Does the Book of Esther Portray Diaspora Heroism or Its Opposite?

March 9 2020

In a recently published work, Seymour Epstein offers a radical reinterpretation of Esther—the biblical scroll (megillah) read in synagogues tonight to mark the holiday of Purim. The book, he suggests, is in fact a critique of its ostensible heroes. In Epstein’s understanding, Mordechai and Esther, having passed up the opportunity to return to the Land of Israel with other Jewish exiles, are portrayed as representing the confusion and vulnerability of life in the Diaspora. In her review, Sarah Rindner summarizes his case:

In Epstein’s reading, every moment of triumph in the megillah becomes a further indictment of the Diaspora. Epstein laments that Mordechai allows Esther to be [married to] a non-Jewish king instead of protecting his niece and her Jewish identity. Esther, too, is criticized for her failure to discern, independent of her uncle’s advice, the seriousness of the verdict against the Jews while sequestered in the king’s harem, and consequently for failing to stand up for her people herself in the face of adversity. Indeed, Epstein reads the entire book as a denunciation of the inevitable moral and spiritual compromises required by life in the Diaspora. . . . For Epstein, the megillah depicts the cycle of passivity and overreaction that is endemic to the Diaspora.

While Rindner finds much that is compelling in what Epstein has to say, she is ultimately unconvinced:

[A] midrash in the medieval anthology Yalkut Shimoni states that in the messianic era, all Jewish holidays will be nullified except for Purim, and then it adds Yom Kippur to the shortlist as well. . . . Perhaps the rabbis understood that, in a messianic era characterized by an overwhelming sense of security and spiritual well-being, [Jews] will lack the sort of heroic potential that is only possible in an environment where redemption is distant. The Diaspora of the megillah, in which God seems to have been replaced by a capricious tyrant, is the ultimate description of that reality.

[For] Epstein, Diaspora life is a joke when we consider the depth and integrity of Jewish life under independent political sovereignty. It is hard to disagree entirely. But perhaps one needs to experience the darkness of Shushan to grasp the infinite reach of divine providence. In their subtle appreciation of the megillah and the enduring significance of Purim, perhaps the rabbis have the last laugh.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Diaspora, Esther, Judaism

Israel’s Friendship with Iraqi Kurds, and Why Iran Opposes It

In May 2022, the Iraqi parliament passed a law “criminalizing normalization and establishment of relations with the Zionist entity,” banning even public discussion of ending the country’s 76-year state of war with Israel. The bill was a response to a conference, held a few months prior, addressing just that subject. Although the gathering attracted members of various religious and ethnic groups, it is no coincidence, writes Suzan Quitaz, that it took place in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan:

Himdad Mustafa, an independent researcher based in Erbil, to whom the law would be applied, noted: “When 300 people gathered in Erbil calling for peace and normalization with Israel, the Iraqi government immediately passed a law criminalizing ties with Israel and Israelis. The law is clearly aimed at Kurds.” . . . Qais al-Khazali, secretary-general of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Coordination Framework), a powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militia, slammed the conference as “disgraceful.”

Himdad explains that the criminalization of Israeli-Kurdish ties is primarily driven by “Kurd-phobia,” and that Kurd-hatred and anti-Semitism go hand-in-hand.

One reason for that is the long history of cooperation Israel and the Kurds of Iraq; another is the conflict between the Kurdish local government and the Iran-backed militias who increasingly control the rest of the country. Quitaz elaborates:

Israel also maintains economic ties with Kurdistan, purchasing Kurdish oil despite objections from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. A report in the Financial Times discusses investments by many Israeli companies in energy, development sectors, and communications projects in Iraqi Kurdistan, in addition to providing security training and purchasing oil. Moreover, in a poll conducted in 2009 in Iraqi Kurdistan, 71 percent of Kurds supported normalization with Israel. The results are unsurprising since, historically, Israel has had cordial ties with the Kurds in a generally hostile region where Jews and Kurds have fought against the odds with the same Arab enemy in their struggles for a homeland.

The Iranian regime, through its proxies in the Iraqi government, is the most significant source of Kurd-phobia in Iraq and the driving factor fueling tensions. In addition to their explicit threat to Israel, Iranian officials frequently threaten the Kurdish region, and repeatedly accuse the Kurds of working with Israel.

Read more at Jersualem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Iran, Iraq, Israel-Arab relations, Kurds