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'A Certain People Who Don't Obey the King's Laws': Purim and NYPD Surveillance

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I grew up in Toronto in the mid-late 1980s and early 1990s, part of a Jewish community that included a percentage of Holocaust survivors and their descendents. Our community was a generation "newer" than the American Jewish community, and it wasn't unusual to have grandparents or great-grandparents who were born in Europe. Despite this new-ness, we all thought of ourselves as Canadian, an identity worn with about as much nationalism as Canadians can ever muster. We played hockey, learned Canadian history and saw our own place in Canada's multicultural society.

So it was a bit of a shock one day on the playground when a kid out of the blue told me and my twin sister that we weren't real Canadians because we were Jewish. We didn't really know how to react. We'd experienced minor episodes of anti-Semetism before (like having pennies thrown at us on a walk to synagogue), but nothing that called into question our authenticity as members of the fabric of Canadian life. Our Judaism (rather than our actions or our actual beliefs) made us foreign, suspicious to this other child.

Jews have always been targets of claims of foreignness. In the Book of Esther, which Jews read this week on the holiday of Purim, the villain Haman tells King Ahasuerus: "There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king's laws; and it is not in Your Majesty's interested to tolerate them" (Esther 3:8). Haman has grievances against Mordechai, who refuses to bow down to the king's right-hand man and give him difference due to his position, and has transferred this anger to Mordechai's entire people.

To get the king's permission to punish the Jews, however, Haman does not summon his list of grievances. Instead, he preys on the king's fears. Hidden in plain sight in his nation is a foreign element, who act differently from everyone else and are not loyal.

This week, as we celebrate Purim, the idea of a foreign, disloyal people who follow strange, foreign laws has not left us. But today, we're not talking about Jews -- we're talking about Muslims. Since 9/11, American Muslims have been confronted with rising discrimination that paints them as an undesirable foreign element in American society. Numerous states have introduced bills that make Muslim law, sharia, illegal, either directly or indirectly under the guise of laws that target "foreign" laws. Congress has held hearing on the supposed radicalization of American Muslims without looking at similar elements in other faith communities, and plans to build new mosques have been met public protest that would have been unprecedented 15 years ago.

Here in New York, we have been reading the ongoing revelations from the Associated Press of the degree to which the Muslim community has been under New York Police Department surveillance, simply for being Muslim. The NYPD appears to have placed an entire community under suspicion, recording license plate numbers of people attending prayers at mosques, infiltrating Muslim student groups (for such noteworthy acts as praying or going white water rafting), taking pictures of Muslim businesses, and tracking the subjects of sermons given by imams. The motions of daily life became fodder for the NYPD's secret files, simply because they were performed by a Muslim.

As the New York Times wrote in an editorial:

"It is a distressing fact of life that mistreatment of Muslims does not draw nearly the protest that it should. But not just Muslims are threatened by this seemingly excessive warrantless surveillance and record-keeping. Today Muslims are the target. In the past it was protesters against the Vietnam War, civil rights activists, socialists. Tomorrow it will be another vulnerable group whose lawful behavior is blended into criminal activity."

The words of Esther, and its "certain people," ring in my ears. How easy it is to scapegoat an entire group of law-abiding citizens for the actions of a few, or because of their marks of difference and the way you perceive them as falling outside the narrative of "America."

It often feels too easy to take the "first, they came for the Communist" approach to standing in solidarity with others. We should support our Muslim brothers and sisters because no group should be singled out for suspicion because of their religion rather than their actions. But the Jewish community understands in our hearts what it means to be seen as an unwanted foreign element, no matter how loyal or "American" we are.

The Purim story has a happy ending, with enemies vanquished and Mordechai replacing his adversary Haman in a position of leadership. People of faith have a responsibility to ensure that today's story has a positive outcome, standing in solidarity with their Muslim friends, neighbors and colleagues. I applaud Mayor Bloomberg for his support of religious freedom, such as his outspoken support of Park51. But he, and the NYPD leadership, need to understand that religious freedom in America extends to the freedom to live and worship freely without the fear that it will place your name in a police file. Those charged with fighting crime and disrupting terrorism should not be allowed to criminalize daily life. No Muslim American child should have to worry that someone will tell them they aren't really American. That would be our happy ending.