Scott A. Shay
Mar 7, 2023
Physical attacks on Jews in New York City occur at a pace of one attack every 33 hours.
Antisemitism is on the rise. In recent weeks, Jews were shot at while leaving synagogue in Los Angeles. Physical attacks on Jews in New York City occur at a pace of one attack every 33 hours. A professor in Arizona was killed after receiving antisemitic threats. A Resume Builder survey of 1,131 hiring managers reported that 26% of recruiters are less likely to move forward with Jewish applicants, 17% said that senior management has told them not to hire Jews and 29% said that antisemitism is acceptable at their companies. The Anti Defamation League’s latest report indicated that antisemitic incidents against Jews rose 34% last year alone.
How should Jews react to these circumstances? The current efforts by Jewish organizations have accomplished little. In my view, the story of Purim, celebrated today, explains the failure and offers a more effective strategy in its place.
The story of Purim told in the Book of Esther describes the rise of Jew-hatred in the ancient Persian Empire and the Jewish community’s responses.
In the book, an evil advisor, Haman, convinces the Persian King Achashverosh to issue a decree making it legal for all non-Jewish Persian subjects to kill the Jewish subjects on a certain day of hate. While many non-Jews were puzzled by this, no one protested. Horrified by this decree, the community leader Mordechai adopts what would be his first strategy. He wanted to appeal to the king’s sense of justice and mercy. He reaches out to Esther, both his
adopted daughter and the queen, to ask her to plead with the king. Esther listens to the plan, but refuses to follow through. She explains that the king only cares about power and his own
safety. If she approaches him outside of palace protocol she will be killed.
Mordechai’s response to Esther’s protest leads to his second strategy. Mordechai tells Esther that since she is at the heart of Persian society as the queen, she must have a better idea about how to reverse this decree than the organized Jewish community.
Esther then devises her own second strategy. She bases it on her analysis of the king and his concerns. She decides to appeal to the king’s sense of self-preservation. Through a series of plans based on palace protocol, Esther leads the king to understand that Haman’s plans don’t stop with the Jews, but with his crown. She demonstrates how Haman’s plan to kill all the Jews is a stepping stone to manipulating the crown off the king’s head. This strategy works.
Esther’s efforts persuade the king, and the Jews are not only saved, but the-would-be murderers brought to justice.
The American Jewish community has been stuck on the first strategy, with few results. Despite appeals to justice, there has been little government effort beyond noble sounding statements to fight anti-Jewish hatred. The University of Arizona professor was killed even though police knew of previous texts from the student murderer that he wanted to “blow (expletive) brains out” coupled with numerous antisemitic conspiracy theories texts. It is not that anyone in the government condoned this, they just didn’t do anything. As in the Purim
story, there are certainly other Americans who are concerned, but not enough to act. It is now time to move to the second strategy. The best way to reduce antisemitism is to convince the powers that be that antisemitism is bad for everyone.
Esther’s point to the king was that Haman’s plan was an affront to his power. Likewise, antisemitism is an affront to the moral and legal order that protects the power of both elected officials and citizens. Unfortunately, historical examples of this link abound. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “what begins with the Jews, never ends with the Jews.”
To put this strategy into action we need both individuals and groups outside of the organized Jewish community to get this message across. In particular, we need people from industries like the media, universities, law, high tech, and government across the political spectrum, to use their skills. They are the best places to show those in power that antisemitism leads to the breakdown of the political and legal order.
The Purim story offers one final lesson. Taking on this mission will mean career risk for Jews and their allies who step up. For Esther it was a matter of life and death, not just cancellation.
But this mission is essential. Jews are society’s canary in the coal mine. While the canary dies first when the air becomes poisonous, the miners soon follow.