Discarding Haman’s Garb: Refusing the Roles of Empire

by Lexie Botzum for All That’s Left

All That’s Left, a Jerusalem-based, anti-Occupation collective, has published For a Time Such as This: 5784 Purim Reader, a series of six essays  from left-wing Torah scholars sharing their thoughts on Purim in this dark time. Jewschool is proud to partner with ATL in publishing some of these essays. You can access the full reader here

“But the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of the Western interests.” – James Baldwin, 1979, The Nation

Haman is the one whose effigy is hung from the trees. He’s the man whose hat (or ears) we consume, the villain whose name is drowned out with banging and a deafening roar. Haman is the descendent of Amalek, the symbol of those who arise in every generation to destroy the Jews, the one who plots their genocide.

But even if Haman is the one who seeks to enact that genocide, Ahasuerus is the one who enables it.

When Haman, acting on personal insult and fury, whispers to Ahasuerus that there is a people situated insidiously throughout his empire and bowing to no authority but their own, that it would be in the king’s best interest to call for their destruction and Haman will even bankroll the venture, Ahasuerus says, “The money and the people are yours to do with as you see fit”  (Esther 3:11). The king bears no personal vendetta, but he’s happy for others to carry out their own if it means eliminating a threat to his empire. The structure must perpetuate itself; bodies, any bodies, can be ground beneath the state’s inexorable gears.

And yet Ahasuerus is not just the vehicle of the Jews’ destruction but also of their salvation. Just as, per Haman’s request, orders are issued in Ahasuerus’s name to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews on the 13th of Adar and plunder their possessions, so too, following Esther’s intercession, are letters issued in the king’s name permitting the Jews to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all those who rise against them (Esther 8:7-13). And so they do, with astonishing success (Esther, chapter 9). 

Purim is the most raucous of Jewish holidays–a holiday of farce and carnival, the only date with a command to drunkenness, a day of cacophony and feast and delight. And yet, there’s one thing it lacks: Hallel, a joyous prayer of thanksgiving sung on most other holidays, including the parallel minor holiday of Chanukah. The gemara in tractate Megillah asks: if hallel is sung to commemorate our salvation, such as that from slavery to freedom, why is it not sung on Purim, when we celebrate being saved from certain death?

Some answers are given regarding the status of miracles outside Eretz Yisrael, others about the reading of megillah as a form of substitute. But Rava takes a different tack (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 14a):

Rava said: Granted that hallel is said there, when recalling the exodus from Egypt, as after the salvation there, they could recite the phrase in hallel: “Give praise, O servants of the Lord” (Psalms 113:1); and not servants of Pharaoh. But here, “Give praise, O servants of the Lord,” and not servants of Ahasuerus? We were still the servants of Ahasuerus.

Rava speaks the truth that the megillah itself only hints at: while we rejoice in the miraculous overturning of our certain destruction, what we have experienced is just that – averting devastation, not achieving liberation. By the end of the story we are, ultimately, not so far from where we started: living under the thumb of a monarch content to call for our destruction when it suits him, only now with a few representatives in the upper echelons of power willing and able to plead and labor on our behalf. 

While the megillah doesn’t acknowledge this limitation explicitly, it’s hinted at in the succinct, chilling, and somewhat comical concluding chapter. Many rightly focus on Chapter 9, where the Jews slay over 75,000 of their enemies and rejoice (9:16). In reckoning with such exaggerated violence, it’s easy to skim over chapter 10 – just three short verses:

King Ahasuerus imposed tribute on the mainland and the islands. All his mighty and powerful acts, and a full account of the greatness to which the king advanced Mordecai, are recorded in the Annals of the Kings of Media and Persia. For Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Ahasuerus and was great amongst Jews and liked by most of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred.

After near-genocide, an empire-wide massacre, and the replacement of his most trusted advisor, King Ahasuerus…levies a tax?

Despite the seeming non sequitur, most commentators on the verse argue that it is, in fact, an intuitive follow-up to the previous chapter. Following days of sanctioned mass violence and the appointment of Mordechai at Ahasuerus’s right hand, people are terrified of the kingdom’s power; so much so that even those lands and far-off islands not currently under the Persian empire’s direct control are now compelled to give tribute to the king (Malbim and Immanuel of Rome on Esther 10:1).

