Overcast winter skies deepen the chill of the stone floor, the only remains of a Palestinian family home. I sip hot tea graced by a sprig of mint as family members talk about the massacre. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein entered the Shrine of Abraham, passing through the security gate, armed with a gun, and slaughtered 29 Palestinian men in prayer. One of the men belonged to this family. Goldstein chose to commit his massacre on Purim in order to fulfill the biblical mitzvah, “Blot out the name of Amalek,” the mythic enemies of Jews, the kind of people who attack the innocent. Amalek’s descendant, Haman, tried to massacre Jews on the 14th of Adar long ago, by paying off royalty so he could satisfy his urge for revenge at being slighted. Only, the Purim story is a complete fabrication. The Scroll of Esther was written by Persian Jews as a kind of Saturday night live sketch to entertain their communities during the Persian carnival season. It is a farcical fairytale whose literary genre and message we can talk about. But, it is no longer an innocent story. Stirred into a cocktail of nationalism, religious fundamentalism, white supremacy and sexism, The Scroll of Esther can produce deadly outcomes, as can our entire tradition, if we fail to commit to a culture of repair.
As I listened to Palestinian families relive their trauma amidst a landscape of rubble created by Israeli Occupation Forces, the chill of teshuvah caught my bones. Erasure of another people cannot be a mitzvah. A narrative employed for the sake of covering up crimes we ourselves are committing must be unmasked and recast so that truth replaces lying. Without truth, we can not heal the wound. We cannot kickstart a process of healing and repair.
And the truth is, Purim exists now in 2021, in the shadow of Israeli apartheid. Israeli apartheid uses delegitimization of Palestinian history, culture, religion and people as a tool for the amplification of its militarism and national power. The narrative frame of Palestinians as ‘enemy’, the real world criminalization of Palestinian people in all aspects of their daily lives is the Amalek we must face in ourselves. Rather than getting so drunk we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai, Purim needs to become a time we actually can tell the difference between what constitutes violence, pandemic and catastrophe, and what constitutes nonviolence, healing repair and solidarity. What does that Purim story look like? What are the rites, histories and narratives of Purim and Jewish life we need to decolonize? How do we observe Purim so that our narrative and ritual performance lead to the de-criminalization of Palestinians in the attitudes, beliefs, and especially, the behaviors of Jewish people.
That afternoon, like so many other times, when Palestinian people recount the details of their trauma with hope that hearing their stories will evoke empathy that leads to action, the account of suffering under Israeli rule is followed by a single question. Knowing the history of Jewish holocaust catastrophe, many Palestinians ask Jewish people, ‘Why?” Why did your history lead to Baruch Goldstein’s plot to massacre Palestinians? Why did your history lead to apartheid and xenophobic nationalism? It is this ‘why’ which cannot be deflected into a Jewish victim narrative, or left to dangle in the wind. As our sages teach, in this moment, Amalek is us. We have to figure it out. We are obligated to respond as an act of teshuvah/repair.
This Purim, many liberal synagogues will gloss over or omit the slaughtering of one’s enemies in Chapter 9. Rather, we might follow Shakespeare’s example of interrupting tragedy with a moment of comedy and flip the script: interrupt the comedy with a serious moment of accountability. Before reading the story, or in Chapter 9, light a candle for the victims of Israeli apartheid. During the Pandemic, Israel has used its structure of militarized apartheid to both deny Palestinians access to the vaccine and expand the use of surveillance systems to further monitor Palestinian life. These surveillance techniques are then introduced in the US since they are paid for by the US and are part of the US Israeli military industrial alliance. Telling this story and naming this harm needs to be part of Purim.
May Purim be an occasion to unmask militarization of our lives. May Purim be a time to demand equity in the distribution of vaccines throughout the world, and not leave healing up to ‘chance’. May Purim be a time to lift up heroes who resist narratives and policies of sexism, racism, apartheid and white supremacy, especially those narratives and policies for which we, by design or ignorance, help maintain. May Purim be a time not to foment more hatred of Iran, but instead, honor Iranian Jews still living in Iran and connect with their stories. May Purim be a time we flip the script on neglect and criminalization, and instead, act in ways that resource each other with healing, equity and love. It is the joy that comes with justice rising that leads to liberation.