Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Post-Purim Post-Part(y)m

As I did last year, I spent the bulk of the past three weeks expending my journalistic energies writing and producing the local Purim Shpiel, basically our version of the State of the Upper West Side. Unlike last year’s production however, I did manage to slip in a political statement of sorts, almost partly unwillingly: during our “Purim Update” [modeled on SNL’s “Weekend Update”], I came onstage as the President for a mock interview, in oversized ears…and a kaffiyeh draped around my shoulders.

I had actually run this by a few people around the neighborhood during the scripting phase of the shpiel and I was surprised by the number of people who seemed to be find the notion offensive…not so much the physical alteration [grudgingly admitting that I was not, exactly, employing a caricature analogous to blackface], but the implication—or implications—regarding the President’s perceived religious and Judeophobic inclinations. It occurred to me that, obviously, some Orthodox Jews with more liberal political inclinations who voted for Obama may feel somewhat defensive about their electoral choice, as if they are trying to pre-empt accusations of placing personal sentiment over communal responsibility [as you will see below, I would not nearly go that far], and my costume was another reminder of how they felt. It also occurred to me that, like the New Yorker cover of the Obamas as, respectively, an African Muslim and an Angela Davis clone, my costume may have been a slight dig at those in my community who actually believe the absolute worst about the President.

As can be evidenced by my writings in this [and my other] blog, I have had serious misgivings about this President and his Administration, not only [but certainly not least] due to his Middle East policies—although, again, I have been fully open about that particular “bias”. However, I have been equally uncomfortable with the tactics of the far-right tarring the President as either Muslim, or a terrorist, or a communist. [V’hki teima that he’s a socialist—well, keep in mind that at a recent CPAC conference, Newt Gingrich quoted Camus and Orwell to warn against the dangers of socialism, forgetting that both Camus and Orwell were democratic socialists. Lomed mikol adam, indeed.] This may be due to my LEFTOVER goyish college-nurtured liberal sentiments. It also might be because, sometimes, extremism in defense of anything is a vice, as can be evidenced the damage done to cause of anti-communism by Joe McCarthy.

However, should one need more “traditional” evidence, one need only look at the Purim story.

One of the best treatments of Megillas Esther I have seen is Yoram Hazony’s The Dawn, which is basically a political analysis of the sefer. One of the points Hazony makes is that Mordechai’s refusal to bow down before Haman was not necessarily just a religious statement [although Rabbi Howard Jachter’s Why Did Mordechai Refuse to Bow Down to Haman? basically covers the issue of Haman’s questionable status as Avoda Zara], but also a political statement: Mordechai was essentially protesting Achashversosh’s dispensing of the political process and instituting a totalitarian dictatorship through Haman in a specific response to Bigsan and Teresh’ assassination attempt.

With regard to my point about an extremist ad hominem approach to opposing Obama and his policies, my points from the Esther story would be this: one, we see that Mordechai’s response was measured, in that it took nine years from the assassination attempt to the genocide decree; two, his refusal to bow down was not even unanimously approved by the rabbinnic authorities of the time; and three, as the gemara points out, Achashverosh was as much an eliminationist antisemite as Haman, but Mordechai never takes any political action against him.

I don’t think anyone can characterize Obama as an eliminationist anti-Semite, and although I would certainly agree that his foreign policy is on the whole not friendly to Israel, I can think of at least three other Presidents whose policies were even less favorable [Carter, Bush I, and Eisenhower]. I think any communal effort expended at painting Obama himself as an anti-Semite on the level of, say, Bin Laden or Ahmadinejad only serves to hurt our credibility in our fight against the real antisemites. The story of Mordechai’s political machinations may teach us this: mistakes will be made, possibly even ones of life or death; but we must always be judicious and never prejudicial.

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