This Purim, Let’s Tell a New Jewish Story

by Zev Mishell

As the war on Gaza reaches into its sixth month, every day there are new reports of the horrors being inflicted there. At the time of writing, over 31,000 Palestinians have been killed, an extraordinary number of whom are children, while over a million people are living on the brink of starvation. These numbers boggle the mind, so we have all kinds of new media begging for our attention: a father bravely searching for a dessert for his son, only to return to find that he was killed in an Israeli airstrike; a daughter beaming on her fifth birthday and then buried in rubble the following morning. It’s right to ask what good all this looking does, but given the inadequacy of mass protest to change federal policy, what else can we do?

Meanwhile, in the face of this horror, there’s a new genre of article from the supposed leaders of the American liberal Jewish community: those troubled by Israel’s actions in Gaza and in the same breath willing to offer extraordinary defenses for the abuses and carnage that we’re witnessing. 

This article is different from those simply calling Jewish opponents of Israel’s war a litany of names: Jewishly treasonous, superficially Jewish, or as it’s infamously remembered, “Un-Jewish.” No, this article reaches deeper because it claims to really listen to the devastation of this war and those protesting it, while in fact doing the opposite. It reapplies a host of unconvincing arguments to find moral and just cause for a war that has displaced almost two million people and turned most of Gaza to rubble.

I will admit that I didn’t think that liberal Zionism could accommodate the insanity of this current moment. After Hamas’s brutal attack that killed nearly 1,200 Israelis and saw hundreds more taken captive in Gaza, Israel began a retaliation campaign, bombarding the Gaza strip at a rate previously unseen in almost any other modern military conflict. Jews around the world could barely take a moment to breathe: the horrors of October 7th were almost immediately subsumed by war when the Israeli government ordered a complete siege on Gaza and then called for over one million Gazan civilians to move south to flee the coming invasion. Despite the growing evidence that this is far from a moral war (if such a thing even exists), until recently most of the liberal Zionist movement has stayed remarkably clear in its convictions to support it, though thankfully in recent weeks this has started to change. 

In general, liberal Zionist leaders argue that even as the country drifts further to the right, Israel can live up to the aspirational values of its Declaration of Independence to balance the need for equality as a democratic state with the particularism necessary to ensure its Jewishness. Even before this war, it had become harder to maintain the fiction that a genuine balance could be reached: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank isn’t temporary, and the rise of the far right has clearly imperiled the possibility for a two-state solution. As Shaul Magid already notes, given their inability to change the facts on the ground, liberal Zionist leaders took to arguing for a new story of how American Jews should relate to Israel, rather than a call for a more equal society and an end to the occupation. 

But what’s so baffling to me is that liberal Zionists who continue to advocate against a ceasefire have actually not taken to a new story. In fact, they’ve been reinforcing its most egregious assumptions by looking for moral grounding in a war that the International Court of Justice has said may plausibly constitute genocide. One noted liberal Zionist leader wrote that “we pray for [peace] without demanding it”; on a podcast a few months later, a colleague of his said, “I don’t understand what over the top means. One dead innocent person in Gaza is over the top. What’s the cutoff? What’s the ratio between fighters, Hamas fighters, and innocent Palestinians that would qualify for being over the top?” And at its core these arguments reflect a new development from within the Jewish community: when a story remains frozen within a changing reality, it’s only a matter of time before it starts breaking. 

Every year on Purim, we celebrate the triumph of the Jewish minority against the all-powerful Persian empire. Queen Esther, the story’s protagonist, speaks up to King Ahasuerus to urge him to nullify a decree calling for the destruction of the Jewish people. Jews celebrate this as a v’nahafoch hu, an overturning of the world for a new and overlooked reality. Even though God’s name isn’t mentioned, the story feels driven by a hidden light that guides the characters to survival.

The celebration of Purim challenges the normal consciousness that sustains us throughout the year. Whether through fasting, costume, or by reading the megillah, the tradition teaches that we should allow our way of seeing to tilt for a moment, giving ourselves permission to notice what we may be neglecting. By recalling and enacting this ancient story, Purim models how to challenge what we take for granted, perhaps offering us a chance to reconsider nationalism’s role in the modern Jewish story itself.

One of my favorite midrashim from Esther Rabbah plays off of the verse, “כִּי אִם הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי” “For if you are silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, and you and your father’s house will perish; who knows, maybe you attained royalty precisely for a time like this?” (Esther 4:14). The midrash suggests that if Esther doesn’t advocate for what’s right, she will lose her ability to continue speaking in the future. The morality of the protest is clear, but she can choose whether to engage in it or not.

Purim is a complicated Jewish holiday. On the one hand, it’s a holiday of joy. “When Adar enters, we increase in happiness!” This joy is meant to be transcendent; it’s literally supposed to transform the mundane reality of everyday life and set us on the path towards Passover and the coming Spring. And yet on the other hand, the story contains extraordinary moments of violence, and it ends with Jews killing tens of thousands of people in a fantastical story of revenge against an evil empire. In recent years, it’s become impossible to think about Purim without remembering Baruch Goldstein, the American-born settler who used the holiday to massacre 29 people and injure over a hundred others in an attack on innocent Muslim worshippers in Hebron.

I want to argue that it’s precisely from within this tension that Purim helps us reflect on the meaning of a new Jewish story. For some progressive Jews, engaging with Purim in 2024 means reimagining the parts of the text that prove unconscionable, even by rewriting scripture to remake what’s taken as static and unchanging. For others, it means remembering that we Jews don’t have a monopoly on the story of governments working for our elimination; to celebrate Purim this year is to reckon with the horrific shared experience of imperilment, disaster, and destruction. But for all of us it means refuting the use of our Jewishness to enact even more violence, especially as Israel prepares for an invasion of Rafah, the last refuge for civilians in Gaza. Though it’s impossible to know what will come from this moment, we can embrace Purim’s call for a v’nahafoch hu, an overturning of what’s grown immoral and stale, and work to build a new vision for contemporary Jewish life.

This Purim, let’s embrace this possibility. Let’s continue standing against this devastating war while working to build a more decent and just world.

Zev Mishell is a graduate student in Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School. You can find some of his work here, here, and here.

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