Today we’re enduring a constant drumbeat of bomb threats and hate gestures directed at Jewish Community Centers and schools, synagogues, and cemeteries. History and people I know are witnesses to these types of malevolent acts. I’ve never seen this before. At least not to this extent in the America of my life experience. It feels like an echo of the past in our present.
I’m not willing to dismiss it. We must be aware and on alert. I’m also not willing to exaggerate it. We must be aware and remain calm. As we witness what appear to be the acts of disturbed individuals trying to scare us, we can’t panic. On the other hand, the environment enabling their hate acts against us and against all others must be the target of our deepest concerns, protests, and precautions.
Understand something about the pernicious reality of anti-Semitism. Religious scholar and author James Carroll wrote last week, “anti-Semitism is the bug in the software of the West.” It insinuates Jews are pests among people and less worthy of society’s moral concern.
The historian of anti-Semitism Daniel Goldhagen explains this results from what is different about Judaism. “From the beginning, the notion existed that Jews formed a people, an identifiable ethnic group, like a large family, and not merely a freely come together collection of believers.”
This is precisely Haman’s claim before King Ahasueros in Megillat Esther. “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people…it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”
Rabbi Judah Loew, the 16th century Maharal of Prague explains, “Since they are separated and scattered among all the nations of the world a person will think that this is the Jewish people’s greatest deficiency.” In other words, not worthy of our own nation as Jews, the nations of the world don’t need to tolerate our presence mixed in among them.
The Book of Esther is among our earliest diaspora tales. A story written about and for the 4th century B.C.E. Jews of Persia. A success story of Jewish acculturation and pride in Jewish identity. Mordecai and Esther are at home in Persia. He has access to the royal court. Mordecai knows his heritage and honors the Jewish religion. In this context Haman’s hatred exists. Mordecai refuses to bow down. Haman wonders. Who are these people of different religious expression living among us?
It’s a story of ancient times and today. A story of the role we Jews can and do play in the societies we call home, and the malicious curiosity our success and achievement seem to provoke.
The Pew Research Center tells us Jews are the most positively viewed religious group in the United States. The current wave of anti-Semitic threats must be coming from those who feel differently. We depend on law enforcement to apprehend them. We rely on ourselves, undeterred, to live and celebrate as we must.
We embrace our precious identity as a people whose laws are different from those of other people. We affirm our Jewish tradition’s moral vision and cultural heritage. I, for one, am proud to be hated by those who can’t grasp or don’t recognize the goodness and dignity Judaism empowers us to promote and uphold. If my mere presence among them is so bothersome then I must actually represent something truly important.
Which is why you and I laugh and act silly on Purim. We rejoice in the possibility of living significant and meaningful lives. We delight in the promise and pride of Jewish identity. We celebrate our memories of the past and our hopes for the future. We are glad to pursue our goals and our dreams, to work toward our purposes in life and for the betterment of our world.
If someone out there doesn’t want us to do all of this alongside them or together with them; if someone out there feels less because we seek more; in addition to being aware and on alert, our best response is to laugh at that craziness and to be happy for the privilege of being Jews.