King Ahasuerus is agnostic on the subject of Jews. He has no vested interest in destroying a people out of particular hatred; his only interest is acting in a way that bolsters the empire’s power. When he thought that course of action was destroying the Jews, he rubber-stamped it. When he realizes co-opting the Jews and unleashing semi-random, state-sanctioned violence will more effectively cow the provinces into submission, he’s happy to change his tune. The Jews rise up, their genocide is narrowly missed, and the king rakes in his gold.

But the tax isn’t the only puzzling aspect of this final chapter. Many commentators get hung up on the megillah’s very last line, particularly the mention that Mordecai, benevolent savior, now second-most powerful man in the Persian empire, is liked by most of his brethren. What about the rest? How has he lost their favor?

The gemara in Megillah provides an explanation (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 16b):

The verse indicates that Mordecai was accepted only “By the majority of his brethren,” but not by all his brethren. This teaches that some members of the Sanhedrin parted from him, because he entered the government, and neglected his Torah study.

Mordecai, who was once enmeshed within the Jewish collective and its forms of meaning-making and (limited) self-governance, has now joined the very power structure that earlier sanctioned their genocide. And not just the structure–he’s filled the very shoes of its mastermind. In Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton, 2006), Elliott Horowitz mentions a town where Haman was the most coveted role in the Purim spiel. One man, the organizer, always reserved the role for himself, and picked out his outfit meticulously – obtaining a cast-off uniform of the district commissioner, acquiring an ancient, discarded sword. Less effort was put into Mordecai’s initial garb. But once Haman was hanged, “his clothes could be used for Mordecai – an economic stroke and a fine symbolic act in one.” 

The Gemara’s imagined critique, as explained by Rashi, seems to be one not only of position but also of tactics. In assuming the role of king’s minister, Mordecai has conceded to the Persian empire’s framework, one in which the good of the community is pursued via government edicts and displays of wealth and power. In taking up governance, Mordecai has abandoned his Torah learning, the Jewish form of world-building; he has agreed that growth and security will not emerge from the community, but instead be imposed upon it. 

To be sure, despite this former hacham walking around in Haman’s garb, most of his people still admire Mordecai – he and Esther did, after all, save them from near-certain destruction. No one argues that this isn’t a fate worth celebrating. But the celebration, while uproarious, is only partial, because the salvation is only partial. If the Jews of Persia are protected now, because Mordecai and Esther are prime minister and queen, respectively, and “fear of Mordecai had fallen upon [the empire’s officials]” (Esther 8:17), what’s to happen when they pass? What’s to happen when the empire’s best interests lie once again not in the Jews’ flourishing but in their eradication?

From its inception, Zionism made the same bargain as Mordecai and Esther – to seek strength and protection through collaboration with empire – though its choice was made before the emergence of genocidal threat, and its violence directed not against the perpetrators. Zionism’s goal was to find a home in the family of colonizing Western nations, to make Israel a tool of empire – first of the British, then the US – so they could then reap its benefits. The choice was to pursue “security” through fear; to rely on the benevolent support of nations who are at best agnostic towards the Jews so long as they align with Zionism’s current material interests. To put on Haman’s garb, and take their place beside Ahasuerus’s throne.

A salvation that preserves and relies upon the genocidal power structure is one in which this genocide has been avoided, but the next is guaranteed.

Here, we see starkly the flipside of aligning with the dominant power structure. Not only is it an imperfect guarantee of safety, one dependent on a collective’s usefulness to those in power and a ruler’s favor; but rather than create a world where no people face genocidal threat, co-optation furthers a world in which we can be the ones issuing the evil decree. A salvation that preserves and relies upon the genocidal power structure is one in which this genocide has been avoided, but the next is guaranteed.

Purim may be both a tale of sweet relief and revenge fantasy for a people who have felt their lives dependent on the whim of those who hate them, but it’s not a manual for true liberation. By the end of the megillah, Haman – the mastermind of our destruction – along with his family and all those who “hated” the Jews (שונאיהם) are killed. But those who bow to power in whatever form it manifests are preserved. The Jews become, precariously and temporarily, an arm of the genocidal empire instead of its current target.

True liberation, and true safety, lies not in destroying individual enemies, but in destroying the systems that cultivate their enmity and enable their violence. True liberation lies not in making oneself useful to empire, but dismantling empire. So long as we imagine our safety will come from slotting into structures of domination rather than undermining them, we will still be slaves to Ahasuerus. We cannot sing of freedom.

Lexie Botzum is a Torah learner, teacher, and anti-occupation activist based in Jerusalem.

All That’s Left is a Jerusalem-based collective unequivocally opposed to the Israeli Occupation and committed to building the Diaspora angle of resistance.

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