In Persia, an oppressive and vengeful leader seeks the total annihilation of the Jewish people. It sounds like a line from an Israeli speech, but it’s also the story of the Purim holiday that Jews mark this week.
From sundown on Wednesday, religious Jews will start the traditional reading of the Book of Esther, while their secular counterparts celebrate by dressing up as characters from the Purim story, and other less traditional figures.
This year the holiday has additional meaning for some, providing historical parallels as Israel’s leaders weigh their response to Iran’s nuclear program.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others here fear the program masks a weapons drive and argue that a nuclear-armed Iran would create a new Persian threat to the existence of the Jewish people.
In Washington this week, he presented U.S. President Barack Obama with a copy of the Book of Esther, which tells of the genocidal plot against the Jews devised by Haman the Agagite.
The gift sent a clear message, said Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi: “It helps Obama understand how Jews look at the world.”
Netanyahu also reportedly explicitly told Obama that Israel faced a modern-day Haman, and drew similar parallels in a speech to a U.S. pro-Israel lobby group.
“In every generation, there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people,” he said. “In this generation, we are blessed to live in an age when there is a Jewish state capable of defending the Jewish people.”
In Israel, others have made the connection, with senior ultra-Orthodox rabbi Ovadia Yosef warning last month: “There is now also a Haman in Persia.”
But while Netanyahu and his confidantes are said to be considering military action against Iran, Yosef noted that the Purim story teaches that salvation came through prayer.
“We do not need to attack Iran,” he said. “God will fight for us.”
Author Halevi said Netanyahu’s more activist reading of the Purim story was understandable.
“Tradition emphasizes that (the Book of Esther) is the only sacred text in the Hebrew Bible without God’s name in it, and that’s understood as an indication that this is a story that requires human initiative, that saving oneself requires human initiative, and that God’s help is implicit rather than overt,” he said.
“In that sense, Netanyahu is reading the Purim story correctly when he advocates active Israeli self defense against a perceived existential threat.”
But Micah Goodman, who teaches Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, cautioned against reading too much into the parallels.
“History never repeats itself, and any attempt to learn from one time to another is always misleading,” he said.
“Purim is a symbol in the hearts and minds” of Jewish people, and “tapping into it is a way of getting people to listen.”