Next week the Jewish world will celebrate Purim, a holiday that introduces the concept of anti-Semitism and the demonization of the Jews, whose laws are different from the people of Persia, where they live.
“There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among all the other peoples and in all the provinces of your empire. Their folkways are different from those of any other people and they do not obey the laws of the king. It is not becoming to the king to tolerate them.” (Megillah Esther 3:8)
This quote, attributed to Haman, resonates throughout all of Jewish history. Haman, the king’s vizier, was incensed that among the 127 nations that occupied ancient Persia, there was only one that kept its own heritage, tradition, language and dress. Hamman drafted a royal order encouraging a bloodbath and the killing of the Jews on the 15th day of the month of Adar, the day we now celebrate as Purim.
And a month later, the Jewish world will celebrate another great holiday—Pesach. Through the 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were a recognizably different nation because they lived a distinctly different life. They retained their national identity so that they would not assimilate.
What later stirred up Hamman’s anger in Persia was exactly what had kept the Israelites in Egypt as a nation. And it has sustained us ever since.
Haman held a deep understanding of our Jewish story. He understood that the survival and triumph of Jews was born of our persistence, determination, unity and commitment to tradition and heritage.
Seeing Mordechai lead the Jews, who held fast to their beliefs and customs as a unified people, meant one thing to Haman—we could not be defeated. And of course, anyone who has attended a raucous Purim celebration knows that we weren’t.
Jews of 2017 are still scattered. Seventy-two years after the Holocaust, the number of Jews worldwide is now approaching what it was before World War II. There are nearly 16 million Jews globally, with Jews living outside of Israel and North America in countries such as France, Latin America, Russia, Australia, Africa, South Africa, Ukraine, Hungary, Iran, Asia, Romania, New Zealand, Morocco, India and others. Many of these Jews suffer from anti-Semitic outbreaks, hatred and terror.
It’s unfortunate, and so sad that anti-Semitism still exists. It is a concept that should have vanished and should not exist in a world where pluralism, liberalism, human rights and equality are valued.
Jews are still scattered, yet we still hold onto our beliefs and customs as a unified people, something that still upsets those who cannot tolerate people who are both involved and active citizens in North America, yet committed to their tradition and heritage.
More than 100 bomb threats have been phoned into more than 81 locations. Most have been JCCs, hubs of pluralism, diversity and acceptance. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and violated, and we see anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head as hatred and fear spreads. Such narrow-minded individuals, who perpetrate these acts, do not understand how we can be scattered yet united. They do not understand that we have flourished under oppression, and risen above it. It is what kept us strive through Dark Ages.
The beauty of our times, as opposed to when Mordechai and Queen Esther lived, is that most Jews today have the ability to choose where to live, and how to live their lives as Jews. The story of India’s Bnei Menashe beautifully tells that story of today, their lifelong dream symbolically fulfilled right before Purim.
Operation Menashe 2017 was launched last week when a group of Bnei Menashe arrived in Israel from the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram, India. The goal over the next 12 months is to bring 600 members of the Bnei Menashe from India to our Jewish homeland.
The Bnei Menashe trace their heritage to tribe of Manasseh, one of the 10 lost tribes exiled from the land of Israel more than 2,700 years ago by the Assyrian empire. Despite being cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for so long, the Bnei Menashe continued to preserve the ways of their ancestors, observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, adhering to the laws of family purity and undoubtedly arguing a lot among themselves.
Despite being scattered, we have the ability and persistence to make Jewish choices while living among others, respectfully. We have done so while preserving a rich Jewish heritage and culture. This wasn’t a notion Haman could accept. He must have been terrified of an independent, different culture, an “other” among his own people. He couldn’t tolerate that, any more than modern-day anti-Semites can.
A month from now we will read from Pesach’s Haggadah—“The more the Israelites were oppressed the more they grew.”
May we continue to grow and flourish in strength, spirit, beauty and our ability to repair the world, while sharing our values with others in our communities. At the same time, we proudly preserve our traditions and above all, stay united and committed to ourselves, the Jewish nation. Not Haman, nor Pharoah, nor any modern-day anti-Semite will ever defeat us.
Thinking of you and sending you my prayers for a happy and safe Purim to be followed by many calls asking to join your JCC, a true center for acceptance, tolerance and values!
Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center