The Purim Story Is a Warning, Not a Justification

03/04/2015 06:57 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

In his much-derided speech to a joint session of Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked the story of Purim, the Jewish holiday celebrated this week, as a story of Jewish self-defense and survival. For Netanyahu, the story of Purim, which comes from the Book of Esther, was a story about Jewish survival in the face of intended annihilation. But he forgot to finish the story.

Most significantly, Netanyahu avoided mentioning what happens at the end of the story, a horrible massacre. After the Jews are saved from impending elimination by Esther's courage and King Ahasuerus' mercy, Esther and her Uncle Mordechai, Jews who have attained power, decree that the Jews may preemptively kill those who they think pose a threat -- 75,000 enemies of the Jewish people are killed. By invoking this story while leaving out the grisly ending, Netanyahu implied that Jewish security and survival was worth the cost of the loss of other people's lives. With this story, he advocated a policy that many analysts agree would put the U.S. (and Israel) on a path towards military confrontation with Iran.

As Jonathan Chait points out in the New York Times Magazine, Netanyahu's argument falls into a pattern of a fatalistic strain of Jewish thought that "equates all strategic enemies of the Jewish people with each other, in a long, undifferentiated historical stream. They all share the same goal, the complete elimination of the Jewish people, from the Persian kings of the story of Purim through Hitler through whichever geopolitical enemy faces Israel at any given moment." According to this strain of Jewish thinking, there is always someone out to annihilate the Jews, and Jews must be prepared to preemptively address any threats through violent aggression against perceived enemies.

This is exactly the kind of narrow-minded, ethnocentric argument that has lead so many Jews to justify the increasingly brutal military occupation of the West Bank. The kind of tunnel vision that leads to the practice of what the Israeli security establishment calls "mowing the lawn": bombarding the people of Gaza every couple of years in order to quell any resistance to the Israeli blockade of the Strip. The kind of logic that requires humiliating and inconveniencing Palestinians at checkpoints and building an apartheid wall that ghettoizes Palestinians and separates them from their land, all in the name of 'security.'

Writing in The Daily Beast, Dean Obeidallah reminds Netanyahu that if security is what Israel wants, it would do better to work towards peace with Palestinians than plan a war with Iran. He's right, if this were really about security for Israel, then making progress towards peace negotiations with Palestinians would be on the agenda. But that has never been Netanyahu's goal, any more than he ever really supported the possibility of a Palestinian State (confirmed by his statement this past summer during the bombardment of Gaza that there would never be a situation in which Israel gives up security control of any land west of the Jordan river). The words Netanyahu used to describe Iran "conquest, subjugation, and terror" could be applied to Israel's policies against Palestinians.

'Security' is always invoked as the justification for Israel's brutal, illegal and oppressive policies. But this is an ethnocentric, short-term, and zero-sum logic of security. When security comes at the cost of another's insecurity, that isn't a kind of security I want. It's not sustainable for one thing, it only provokes more animosity. But more than that, all people have a right to live in safety and security. When we talk about security in the Middle East, we need to mean security for ALL people, not just Jewish Israelis, but Palestinians too. This kind of security does not come from military force, but from building and sustaining trust in relationships and communities.

This kind of "they are always out to get us" logic is exactly what justifies the brutality and immorality of the Israeli policies that sustain the occupation, subjugation and systematic discrimination against Palestinians. Its the kind of thinking that allowed Netanyahu to invoke the Purim story without acknowledging the bloody and disturbing end to the story.

On his way to Washington, Netanyahu repeated the outrageous and offensive claim that he spoke on behalf of the entire Jewish people. When Netanyahu spoke to Congress, Netanyahu painted an apocalyptic vision of the world in which Israel and the U.S. are locked in a clash of civilizations, using Islamophobic tropes to argue against diplomacy with Iran. Not once during his speech did Netanyahu mention anything about its decades of occupation of Palestinian land and dispossession of Palestinian people, but instead, by keeping the focus of Congress and the U.S. media on Iran, he distracted away from Palestine, settlements, assaults on Gaza, violations of international law.

The end of the Purim story was not omitted from Netanyahu's speech because it didn't fit his argument, rather it is exactly where the central logic of his speech would lead us: to more violence.