Purim. One of the most popular Jewish holidays among Orthodox, traditional and so-called secular Jewish Israelis alike. The streets are packed with children and adults wearing costumes, make-up and all sorts of masquerading, on their way from one joyous Purim party to the next. Happy days. But behind the carnivalesque masks, ominous demons are lurking.
Tel Aviv, Sunday, February 24th
Hanan Usruf, a 40-year-old Arab sanitation worker for the city, was savagely beaten by some dozen Jewish men. The Jerusalem Post reported that Usruf’s injuries
include a fracture in his right eye socket and deep lacerations on his right ear and across almost his entire head. His vision is blurred in his left eye, but he can make out small numbers and letters, doctors said.
The Times of Israel added that the victim – an Israeli citizen, one should add – attacked by “drunken youth” required dozens of stitches and that doctors were doing their best to save his eye; under his horrendous photo in hospital, Usruf is quoted saying that
the youths kicked him and broke bottles on his head while shouting racial epithets at him. "They shouted things like ‘f**kin’ Arab’ and ‘get your own country.’
Jerusalem, Monday, February 25th
Hana Amtir, an Arab woman standing at the tram stop near the central bus station, was attacked by a group of young Jewish women. AFP quotes a (Jewish) eyewitness who took pictures of the attack and documented it on Facebook:
Suddenly shouts were heard, and a group of young religious Jewish women confronted the woman and suddenly a young Jewish woman punched her in the head, […] the rest then joined in, hitting and shoving the Arab woman. The woman tried to fight them off but they shouted at her not to dare touch Jews and they continued as a group to attack her and even forcibly pulled off her head covering, […] the incident was witnessed by a security guard from the rail company and a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish students who stood by and did nothing.
Both events – the lynch in Tel Aviv and the attack in Jerusalem – were reported widely in the Israeli media (separately or even together [Hebrew]), justly framed as hate crimes, sometimes with reference to similar crimes in the recent past. Some public protest followed – a demonstration, petitions and op-eds. However, no report I’ve seen mentioned the fact that both crimes were committed on Purim (24.2), a one-day holiday that lasts a day longer in Jerusalem (24-25.2). At best, one could find the holiday mentioned in passing, for instance in the Times of Israel that also described the Tel Aviv victimizers as drunken: “Police had yet to make any arrests […] After detaining suspects, the police will determine whether the attack was racially motivated, or the action of out-of-hand Purim revelers,” as if racist motivation and Purim revelry were mutually exclusive. But as a rule, Purim was simply ignored as irrelevant.
Is the Jewish holiday really irrelevant? The notion that the attackers were drunken can be easily traced back to the religious duty to get drunk on Purim. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Purim has been identified with Jewish violence (and with accusations of violence against Jews, true or false) for centuries. Just think of the West Bank town of Hebron for example: it was Purim 1981 when Jewish settlers brought down the roof over an Arab upholstery in “Beit Hadassah”, expelling its owner and taking over the house, a crucial step in what has since developed into a full-fledged ethnic cleansing at the heart of the Palestinian town. The settlers’ Purim parades in that city have become a tradition of provocations, with Jewish violence escalating from year to year – culminating in Purim 1994, when a Jewish settler massacred 29 and injured 125 Muslim worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs. The butcher joined the settlers’ hall of fame: “Purim in Hebron after 1994 was like Purim in Hebron since 1981, only more so – with a new Jewish hero for Jewish children to dress up as,” writes Israeli historian Prof Elliott Horowitz in his excellent Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (2006, p. 8), that documents the roots and history of Jewish Purim violence (alongside with its anti-Semitic abuses by Christians) from ancient times to the present.
Like any legacy stretching from the Ancient World through the Middle Ages to Modern Times, Judaism is a multifaceted culture: it can be universal as well as nationalist; egalitarian as well as racist; liberal, even revolutionary as well as ultra-conservative – all these messages can be found in it. Among other things, Purim, however, has always reflected deep genocidal phantasies of revenge. The Book of Esther, the textual basis for this holiday, tells the story of the miraculous saving of the Jews of Persia from their enemies, most notably the evil Haman. It ends with the hanging of Haman by the Persian King. Consequently, the Jews take revenge and kill Haman’s ten sons, murder several hundreds of non-Jews in the capital Susa, and then massacre seventy-five thousand non-Jews all over Persia. That’s how the Book of Esther ends. The (probably non-existent) historical foundations of these events are irrelevant: it’s the myth and the memory that matter.
The genocidal roots of Purim go even deeper: Haman, as the short Book of Esther repeatedly stresses, is an “Agagite”, that is, an offspring of Agag. Agag was the King of the ancient Amalekites, the archetypal enemy of the Jews, on which the Bible commands to inflict genocide: “you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget” (Deuteronomy 25,19). When King Saul sins by sparing King Agag’s life, God regrets He had made him king of Israel, and Prophet Samuel “hews Agag in pieces before the Lord” (I Samuel 15,33).
These are not just idle interpretations for the learned or deep secrets known to the few; it’s all anchored in the liturgical practice of Purim. While the public reading of the Book of Esther is at the heart of the holiday itself, the Torah-text on blotting out Amalek is read in synagogue on the “Sabbath of Remembrance”, the last Saturday before Purim.Once the Arabs are seen as Haman/Amalek, Purim turns into a carneval of incitement against them.
Educating Israeli Soldiers
The Chief Rabbinate of the Israeli army has recently produced a short video (in Hebrew) to “explain” Purim to Israeli soldiers. It opens by stating the obvious, namely that Persia is today’s Iran; among the images that flash every now and then when Haman is mentioned we see not only Ahmadinejad, but also Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah, as well as (several times) Hitler, and, yes, Jesus Christ, who also makes a brief appearance. In a baseless rewriting of the legend, obviously aimed against present-day Palestinians, Haman and his sons are said to have resided in the Land of Israel, where they were inciting against the Jews and demanding to stop construction in Jerusalem(!) before moving to Persia, where the Book of Esther takes place.
In other words, the army “educational” video draws a line from Haman to Jesus, to Nazi Germany, to today’s Iran and Hezbollah, as well as to the present-day Palestinians. And Haman, as the video doesn’t even bother to remind its viewers, is Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jews: “you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, do not forget.”
From Hebron to Tel Aviv
It’s truly amazing that the Israeli media ignored the Purim context of the violent events in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Jewish Israelis are witnessing a trend of “rediscovering of” and “reconnecting to” their “Jewish roots”. In such an atmosphere, one would expect those “rediscoverers” to be aware the Jewish context of the violence: after all, this is also part of the Jewish legacy they are allegedly so fond of. But no: instead of coming to terms with the lights and shadows of the rich Jewish tradition, non-Orthodox Israelis fall prey to ominous Jewish demons without even noticing them, demons that have enjoyed an uninterrupted existence among Orthodox Jews like the radical settlers of Hebron, but have now sneaked even into “secular” Tel Aviv.