Saturday, March 10, 2012

Happy Purim to all of us

1) Purim in Washington

It was the week of the nuclear duck. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, what is it? Really, what could it be? Maybe it's Dimona?

While trying to convince the President of the United States that it was time to bomb the nuclear duck (the Iranian duck, only the Iranian) the Prime Minister of Israel handed him a copy of the Book of Esther, which tells the story of the downfall and hanging of a Persian villain 2400 years ago, events for whose commemoration the Jewish religion instituted the Purim Holiday. Maybe exactly this would convince Obama to settle accounts with the Persian villain of the present day?

When and where, exactly, was The Book of Esther written? Did the events recounted there actually happen? Was there ever, once upon a time, a man at the court of the King of Persia named Haman, son of Hammedatha the Agagite, who conspired to perpetrate a  massacre of the Jews in the many provinces under the King's rule? Whether or not such a person ever lived, there is no doubt that when the book was written the phenomenon which we know as "antisemitism" already existed. The Jews were already a religious and ethnic minority scattered among many countries and nations, and already there were those who hated them and sought to harm them.

And how to interprete this Book  and what lessons can be drawn from it for our own time? It can certainly be read as the story of cynical intrigues and power struggles going on at a corrupt and profligate royal court thousands of years ago, which are in many ways reminiscent of  various intrigues and power struggles still going on in our own day. And there are quite a few Feminist interpretations of King Ahasverus' relationship with the women in his life and his palace. And certainly, it can be read as the wonderful story of a struggle against racist persecution, the story of a threatened minority over whose heads hung a terrible threat, and who were saved due to a tenacious struggle for survival and due to a courageous and resourceful young queen who took considerable risks for the sake of her people.

But it can also be read as a story of bloody and cruel revenge, of how the hunted in a twinkling became the hunter, how those who were very nearly killed and slaughtered turned on the very next day into bloody killers themselves. Of how it was not enough to hang on a tall tree "Haman, Persecutor of the Jews", but also his ten sons were hanged with him - including his youngest, Weizata, whom Jewish tradition remembers as a rather confused child who was not really involved in his father's machinations. "It was turned around, and the Jews had rule over them that hated them. The Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces, to lay hand on such as sought their hurt, and no man could withstand them, for the fear of them fell upon all people." And the Book of Esther sums up with the grim statistics - no less than seventy-five thousand killed in two days. And who were these  people? Did they all deserve death? The names and details are not told.

Did it really happen, about 2400 years ago? Is it history or legend? What is indisputable is that in the year 1994, it was these precise verses which inspired a doctor named Baruch Goldstein at the settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron to go out on Purim and come to a holy site where tradition places the burial place of the ancient ancestors of the Jews and the Arabs alike. There, in this place and at this time of the year and inspired by these verses in the Book of Esther, he perpetrated a slaughter of Muslims during their prayer and set in motion the cycle of hatred, and of revenge, and of revenge for revenge for revenge, which led to suicide bombings of buses and the assassination of a Prime Minister on a square in the heart of Tel Aviv and the derailing of a process which should have led to peace and an end to the occupation no later than May 1999. And still now, there are those in the settlements who are attracted precisely to these verses, and who wave the words " It was turned around" like a sword aimed at their Palestinian neighbors - especially, but not only, on the day of Purim.

And what is the Book of Esther for the current Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu? What did he think, exactly what did he want to express when presenting this book to the President of the United States?

2) Purim in Holon

In truth, most of the Israelis do not delve too deeply into the Book of Esther or ponder its subtle implications. Purim is conceived as mainly and primarily a children's holiday, indeed the most important event for children in the entire year, a carnival holiday of colorful costumes and masks, of funny games and pranks and acts of mischief. The text of the Book of Esther is not taken very seriously – a funny and entertaining story about a drunkard king and his unkempt court. The mass killings at the end are played down, like the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales were changed from the very brutal stories published in the 19th century to the charming fairy tales nowadays known to the world's children.

For the past twenty years the city of Holon established the tradition of the Adloyada, the  colorful carnival parade thought its main streets, this year also helped by the weather (not the slightest hint of rain). On the way to the cheerful parade route, Border Police could be seen hefting their guns, but security was less heavy than in the Purims of five or ten years ago. Only briefly did the children and their parents stop when a chain of explosions rent the air, but these turned out to be only a string of firecrackers which someone had shot into the air.

At Sokolov Street, the main street of Holon, a large crowd had gathered along the sidewalks to watch the parade, also on  the balconies  and rooftops were masses of people. And cheerful giant floats passed along to the sound of joyous music and the cheering crowd, and some of them included hints to the social protests of the past summer. Also manifested was the spirit of Vegetarianism which in recent years had become more trendy in Israeli society. A giant chicken, with friendly and a bit sad face, sat under the sign "I do not want to become a schnitzel". Behind it, a huge pile of mouth-watering papier-mâché vegetables was surmounted by the sign "Vegetables are good for you".

