I want to share some thoughts on the current political situation in Israel, framed with reflections on the story of Esther that we read on Purim. But first I want to share my backstory, as it may be relevant to my perspective.
Just shy of three months ago I arrived in Israel for the first time. For well over a year, I had been experiencing a deep longing to visit the place I consider my spiritual homeland. I had little understanding of Israel as an actual place, but had a vivid picture of the “Land” painted in the words of Torah and by the coda to every Pesach seder: “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Now I was in Jerusalem. Not literally in the city itself, but in the “Land.” Through an unexpected event in my life last summer, I did not arrive here as a tourist or on a pilgrimage. Rather I arrived in a new relationship with a man who had made Aliyah in 2021, for whom Israel—the tangible, complex, diverse, troubled, bureaucratic, and often overly chutzpadik land—is home. Home, literally, but more importantly the place on earth where he truly feels he is home. Because both of us sensed that our relationship is destined to last a long time, the main goal in being here together was to discover whether and to what extent our feelings about and the realities of living in Israel might be compatible. To the extent they were not, what compromises would each of us need to make in support of the relationship itself?
So, for these three months I have been living in Zichron Ya’akov, a lovely seaside town in northwestern Israel. I have been grocery shopping, eaten at a vegan-friendly café in the tourist-friendly downtown area. I met Seth’s barber, who happened to be shopping for groceries at the same time we were. I have been in the post office, and in a doctor’s waiting room where we met a young couple with a 9-day old son who had his brit milah just the day before.
Getting into a conversation about circumcision with this friendly couple, we learned that the father had been quite uneasy about having it done due to the pain involved, but the mother had been more certain. This was the opposite of recent conversations that Seth and I have had, where I held the father’s position and Seth the mother’s. On a daily walk, I met a charming Russian lady, who made Aliyah some time ago, and who lives in this apartment complex; and I have enjoyed Shabbat dinners at two different homes with both observant and secular Israelis (in the same house at the same time).
I have not been to the Kotel, to a kibbutz, the Dead Sea, to any of the places one “should” go while here. I have simply been living in Israel. Simply, perhaps, from a day-to-day, practical perspective. But as a Jew who has only lived in the Diaspora, not so simple.
I have experienced what it is like to feel “normal,” to say “Shabbat Shalom” to strangers on the street and have them respond in kind; for “my” holidays to be the norm, not the exception, to see school children going home early on Friday afternoon, and their parents shopping in haste to prepare for Shabbat. I have learned not to assume any official business can be done from mid-Friday through Saturday night but that Sunday is a day you can call a government office and someone will answer. I attend Reform Shabbat services where Hebrew is not just the liturgical language, but is the language of friendship, of casual conversation, where the words of Torah are literally the words of everyday life.
I have been struggling to define my relationship to this real, complex, and troubled land. This, too, is not so simple. If I were to live here full time, even for only a few years, how would I look at the political situation, at the people around me? How do we balance the right of Jewish people to have a homeland and live there in safety with the right of all other human beings to have the same? How do we resolve claims that are based on emotion and tradition, no matter what the legal realities might be? When these are immediate, real-life questions, instead of philosophical, long-distance ones, the answers do not come so easily.
At Purim this year, I will hear portions of the Megillah read totally in Hebrew, and I will understand very little. In preparation, I decided to re-read the story: Queen Vashti of Persia refuses an order from King Ahasuerus, so he deposes her and looks for a new Queen. He picks Esther (who is Jewish, but does not reveal that fact). Haman, advisor to the King, gets insulted and incensed because Mordecai (who, unknown to him or the king, is Esther’s cousin and guardian) will not bow down to him. Haman sends out an order in the name of the King telling the Persians to initiate a pogrom against the Jews on a certain day. Mordecai finds out and convinces Esther to go to the King, reveal herself as Jewish and beg him to save her people. At great risk to her safety and position, she does so. The King wants to honor her request, but cannot simply reverse the order that Haman sent in his name. Kings can never be wrong, and reversing the order would make him look weak.
The ending to the story is something that I had forgotten. King Ahasuerus sends out a new order saying that the Jewish people are allowed to pick up arms and defend themselves by killing anyone who threatens them and they can take the spoils. Thousands of Persians are slaughtered by the Jews, but the Jews do not take the spoils even though they were allowed to. (This begs for further reflection and discussion.)
There are parallels in this story to the political and social upheavals in Israel today. The Jewish people have had many centuries to figure out how to survive as powerless underdogs, how to preserve or reframe ritual and tradition in a hostile world. We have succeeded in that regard beyond any reasonable expectation.
Power is, literally, a double-edged sword, and power is difficult to wield fairly and compassionately. It is new for us in the modern world, being in a position of power. This is not an excuse for violence, corruption and greed, racist and sexist laws, or any move to limit or destroy democracy. But perhaps in our ancestral stories there are some answers, or at least some pertinent questions, that might help us find our way out of this tragic mess.
Our children, all the children of Abraham, deserve better than this.
During my time here in Israel, I’ve shared some other impressions. You can read them at these links.https://cultivatingdignity.com/2023/01/18/waiting-for-the-train-to-netanya-more-israel-impressions/: The Double-Edged Sword https://cultivatingdignity.com/2022/12/19/in-this-land-israel-impressions/: The Double-Edged Sword https://cultivatingdignity.com/2023/02/28/half-moon-weeping/: The Double-Edged Sword https://cultivatingdignity.com/2023/01/23/birds-of-the-air/: The Double-Edged Sword