The Book of Esther’s Lesson about Politics, War, and Morality

Feb. 23 2016

The biblical book of Esther culminates in the mass revenge by Persian Jews on the anti-Semites who were planning to slay them in accordance with Haman’s plans. To many modern readers, this description of a two-day orgy of violence is a source of discomfort or even embarrassment, with some synagogues omitting the passage from the public reading of Esther on the holiday of Purim. Yoram Hazony, however, argues that this segment of the book conveys a powerful lesson about the difficult moral territory that must be navigated by those in positions of political power:

Some have suggested that [the Jews’ leader], Mordecai, . . . had the option of restraining the fury of the promised Jewish onslaught: there was no longer much question of a real anti-Semitic assault, and if he feared there would be an anti-Semitic resurgence should he relent, he could have opted just to arrest or execute a few hundred gang leaders across the empire. Would this not have sufficed? Mordecai obviously did not believe such a minimalist response would have been enough, and his decisions are straight out of Machiavelli’s textbook of power politics. . . .

[According to Machiavelli], a minimalistic response to a genuine threat all but ensures two undesired consequences, both of them deadly. First, the defeated enemy will nurture the hope of revenge, and continues to be an active threat as he seeks an opportunity to reassert his challenge. Second, the mildness of the response encourages others to take advantage of what can be perceived as hesitancy or weakness on the part of the ruler. The only hope to avoid future outrages is thus the assertion of overwhelming power in the first instance. . . .

The trouble . . . for the contemporary reader is that today we are not supposed to permit ourselves any kind of pride or satisfaction over a victory that involves wholesale bloodshed, even if we do recognize it as having been necessary. . . . Among Jews, such disregard for power and force is always strongly present. It was the prophets of Israel who introduced into the world the ideal of an end to violence among nations, with Isaiah calling for swords and spears to be beaten into agricultural implements, and Jeremiah going so far as to call for a “new covenant” to be instilled in every breast at birth, so that men should no longer desire iniquity. . . . Yet the narrative [of Esther] is unambiguous in making the power and control that the Jews consolidated in the fighting a cause for celebration—and one of the book’s central moral themes.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Biblical Politics, Esther, Morality, Nicolo Machiavelli, Purim, Religion & Holidays, War

The Right and Wrong Ways for the U.S. to Support the Palestinians

Sept. 29 2023

On Wednesday, Elliott Abrams testified before Congress about the Taylor Force Act, passed in 2018 to withhold U.S. funds from the Palestinian Authority (PA) so long as it continues to reward terrorists and their families with cash. Abrams cites several factors explaining the sharp increase in Palestinian terrorism this year, among them Iran’s attempt to wage proxy war on Israel; another is the “Palestinian Authority’s continuing refusal to fight terrorism.” (Video is available at the link below.)

As long as the “pay for slay” system continues, the message to Palestinians is that terrorists should be honored and rewarded. And indeed year after year, the PA honors individuals who have committed acts of terror by naming plazas or schools after them or announcing what heroes they are or were.

There are clear alternatives to “pay to slay.” It would be reasonable for the PA to say that, whatever the crime committed, the criminal’s family and children should not suffer for it. The PA could have implemented a welfare-based system, a system of family allowances based on the number of children—as one example. It has steadfastly refused to do so, precisely because such a system would no longer honor and reward terrorists based on the seriousness of their crimes.

These efforts, like the act itself, are not at all meant to diminish assistance to the Palestinian people. Rather, they are efforts to direct aid to the Palestinian people rather than to convicted terrorists. . . . [T]he Taylor Force Act does not stop U.S. assistance to Palestinians, but keeps it out of hands in the PA that are channels for paying rewards for terror.

[S]hould the United States continue to aid the Palestinian security forces? My answer is yes, and I note that it is also the answer of Israel and Jordan. As I’ve noted, PA efforts against Hamas or other groups may be self-interested—fights among rivals, not principled fights against terrorism. Yet they can have the same effect of lessening the Iranian-backed terrorism committed by Palestinian groups that Iran supports.

Read more at Council on Foreign Relations

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian terror, U.S. Foreign policy