Jewish Violence on Purim: Time for a Religious Reckoning?

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Purim 2013: A Palestinian woman is attacked by ultra-nationalist Jews in Jerusalem.

Like many Jews around the world, I dutifully celebrated Purim last week. In my case, it meant hearing the Book of Esther read aloud in my synagogue while drinking an occasional shot of scotch, enjoying our annual “Oy Vey Cafe,” (a beloved congregational tradition that mixes member-written and performed show tune and classic rock parodies) and attending our synagogue Religious School’s costume parade and Purim carnival.

I’m sure that many middle-class American Jews celebrated Purim in similar fashion. I’m also fairly sure that most middle-class American Jews are unaware that Purim has long been “celebrated” in a very different manner by ultra-nationalist Jews in Israel.

Last week on the day after Purim, it was reported that a Palestinian woman was attacked by ultra-orthodox women at a light rail station in Kiryat Moshe, Jerusalem.  According to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman walked by the Palestinian woman and began punching her (see pic above).  Others soon joined in the attack and eventually tore off her hijab. According to the report, the light rail security guard, as well as some 100 religious Israeli men, stood by and did nothing. Eyewitness Dorit Yarden Dotan, who was horrified by the violence and took photos of the beating with her telephone, reported that the security guard even “watched and smiled”. “It was simply terrible,” she added.

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Photo: Jerusalem Post

By the way, this was not the only act of Purim violence this year. On the same day as the Jerusalem attack, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Hassan Usruf (right), was attacked by drunken Jewish youths whom police suspect had been participating in Purim celebrations during the evening. Usruf was punched, hit in the head with a bottle and kicked after he fell to the ground. He sustained injuries to his head, eye socket and jaw. The police have yet to arrest any suspects.

Those who follow the news must surely know that this kind of Jewish violence against Palestinians have become an annual inevitability in Israel. The most infamous Purim moment, of course, occurred in 1994, when Baruch Goldstein walked into the Cave of Machpelah in Hevron wearing an Israeli army uniform and opened fire on Palestinian worshipers, killing 29 and wounding more than 125.  By committing this act of mass murder, Goldstein believed he was fulfilling the the Book of Esther, which describes the slaughter of seventy five thousand Persians at the hands of the Jews. Since that time, Goldstein has become venerated by ultra-orthodox, ultra-nationalist Jews and for rest of us, Purim has never been quite the same.

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Purim 2009: A Jewish settler throws wine at Palestinian woman in Hevron, West Bank, (Photo: Rina Castelnuovo, NY Times)

I’ve recently finished Elliot Horowitz’s 2006 book “Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence” – a deeply troubling (but to my mind, profoundly essential) book that traces the history of Jewish violence on Purim over the centuries. Among the many disturbing revelations of Purim history in Horowitz’s book, I was surprised to learn that bad Jewish behavior on Purim has a long and not so venerable history – one that most Jewish histories either gloss over or simply choose to ignore.

Horowitz also parses the history of Purim violence in contemporary Israel, going back to Purim 1981, when Jewish settlers brought down the roof of a Palestinian upholsters’ home, expelled its owner and took over the house. (The house had once been a Jewish infirmary and synagogue, “Beit Hadassah.”) Since then, the settlers’ Purim parade in Hevron has become an annual tradition of Jewish pogroms against Palestinians. As last week’s events have demonstrated, however, this brutality is now ominously expanding into Israel proper.

Yes, the Book of Esther does come off as a kind of Jewish communal revenge fantasy, one that portrays the Jews’ massacre of the ancient Persians with sick kind of relish. As for me, I’ve always read the book according to the satirical spirit of the day: an expression of the “Jewish Id” that gives us the chance to indulge our darker fantasies in this one cathartic moment, perhaps so that they might have less of a hold over us during the rest of the year.  But of course, there are – and apparently have always been – religious literalists who are all too prepared to treat what is essentially a secular tale of palace intrigue as a sacred imperative to engage in xenophobic violence against others.

In his book, Horowitz quotes the venerable Jewish scholar Samuel Hugo Bergman (1883-1975), a former rector and professor at Hebrew University, who expressed dismay at boorish and violent behavior of Jews on Purim. Bergman – a religiously observant Jew – commented that its continued observance as a religious holiday was a sign of “the deep decay of our people.”  (p. 277)

In the post-Goldstein era, I’d say Bergman’s words resonate with ever-increasing urgency.


18 Comments on “Jewish Violence on Purim: Time for a Religious Reckoning?”

  1. Sydney says:

    Shame! I had no idea.How can we, as a people, abide by this behavior? We are supposed to be a people of memory–our memory is long and connects us. How can we now behave at Purim in a manner so reminiscent of how people behaved toward us in Europe at Easter?

  2. Donna Hicks says:

    Thank you, Brant Rosen, for reminding me of the better aspects of Purim and for your cautions about it. I have been in Hebron during Purim and I forget that its celebration in other places does not play out as I saw it in Hebron.

  3. Crohns1980 says:

    No religous holiday especialy in light of ppurim which is aboutfeedom and the amzing bravery of a young woman naed esther.shae on the people who have done thid.for they have not undrestand the meaning of being A Jew/

  4. Newland Smith says:

    Thanks, Brant, for calling to my attention Elliot Horowitz’s book. I am now reading for a second time Jacqueline Rose’s book, The Question of Zion (2005) and for the first time her book, The Last Resistance (2007) both books documenting the dark and violent side of Zionism.

