Looking for the Roots of Contemporary Anti-Semitism in Christian Interpretations of the Book of Esther

Dec. 14 2016

In Jews and Anti-Judaism in Esther and the Church, the scholar Tricia Miller analyzes the historicity and origins of the biblical book of Esther, its ancient Greek translations, and readings of the book in early Christian literature. She then argues that these readings gave rise to anti-Semitic ideas, which have since been revived by modern-day Christian enemies of the Jewish state in the Middle East and elsewhere. Key to her argument are the two Greek versions of Esther, which contain passages not found in the Hebrew Bible but incorporated into the Bibles used by Catholics and several other Christian denominations. Rivkah Fishman-Duker writes in her review:

Miller argues that . . . Christian interpretations of the book of Esther [are] part of the background of [many current] anti-Jewish and anti-Israel accusations, especially regarding the right of self-defense against acts of terrorism and the use of “disproportionate” or “excessive” force against the enemy when under attack. [At the core of these accusations is the notion that] Jews must remain passive and never respond to any provocation, threat, or attack, or inflict casualties upon their enemies, and any Jewish retaliation [like that at the end of Esther] must be regarded as an attempt to commit wanton slaughter or even genocide against the Palestinians. . . .

[Miller notes that Haman’s] decree to kill all the Jews and despoil them is rather straightforward in the Hebrew text (Esther 3:8-9), stating that the Jews “have laws that differ from those of other peoples and do not keep the king’s laws,” but both Greek texts contain more intensely negative descriptions of the Jews. The Septuagint’s text refers to Jews as “hostile” and their laws “opposed to other peoples.” They are in a state of “military alertness against everyone,” are “ill-disposed toward our affairs,” and “commit . . . the worst deeds.” . . . Such descriptions reflect the common Greek and Roman perceptions of the Jews as “xenophobic” and “misanthropic.”

Miller points out that many Christian interpreters of Esther expressed either ambivalence or outright antipathy toward the book itself and to acts of Jewish self-defense. However, it is difficult to attribute their negative views of Jewish retaliation against enemies directly, or even partially, to such interpretations of Esther. It is more likely that they gleaned their opinions from a wide range of scriptural texts cited in anti-Jewish arguments by Christian thinkers. . . . [Similarly, whether today’s anti-Israel Christian religious leaders] gleaned their views from their reading of Esther or from a wider historical context remains an open question.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Christianity, Esther, History & Ideas, Septuagint


No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East