Mordecai Manuel Noah, the Book of Esther, and the Ambiguities of the Jewish Diaspora

Born in Philadelphia to a prominent Jewish family, Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851) was a playwright, essayist, lawyer, and (briefly) the U.S. consul to Tunis. He also served as a New York City sheriff, founded several newspapers, corresponded with ex-presidents on the subject of Jewish rights, and, in 1825, embarked on a quixotic proto-Zionist project to create a Jewish colony on Grand Island—located in the Niagara River separating western New York from Canada. Considering Noah’s colorful career, Stuart Halpern compares him with his biblical namesake:

The first Jew to confront openly the challenges and opportunities of American freedom, Mordecai Manuel Noah, like the biblical Mordechai, attempted through his actions to make the case that Jews could be robed in the clothing of leaders, spokespeople, and guardians of their country—for the benefit of their Jewish brethren, and the benefit of all citizens of the realm. Whether that case was a convincing one, in the eyes of their respective Jewish communities or in the minds of the citizenry of their respective home countries, remains open to debate.

[To some], the ending of the book of Esther is . . . tinged with pessimism and even tragedy, [a] tale of Jews barely retaining their national identity. Unlike the book of Ruth, which concludes with a genealogy leading to the birth of King David, Esther ends without offering hope of a viable future for the Jews of Shushan, [the Persian capital where the book takes place]. Mordechai doesn’t leverage his political power to pave the way for a return of the Jews to Israel, where the Second Temple was already standing, but rather is absorbed into the economic and political machine that is the Persian empire.

Mordecai Manuel Noah sharpens the question raised by the biblical Mordechai: can there be viable Jewish continuity in the Diaspora, even in a country with the freedoms and protections of America? According to [some rabbis and scholars], the very purpose of the megillah [read on Purim] is a satirical one—to demonstrate that efforts to build vibrant Jewish life outside of Israel are quixotic. [In this reading], the notorious absence of God’s name in the megillah, reflective of the hiddenness of His presence outside of Israel, [is one of many] signs that there was as much of a promising future for Shushan’s Jews as there was the chance that a ceremony in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in upstate New York, [held by Noah to inaugurate his Grand Island project], would lead to the first Jewish homeland in 1,800 years.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish History, Esther, Mordecai, Zionism


The ICJ’s Vice-President Explains What’s Wrong with Its Recent Ruling against Israel

It should be obvious to anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the Gaza war that Israel is not committing genocide there, or anything even remotely akin to it. In response to such spurious accusations, it’s often best to focus on the mockery they make of international law itself, or on how Israel can most effectively combat them. Still, it is also worth stopping to consider the legal case on its own terms. No one has done this quite so effectively, to my knowledge, as the Ugandan jurist Julia Sebutinde, who is the vice-president of the ICJ and the only one of its judges to rule unequivocally in Israel’s favor both in this case and in the previous one where it found accusations of genocide “plausible.”

Sebutinde begins by questioning the appropriateness of the court ruling on this issue at all:

Once again, South Africa has invited the Court to micromanage the conduct of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Such hostilities are exclusively governed by the laws of war (international humanitarian law) and international human-rights law, areas where the Court lacks jurisdiction in this case.

The Court should also avoid trying to enforce its own orders. . . . Is the Court going to reaffirm its earlier provisional measures every time a party runs to it with allegations of a breach of its provisional measures? I should think not.

Sebutinde also emphasizes the absurdity of hearing this case after Israel has taken “multiple concrete actions” to alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians since the ICJ’s last ruling. In fact, she points out, “the evidence actually shows a gradual improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza since the Court’s order.” She brings much evidence in support of these points.

She concludes her dissent by highlighting the procedural irregularities of the case, including a complete failure to respect the basic rights of the accused:

I find it necessary to note my serious concerns regarding the manner in which South Africa’s request and incidental oral hearings were managed by the Court, resulting in Israel not having sufficient time to file its written observations on the request. In my view, the Court should have consented to Israel’s request to postpone the oral hearings to the following week to allow for Israel to have sufficient time to fully respond to South Africa’s request and engage counsel. Regrettably, as a result of the exceptionally abbreviated timeframe for the hearings, Israel could not be represented by its chosen counsel, who were unavailable on the dates scheduled by the Court.

It is also regrettable that Israel was required to respond to a question posed by a member of the Court over the Jewish Sabbath. The Court’s decisions in this respect bear upon the procedural equality between the parties and the good administration of justice by the Court.

Read more at International Court of Justice

More about: Gaza War 2023, ICC, International Law