by Rabbi Nancy Kasten
This week Jews across the globe celebrated the holiday of Purim, commemorating the Persian Jewish community’s deliverance from destruction as described in the biblical book of Esther. The hero of Purim is Mordecai, the Jew who instigated the threat to his people by offending the local authorities, then masterminded their salvation with his niece, Esther. The villain is Haman, who sought to do away with all the Jews as collective punishment for Mordecai’s transgression.
American Jewish comedian Alan King once gave a summary of every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” On Purim Jews are commanded to eat and rejoice, and to send gifts of food to each other and to the poor. And there is one other obligation that is unique to Purim; according to the Talmud, “A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordecai.”
This year we need no alcohol to render us incapable of distinguishing between those protecting the Jewish people and those inviting our destruction. We can just watch the video from February 26 of 400 Jewish settlers, from a settlement most countries consider illegal under international law, pausing to pray amid setting fire to vehicles and residences in the Palestinian village of Huwara. This recent event added to the dizzying disorientation that so many Israelis and lovers of Israel have experienced since the recent formation of a far-right government and the appointment of extremist settlers to head ministries in areas such as National Security, responsible for the Israeli police; and Finance, which supervises the Defense Ministry.
Seeing unrestrained settler violence is shocking to many, but the sad truth is that it’s been business as usual for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation since long before the current government was formed. In 2021, U.N. monitors documented 496 Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians. The day after the attack on Huwara, the U.S. State Department released a 2021 report on terrorism concluding that “Israeli security personnel often did not prevent settler attacks and rarely detained or charged perpetrators of settler violence.”
These settlers believe their hateful and violent attacks are part of their religious obligation to defend God and the Jewish people. By failing to prosecute settler violence, the Israel government accommodates these beliefs. You’d think you’d have to be drunk to condone Jewish extremism; confused about the heroes and enemies of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
Zealotry is called terrorism when members of someone else’s religion perpetrate it. But when members of our own religion engage in it, we are more reluctant to call it what it is, and to condemn the perpetrators. We are more likely to put ourselves in their shoes and try to imagine what might have motivated them. We might identify with the external threats the zealots face, the unequal treatment, the generational trauma. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Dehumanizing our enemies ultimately diminishes our own capacity to be fully human. Our ability to identify with religious zealots can be salutary if it reveals something about ourselves. But while empathy can inform the execution of justice, it cannot replace it. And our standards and definitions of what constitutes terrorism must be applied to every group equally, even though it’s painful when our own religion is implicated.
As people of faith, we cannot allow violence to be cast as a legitimate form of religious expression. Ever. And as lovers of Israel, we can no longer confuse the actions of Mordecai with those of Haman.
This Purim, it’s time to sober up.
Rev. Dr. George Mason responded to Nancy’s essay with his own thoughts on Religious Nationalism and specifically Christian Nationalism in the United States. You can read his response here.