The Duality of the Jews
When the sun has barely risen over the horizon on a Tuesday morning and most students are still in the process of rolling out of bed, a group of superhero-like staff are already at school learning. This little known group meeting is called Learning Lishma (learning for its own sake) and involves all different staff, Jewish and non-Jewish, teaching and administration, learning Jewish texts together over breakfast. For the last five weeks we have been studying Megillat Ester – the ancient Jewish text that depicts the story of Purim. Our intricate exploration of this wonderful story was going quite well, right up until the controversial eighth chapter.
Many of us first learnt the story of Purim in our Primary years. At that age, the story was a magnificent wonder, where the heroes Ester and Mordechai save the Jewish people from the evil Haman. As our study group began reading the story’s ending, we were confronted by public hangings and the slaughter of 75,312 people at the hands of the Jews. Like patting a cat the wrong way, something seemed unnatural or even unbelievable. Our knee jerk reaction was to assume we had misunderstood something, or to find some semblance of a justification. “It was self-defence!” or “we had no choice!” Our discussion quickly turned from exploring this gruesome event, to our modern day reaction to violence undertaken by Jews.
For two thousand years, the Jewish world was for the most part disenfranchised, often victims at the mercy of others. Perhaps today, our collective subconscious is most comfortable with this weakened perception of the Jewish people. It’s hardly surprising that many of us frame events such as Israel’s success in the War of Independence or the Six Day War as miracles, as we struggle to perceive Jews as successful fighters. Indeed in the diaspora, we can’t seem to shake off our caricatured image of a Jew as a short, asthma-riddled accountant.
In some ways, the upcoming Israeli national election illustrates this very dilemma. While there are many issues that separate the political parties, none are more at the heart of the election than those of identity – specifically how we perceive ourselves as a nation. On the one hand, we have those parties who espouse an Israel that must hold itself to a higher ethical code than other nations; a country whose defence forces and judicial system are hyper vigilant and litigious to unethical behaviour. On the other hand, we have parties who champion a pragmatic Israel that has the right to be viewed equally in its actions to those of other countries; a nation that will not apologise for defending itself in a dangerous neighbourhood.
Let’s be honest, we want the best of both worlds. We like the idea of our traditions setting us apart with a moral code that champions the underdog and protects the weak. Yet at the same time, we want to know that we can be tough and stand our ground when necessary.
Perhaps the early morning Learning Lishma group was a little too harsh on our Purim heroes. Ester and Mordechai’s story is one that presents two sides of the identity coin, we are both victims and violent actors in the same narrative. Potentially, we have uncovered another hidden message in the Megillah … The duality of the Jews.
Chag Purim Sameach,
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