting their views, and putting them as Jews in boxes where they are so clearly not. They do not feel that things are in a good place right now, despite a lot of dialogue. They who are up close are also committed to trying and trying again with her, and remaining in solidarity with the Muslim community in the district. As one of them put it a couple days ago: we are doing the best we can, and we are exhausted.
This is part of a larger story of Jews not being seen or acknowledged or even allowed in certain places on the activist left, unless they leave behind nuance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and agree not to say that there are Palestinian leaders who are also responsible for the fact that it continues.
Even on Thursday, the day of the House resolution against anti-Semitism and other hatreds, a fundraising letter went out from Rep. Ocasio-Cortez that said: “It’s official -- AIPAC is coming after Alexandria, Ilhan, and Rashida”, the three recently elected representatives from New York, Minnesota, and Michigan. Which is completely false. And the letter is easy to read as: the rich, bad Jews are going after us, and dividing us from the good Jews who support equality and would want to be with us.
And all of this is a form of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism does not have to come in the form of a white supremacist attacking a synagogue to deserve our attention, or to be a palpable threat to us. It is not all right ever for any political leader or any political movement, even while promoting other good things, to tell lies about Jews. It is not all right to say things that can easily be taken to justify terror attacks against Israeli civilians.
So what do the final chapters of the Megillah tell us, about our power in this kind of situation and the mitzvot we ought to be doing?
One mitzvah: We need to build alliances with the Achashverosh-es, to use our power so that people in positions of power want, and think it’s in their interests, to stand up for us or to stand behind us as we stand up.
One person I have been reaching out to is my own congresswoman, Rep. Annie Kuster. I wrote her a few weeks ago when this began to heat up, asking for her support on this question of “dual allegiance”, and more than that, asking her to reach out personally to Rep. Omar. Because both of them represent areas with small but politically active Jewish communities of the roughly same magnitude, and Rep. Kuster has such good relationships with me and many Jewish leaders and Jews who are prominent in New Hampshire Democratic politics. Annie has offered more than once to come to Beth Abraham and speak about her own experience visiting Israel and her views about the situation. She supports two states and has voted for Israeli military aid, and she is very well-informed. I suggested that she could talk with Rep. Omar about how she does this. I am pleased to tell you that I got not a standard note back, but a phone call from her office affirming her support for Israel. It's a conversation I intend to continue when I am in DC this coming week.
Another mitzvah from the end of the Megillah: We need to get and build our power so that we have the confidence to go to difficult places without fear for our safety. We, or at least some of us, need to be willing to go into difficult places where the anti-Semitic canards are incubating, and engage there. Those of us on or closer to the left need to take responsibility for talking with people on the left -- just as those on or near the right need to do it there.
So another thing I am doing: Last week at the monthly meeting of the Nashua Area Interfaith Council, I said that I know people are talking about Rep. Omar, and announced that I will have coffee with anyone who wants to talk about it. Many of the people in that group come from denominations or organizations that have supported boycotts of some sort against Israel. Before I left and in e-mails starting that day, people jumped up to tell me they want to talk. In response to one Facebook post, from an activist I know and respect, I held back the comment I was going to write but probably wouldn’t have been heard. Instead I wrote my e-mail address in the comments with invitation to anyone on the thread to talk. And I separately reached out to the person who posted to get together, and we’re going to do that.
There is trust that I have built painstakingly with many people in the interfaith council, and I know we can talk. I am going to offer a class this fall, I decided this week in the fall in the RISE and OLLI programs -- about the Israel-Palestine conflict, from the Zionist viewpoint that I have described to you. I am a popular teacher there, and I know people will sign up.
We are fortunate in Greater Nashua that we have not been driven apart from other people whose causes we share because of Israel. There is no coalition here that I can’t be a part of so far because of my Zionism. I am much more interested in cultivating these local relationships and talking to people, really getting into questions and sharing information, about all the factors from Arabs and Israelis that have kept the conflict in place -- that is much more important for me to do than responding with a written public statement to everything that national actors say or do.
And a final set of mitzvot from the end of the Megillah. The practices that Esther and Mordechai instituted begin but do not end with retelling the dynamics of a past threat and how we fought it. On Purim, we read the Megillah twice, evening and morning. Twice we marinate in the story of the plot against our lives, rooted in statements about our disloyalty. But Esther and Mordechai wanted to make sure that the lesson of Purim was not just about remembering that, and not just about building ourselves up in anticipation of the next such battle. So they instructed us to do at least three acts on the day of Purim from an open heart and an outstretched arm. To send food to at least one friend, and to give to at least two people in need.
So a rule of thumb for today -- a 3:2 match. For every two acts of fighting anti-Semitism, three acts of compassion. One act to build up our own Jewish community in a joyful way. One act of being there when someone in our Jewish community needs comforting or needs help. And one act of standing up for a person or group outside of us who is the target of hate.
I have been trying to take this as well to heart. Because I've said these kinds of things out loud or published them, I was invited to give a blessing at the local African-American MLK event in January. There I heard a speech from a senior at Nashua North named Jamila-Ashanti Scales about all the racism that has been directed at her from grade school through high school. I offered to her that morning to be an ally if she ever needed one. Sure enough, two days later in the local paper, she was dragged into a conflict within the Board of Education, on the day of her final exams no less. I reached out to her family, who I know and some in our shul know, and asked what I could do. As a result, I published something supportive of her in the Telegraph, and I spent an hour with the school board members who were involved, cajoling them to make it right until they agreed to a step I suggested.
The last chapters of the Megillah are not easy ones, and the work we have in front of us right now is not easy. Why should it be. I don’t know, and my colleagues in Minnesota don’t claim to know, whether we’ll reach a good outcome with any specific leader we are at odds with. But I do believe that we can succeed and build here, where we actually have the power to influence people. We will not make everyone into lovers of Israel; that’s not the measure. But with hard and long work, we have it in our power to make the anti-Semitic into true fringes on the left and the right, and to help make all forms of bigotry a fringe within our own souls and our community.
And who knows, as the Megillah also says in a more familiar part, whether it was for a time like this that we have been given so much power.