Monday, February 25, 2013

The Book of Esther: A Political Analysis

By Barry Rubin

The Book of Esther, which is read on Purim and to which that holiday is dedicated, has been interpreted many ways. Yet there is much to be understood by analyzing the story in terms of political ideology and strategy.

Ahasuerus is the powerful king over Persia and much more. He holds a banquet and invites the leaders of all of the provinces to come in order to wield together his diverse empire by showing his wealth, strength, generosity, and bringing together his political elite in terms of fellowship and equality with each other.

While drunk, he orders Queen Vashti to come to the banquet to display herself. She refuses, for unspecified reasons, and his advisors urge him to depose her and select a new queen. A young Jewish woman, Esther, is among the candidates. Urged by her uncle Mordecai, she conceals her religiosity-ethnicity, enters the competition, and eventually wins.

At this point, the story introduces a new theme. The king makes Haman prime minister. Mordecai, for unspecified reasons, refuses to bow to him. On discovering Mordecai is a Jew, Haman resolves to destroy all the Jews in the empire.

The story provides a sophisticated analysis of antisemitism:

First, Haman’s antagonism toward all Jews springs from a personal and psychological conflict. This has often been true in history including today.

Second, that conflict is then dressed up in political language to justify it to the ruling authority and the masses.

Third, Haman provides the classic,  statement of non-theological antisemitism that could easily fit into the nineteenth and twentieth century and even today, mirroring the kinds of things hinted for example by nominee for secretary of defense Chuck Hagel. Haman explained:

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples…of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s law, and it is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”

In other words, the Jews comprise what would later be called a separate national group. It is impossible to assimilate them; they are disloyal due to dual loyalty; and despite their apparent weakness they plot against you.

I'm sure that Hagel is not antisemitic in any conscious way yet he echoes the same themes that Haman used. Haman might have said that he was not a "Jewish" minister but a "Persian" minister, who would not bow down to the Jewish lobby whose interests subverted those of the nation.  

A contemporary problem in understanding antisemitism today is that hegemonic political, intellectual, and informational forces in the West want to measure antisemitism by conscious intent and not by the use of well-worn historical (these are even in the Bible!) themes, though that is precisely the criterion that they do use in examining just about any other sort of bigotry. They also begin by excluded all non-Western populations from possibly being antisemitic. But Haman was residing in a non-Western society.  

Fourth, antagonism against the Jews camouflages a desire to loot their wealth, in other words material gain. 

The king agrees—after all, his most trusted courtier has just told him it’s a kill or be killed situation—and issues the decree for genocide.

In contradiction to these claims of Haman is Mordecai’s good citizenship. This would later become a major theme of Jewish assimilation—I don’t use the latter word in a pejorative sense here—that Jews must prove they are the best, most loyal citizens. Mordecai saves the king by uncovering a real plot against him. By his example, Mordecai shows Jews are not subversives and disloyal.

Yet Mordecai's good behavior is useless if the king doesn't know about it. Suppose mass media existed and hadn't covered Mordecai's behavior but reported on all of Haman's speeches? 

Especially remarkable is the behavior of Esther. Warned of Haman’s plan, Esther wants to do nothing lest she place herself at risk. After all, she is a fully “assimilated,” even hidden, Jew. But Mordecai reminds her: Do not imagine that you will escape because of your high position.  

It’s easy to suggest that this can be compared to the Nazi desire to kill all Jews on a “racial” basis. But there are many types of such situations. What’s especially interesting is that Esther’s situation shows how individual Jews can try to set themselves apart to be immune or even prosper from persecutions: converted Jews against steadfast ones in medieval times; “Modernized, semi-assimilated Jews against traditionalist immigrants in America and Western Europe; and anti-Israel Jews against pro-Israel ones and Israel itself today.   

What if Esther was not such a good person, or didn't have Mordecai to advise her? What if she knew that she would not be punished but in fact could benefit from remaining silent or even joining into the denunciation of the Jews of the day? Suppose she could have redefined the situation to say that there were in fact good, pro-Persian Empire Jews as opposed to those bad Jews who wanted to return from exile in the Persian Empire to the Land of Israel, from which her great-great-grandfather had been taken as  prisoner? 

Esther, fortified by the advice of her beloved uncle’s advice, an appeal to enlightened self-interest, and the only hint in the book of a divine role—her position was the Creator’s doing so she could fulfill this task--risks her life to stop the mass murders.

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In addition, Haman reveals part of his motivation. All his wealth, influence, and power, he explains, mean “nothing to me every time I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the palace gate” and refusing to bow to him. In other words, Haman’s antisemitism exceeds the bounds of rational calculation. Out of blind hatred, he is willing to risk his own destruction to wipe out those whose existence he refuses to accept. That’s pretty relevant for our times.

In contrast is Mordecai’s behavior. Made prime minister with absolute power by the king in Haman’s place, Mordecai does not seek to make the Jews the rulers (belying the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Islamist ideology) but only for defensive purposes.  

The king’s decree permitted the Jews to, “Assemble and fight for their lives, if any people or province attacks them” and inflict unlimited vengeance. True, the retribution is horrible in modern-day terms, extending to the innocent members of families, but limited in the context of that era.

In contrast to Haman’s claims they do not take their enemies’ property nor do they seek to conquer the empire, the Middle East, or the world. They just want to live and be left alone.

What does this story mean for us today in political, strategic, and intellectual terms?

The indecisive “Esthers” who so often populate the ranks of Western elites should take notice of how she resolved her dilemma. True, in their modern societies they can escape persecution because of their high positions. Indeed, by joining the lynch mobs they can even better secure their positions. They can use this method to appear more virtuous, to earn more praise. Yet in doing so they are not so much betraying a people they do not recognize as such but rather the principles of justice and intellectual honesty they claim as their new, post-ethnic, post-religious loyalty.

And, finally, the main Hamans of our age are ultimately gunning for them, not solely because they are Jews—since this applies equally to their Christian counterparts--but because of their countries’ policies and their societies’ values. This is true even if these modern-day, "pre-commitment" Esthers either claim that Haman is really moderate or merely specify that only some (right-wing? Zionist?) Jews are disloyal to the state and its liberal values and strategic interests in order to push a selfish, counterproductive agenda. If those bad Jews are defeated then Haman will leave everyone else alone. 

Haman could have lived in peaceful coexistence with the Jews and spent his time building up the kingdom and helping his own people. Only since he behaved otherwise could the king decree, “Let the evil plot…recoil on his own head.” In the Middle East’s modern history this has often happened. Those who have sought to destroy Israel have brought disaster onto their own heads and that of their own peoples.

Yet it is equally true, in the Middle East and in lands far away, the ideology of Haman remains very much alive, even unto Persia itself.


Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.


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