Zionism has empowered us as a people returned to the historical stage. Unfortunately, it has not ended anti-Semitism, but we are not the helpless victims we once were. Here’s a sad but instructive comparison: Israel has lost about 22,000 lives to hostile action since its founding — a large figure for such a small country, but each week of the Holocaust took an average toll of nearly 30,000 Jewish lives.
My synagogue this past Shabbat was privileged to host the writer and educator Leonard Fein. He provides the following teaching of profound power from a Hasidic rabbi of several centuries ago. This rebbe turns the reading of the maftir cursing Amalek around 180 degrees into a moral indictment of the Children of Israel.
Playing on the literal meanings of words in the text, as is traditional in a Torah commentary, he says the stragglers attacked by the Amalekites were akharekha (“behind you”) but they were also treated as akher (as “other” than you). If the Children of Israel had embraced the stragglers (i.e., the weak and disabled) and kept them within the sheltering arms of the camp, the Amalekites could not have harmed them.
What this says to me today is that Israel has a moral burden to shelter its vulnerable and impoverished elements, but it’s not doing so. The statistics developing over the last few years are terrible: 25 percent of Israel’s population lives in poverty, including one-third of its children! And the gap between rich and poor, an income gap that until the 1970s ranked as low as social- democratic Sweden, is now among the highest in the developed world, comparable to that in the United States.
The lesson of Zionism that the Jewish people (and sovereign Israel in particular) has not learned is to take responsibility for using power. That’s what sovereignty is about. I’m talking here about taking care of our own.
There is another relatively recent association with Purim that is very sad: Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Muslim worshipers at prayer in Hebron on Purim in 1994. It is this act of wanton terrorism that ignited the Hamas campaign of suicide bombing; it is said that Yihya Ayyash, the “engineer” who invented the suicide belt, turned to this bloody vocation to avenge these murders.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was urged by Meretz ministers and other doves in his government to evacuate the community of settlers in Hebron as a discernible act of contrition and a preventive measure against this hotbed of Jewish extremism. We can’t say if Ayyash would have been deterred from his recourse to murder if Rabin had managed the courage to do so, but this would have been a clear message to the Palestinian people and to the people of Israel that the privileged reign of the settlers was coming to an end, and a better day was dawning. This could have been a tremendous boon for peace. In not doing so, Rabin and the State of Israel failed the first critical test of the peace process of the 1990s, and set into motion Oslo’s defeat.