March 8, 2001
How do you feel about what's going on here in Israel? How do you think you're supposed to feel?
What's gone on lately in our country has been very confusing for a great many people, not least those of us on the ground. To get a better handle on the matsav -- Hebrew for situation, and the word everyone here is euphemistically employing to describe our state of high anxiety -- let's consider a beloved Jewish festival now upon us.
If ever a holiday fit the paradigmatic Jewish haiku of "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat," it's Purim. Wicked Haman plots to destroy the Jews; his plot is thwarted by Mordechai and Esther -- "The Avengers" of yesteryear, the original John Steed and Emma Peel -- and he is hanged on the gallows he prepared for Mordechai. And his 10 sons to boot. Not to mention 75,000 additional enemies, women and children included, slain by the Jews (see chapters eight and nine of the Megillah). Pass the hamantaschen.
The trouble with this familiar story is that it makes many Jews uncomfortable. Hanging Haman, fine. But the rest seems like overkill. Some argue that the Purim story is a vital reminder of our age-old need to be vigilant and strong, since in every generation there's a new Haman. Other Jews take solace by reading the Megillah as a fantasy, not as a historical chronicle, and distilling its theme from a few key words in chapter nine, verse one:
"Now in the 12th month, which is the month of Adar, on the 13th day of the same, when the king's commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, on the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them; whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them."
Whereas it was turned to the contrary. On Purim, everything is topsy-turvy. Jews dress up as something utterly different from themselves -- pirates, cowboys and, before there was a State of Israel, soldiers -- and, in compliance with a cherished Talmudic dictum, get very drunk. In other words, Jews act for a day the way they have historically and stereotypically characterized gentiles as behaving. All year round, Jews are victims. On Purim, they are the opposite. They take revenge and take no prisoners.
Nor, teaches the Megillah, do they take booty. For even when dreaming of revenge, Jews have a claim on the moral high ground. There are things we do not do. There is, for example, no death penalty in Israel. The only person ever executed here -- hanged, in fact -- was Adolf Eichmann, and we know where he fits into the Purim story. But Israel has, in recent months, pursued a military policy of strategic, surgical assassinations of Palestinians that Israeli security forces have identified as terrorists or the deployers of terrorists. The United States has criticized this policy. Does the U.S. have the moral right to criticize Israel for that, or for the use of what they term "excessive force" in the interrogation of Palestinian prisoners who, if they spill what they know, might enable Israel to prevent the next terrorist bombing?
These are not easy questions, and reasonable people disagree, but arguably, assuming it is crystal-clear in these cases who the guilty and innocent are, it's possible to look at the Purim story and say, "They are trying to kill us, and we have to kill them first." But is it always clear who they are? Let's return to the last portion of the verse quoted above: "The Jews had rule over them that hated them." Which comes first, the hatred, or the rule? Or is it a mixture of both?
In recent days -- in the aftermath of the horrific attack by the bus driver from Gaza, who plowed into a crowd of Jews south of Tel Aviv, killing eight young people -- leading Israeli military officials have questioned the wisdom of Israel's traditional response to such acts, which is to totally seal off the Palestinian territories. Closing the territories, after all, which involves preventing Palestinians from working in Israel or exporting their produce, cutting off their access to food, medicine and hospital care, only increases the Palestinians' suffering, their poverty, their desperation, their hatred, their thirst for revenge. Indeed, can we, as Jews, countenance collective punishment?
Not long ago, Ha'aretz reported the case of a 10-year-old girl from a West Bank village who suffered acute abdominal pains but was prevented by an Israeli military roadblock from reaching a hospital, not in Israel proper, but in the Palestinian city of Nablus. The next morning, she died of a ruptured appendix.
Was that roadblock essential to Israel's survival? When I put that question to a friend, a religious Zionist who, like so many Israelis, had supported the Oslo peace process but was driven sharply to the right by the murderous response of Yasser Arafat to Ehud Barak's peace overtures, my friend said: "Are you sure that story about the little girl is true?"
I am not sure of anything, except for this: When anyone tells me exactly how to feel about what's going on here in our ever-troubled land of two peoples, or that he or she knows exactly how to handle Israel's existential problems, I beg to differ. To suggest, as some people have, that Arafat's perfidy demonstrates once and for all that the only thing that Arabs understand is force, seems to me a betrayal of my Jewish ethical values. And to argue, as some others have, that the current crisis is principally of Israel's making is to ignore the long and complex, tragic and heroic, Jewish story that made the State of Israel what it is. Any solution will entail compromise, but what kind, and with whom, no one can say for sure.
Peering at the newspaper, at the TV or computer screen, watching Israelis and their leaders lurching from right to left to right again, trying to make some sense of the domestic political imbroglio and the machinations of Knesset members, weeping at the spectacle of freshly dug graves of the victims of terror, and yes, also aching over the suffering of Palestinian families, American Jews can hardly be faulted for feeling, "Thank heaven I don't live in Israel." Nor can I condemn anyone for backsliding these days into a simpler, less bewildering Jewish worldview that paints Israeli history as Haman vs. Mordecai. If only, I sometimes say to myself, I could do the same.
As you hear the chanting of the Megillah this Purim, do us a favor and pray for peace. Not everything on that merry day need be a mere fantasy.