    Newland Smith

  5. Frances Judith says:

    “Yes, the Book of Esther does come off as a kind of Jewish communal revenge fantasy, one that portrays the Jews’ massacre of the ancient Persians with sick kind of relish. As for me, I’ve always read the book according to the satirical spirit of the day: an expression of the “Jewish Id” that gives us the chance to indulge our darker fantasies in this one cathartic moment, perhaps so that they might have less of a hold over us during the rest of the year.” You relate to the satirical spirit of Purim? The “Jewish id” that allows you to indulge your darker side? A brutal savage retaliation fantasy that isn’t even based on any historical accuracy? Sorry Rabbi, that doesn’t sit well with me!

  6. Vicky says:

    I’m Catholic rather than Jewish, so I approach scripture through a different lens to start with, and I’m definitely closer to the orthodox end of my tradition than Brant is to the orthodox end of his. However, I don’t see how his interpretation is in any way disturbing (even though it’s not one I can totally get behind). The Bible teaches us a lot about how humans behave, including our darker side. It’s no use flinching away from that.

    One thing that has always interested me about the book of Esther (a book that I love) is the absence of God’s name. I read this in two ways: both a quiet testament to God’s power and presence (which make themselves felt through the events of our lives, even when they’re not explicitly referenced) and, more darkly, a warning of how easy it becomes to savour vengeance stemming from human power when God is not remembered enough. These are contradictory interpretations, but like steel on flint, I find they can produce some light.

  7. Frances Judith says:

    I’m neither Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, so I do not believe, or accept that the bible reflects the mind and heart of God, or is in anyway historically accurate. However, I do believe in a God, not a God of vengeance, or a God who would fulfill the vengeful fantasies of a vulnerable people.
    And I don’t need the bible to see the dark side of man, all I have to do is read a newspaper, or live a life. Vengeance in fantasy often leads to the reality of violence. It’s not the way out of the darkness.

    • I respect that you are not religious and do not read the Bible the same way I do. I hope you can respect my relationship to Biblical tradition as one that also has integrity. For my part, I don’t read these texts in a vacuum. I read them as part of a larger religious exegetical tradition that puts them into a spiritual/ethical context – and more important, that helps me to apply these teachings to the ways that I treat others and the ways I advocate for justice and compassion in the world. I certainly agree that sometimes “vengeance in fantasy” can lead to the reality of violence. But I also believe Biblical faith can also lead to the exact opposite – as many faithful practitioners of non-violence (including MLK, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and so many others) have courageously demonstrated throughout history.

      • Frances Judith says:

        Ah, Dear Rabbi Rosen, but I do consider myself a religious person. I believe in a God, a purpose to the universe, a moral code by which I live. One does not have to belong to a religious group, or follow a set of rituals to be defined as religious. And I do respect your beliefs, and your acceptance of biblical teachings and traditions. I never said, I didn’t.

      • My apologies, Frances. I should have read your previous comment more carefully!

  8. Neal Chambers says:

    I have a Purim Celebration. I got my email on Purim from eteacher in Israel and imagined. I saw wonderful people such as yourself denouncing injustice. There were so many coming together that it stunned the greedy, murderous, lying, cheating crowd of con artists that currently rule. For two generations peace came from this bright coming together of people.

    That was Pure Mmmm.

    Neal

  9. The images are terrible and the account given by the eye witness is horrific – how can this be justified? Take away religion and I can expect some barbaric actions but when you follow a religion to guide mankind – how then, such behaviour is tolerated?

    To me, over the years, seems that the oppressed (Jews of Europe) have now become the oppressors (Jews in Israel/Palestine). I am ashamed and gutted.

  10. Elliott Horowitz says:

    Dear Rabbi Rosen
    I’m glad that you’ve got around to reading (and writing about) my book.
    I don’t agree, however, with the person who linked it with the work of J. Rose.
    I am a practicing Jew and a practicing Zionist, and see Zionism as no more responsible for Jewish violence than the Jewish religion itself. My work should be (and has been) linked more closely with that of my fellow Jerusalemite Yisrael Yuval.
    EH

  11. Jay says:

    You had been misled by the Ma`ariv report about the first instance of “Jewish violence”. Initially the Arab woman had attacked Jewish bystanders, and seveal leftist Israeli reporters distorted their reaction of hitting back at her into senseless violence against a “Palestinian” woman at a light rail station in Qiryat Moshe, Jerusalem.

      • Jay says:

        “Attorney Itamar Ben Gvir, who is representing the three girls accused of initiating the fight, verified Koren’s claims on Monday, telling Arutz Sheva that the entire incident is a spin by the radical left.

        “The more evidence that comes in, the more the real story is being discovered,” Ben Gvir said. “There are two objective eyewitnesses, there is medical documentation and all these things indicate that the version of the Jewish girls is the correct one.”

        He added, “A verbal confrontation in which the Arab woman cursed the Jewish people and said things against the State of Israel turned into a physical confrontation – with the Arab leading the physical confrontation. The girls say that they acted for reasons of self-defense.”

        Ben Gvir noted that although the Arab has been telling Israeli media outlets, that were quick to classify the incident as a “lynching” of the woman, that she feared for her life during the brawl, it turns out that she did not approach the police voluntarily, doing so only after leftists convinced her to file a complaint. The woman only filed a complaint with the police four days after the fact, he said.

        “Unfortunately, both the media and the police fell for this spin,” he added.” http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/165879#.UpHN59Jmhac You will probably knock Ben Gvir and INN, which will be imprudent and unfortunate. All the same, this comment concludes the extent of my involvement in this webpage, in all forms.

      • Yes, I will “knock” Ben Gvir’s statement. The attorney for the defense cannot reasonably by any stretch be considered to be an unbiased and credible source. And I don’t consider it “imprudent” to say so.

  12. […] by violence against Palestinians—a tradition that has leaked into Jerusalem as well (see this report from last […]


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