And especially, there were the schools and youth clubs of the city of Holon, group after group of children and adolescents, from first grade to those who about to complete high school, dressed and made up and dancing and jumping and walking on their hands and performing all  kinds of antics and stunts. It was clear that they had devoted much effort of preparation and rehearsals ahead of this big day. Group after group passed along the wide street and danced and jumped and received the cheers of the crowd. And not just from the city of Holon. Also from schools in neighboring towns, children and youths came to this great Purim parade , and even from Oranit a group of girls came to take part in the Purim parade of Holon. Oranit, for those who do not know, is a settlement located beyond the Green Line, in the territory which was occupied by the armed  forces of Israel in 1967 and which is still under military rule and where the State of Israel is prohibited under International Law to move to its citizens (but ignores this prohibition). But Oranit is not a particularly fanatic settlement – more of a middle class suburb – and very few people present at the colorful procession noticed or gave thought to the location of Oranit.  Anyway, the girls from there looked exactly like those in the other contingents, wearing tight black clothes and clown makeups on their faces and dancing and jumping and getting their share of the crowd's applause.

Overall, it was a nice and friendly event, not very deep or meaningful. Children and youngsters have the right to rejoice together in the city streets and enjoy life, which in this country would probably provide them later on with less pleasant experiences. The children and teenagers and parents dispersed happily home, ordinary Israelis in their masses. According to the opinion polls of March 2012, most of these parents - like most citizens of Israel - would on the next elections vote to return to power Binyamin Netanyahu and his partners, even if they do not really want him to rush into war against Iran.

3) Purim in Yatta

The town of Yatta in the South Hebron Hills had also known celebrations, but it was several months ago. In October 2011, residents of Yatta went into their streets to celebrate and welcome home the town's resident Khaled Musa Almahamra, who was released from Israeli prison as part of the great prisoner exchange deal.

This week, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, there was no cause for celebration in Yatta. Precisely on our holiday there arrived IDF soldiers to arrest the ex-detainee and haul him back to prison. "He had been involved in transferring money to a terrorist organization" said the security services of the State of Israel. For the general Israeli public, the word of the security services is sacrosanct, and the military judges issues Administrative Detention orders on the basis of secret evidence and do not ask many questions. What is the evidence, to whom was the money sent, what exactly is it meant to fund? (There were quite a few cases in which the funding of charities was considered as terrorism. Also the establishment of kindergartens.) We will probably never know.

At the same time when Holon youths marched happily through the streets of their city, their  peers in Yatta went out into their own streets to protest the arrest of the neighbor who had just been released. And an Israeli soldier was hurt by a Japanese knife and shot and killed one of the Yatta youths and seriously injured two others who were taken to intensive care.

On the Israeli television evening news, coverage of the event was mostly focused on the  lightly wounded soldier, the dead Palestinians being mentioned only in passing. And then the news magazine passed on the more joyous item of the big Purim parade in Holon and the smaller parades in several other cities. Everybody who missed seeing it in the flesh could see the young happy dancers in a beautiful colorful broadcast lasting several minutes.

4) Purim in Gaza

Here I intended to finish this article, but the Purim of this year was far from over, and there were still dramatic events in store. It was still Purim when the Air Force planes of the State of Israel entered the skies of the Gaza Strip, to carry out a liquidation from the air and hit directly and accurately at Zuhair Qaisi, General Secretary of the Popular Resistance Committees.

We were told through the media that this action, at precisely this time, was absolutely needed and necessary. Because the man was a dangerous terrorist, who was involved in preparations for an attack on Israel through the Egyptian border. The evidence that this is indeed so we will most probably never see or know. Of course, this is highly classified intelligence material. And if Qaisi had indeed been busy planning an infiltration through the Egyptian border, did his death prevent this attack, or did it actually add motivation to those who are about to carry it out? This we might, or might not, know in the near future.

In any case, those who ordered the assassination in Gaza could have been sure that it would be followed by a barrage of missiles on the communities of southern Israel (about one hundred, as of this moment) and that in response to the missiles the planes would come again and kill more Palestinians (15, as of this moment). And exactly who were these fifteen people? The official Channel-1 spoke about 15 terrorists - the last two killed while on a motorcycle on their way to shoot rockets.  But in the slightly more independent Channel-10, the reporter noted that from the footage taken in Rafah, it appears that the two motorcycle riders were transporting vegetables. But of course, there are also terrorists who eat vegetables…

On the Israeli side of the border, no one was killed (as of this moment). There were only four wounded, and quite a lot of people who spent the last day of Purim nervously listening for the air raid warnings and sprinting to the nearest shelters. Iris, from the town of Ofakim, told of the events of the last day of Purim in her neighborhood. "We are forced to leave home and run to the shelter, where the whole neighborhood gathers. In  truth, sleeping is very difficult. We sleep on a blanket under difficult conditions, a dirty floor, filthy toilet, a big nightmare. At six in the morning we had to get up again, because there was a barrage again, and no more sleep."

But anyway, Happy Purim to all of us!