Esther, Shakespeare, and the Hidden Hand of God

March 21 2019

In the book of Esther, read in synagogues yesterday evening and today, the miraculous salvation of Persian Jewry from the genocidal plot of the wicked vizier Haman appears to take place thanks to a few fortunate coincidences and the courage of the two heroes, Mordecai and Esther. Indeed, God’s name is mentioned nowhere in the text, and there are but two oblique references, made by Mordecai, to divine providence. Noah Millman seeks to make sense of these puzzling aspects of the book through a comparison with Shakespeare:

Were it not canonical, we might read the book of Esther as a comic story of pluck and luck. . . . But Esther is canonical. . . . This is how Mordecai himself tells Esther (and us) to understand the story. Salvation will come one way or another, he tells her, and one should act as if one has a providential role to play even though there is no sign of it. Non-signs thus become signs, and every profane or comedic element in the book is transformed into a greater source of wonder. . . .

However familiar, this reading is still strange. . . . When Mordecai asks Esther to consider the possibility that she was placed in the palace for a purpose, he gestures at a plane of existence for which the reader has seen no evidence. Esther’s own faith, with which she girds herself to approach [her husband, the Persian emperor] Ahasuerus, is stoic: “And if I perish, I shall perish.” To read such a story providentially, as Mordecai and tradition bid us, requires us to see the book’s biblical status as itself evidence of God’s controlling hand, the very fact that we read the story in a synagogue on Purim implying that there is destiny in coincidence, fulfilled prophecy in surprise.

It’s a neat trick. But would it work if we could actually see the author manipulating those chance occurrences? Make him visible, make it possible to ask why this way and not that? [As it happens], Shakespeare wrote that play. In Measure for Measure we see just that kind of manipulation by a character with godlike pretensions and with some of the same plot elements and turns as Esther. . . . Reading the book of Esther by the light of Shakespeare’s play forces us to face our ambivalence about the character of this hidden manipulator, to feel both the weight of his sovereignty and our frustration at his lack of forthrightness.

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More about: Hebrew Bible, Purim, Religion & Holidays, William Shakespeare

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat