Horowitz Elliott - Reckless rites Purim and the legacy of jewish violence

Author : Horowitz Elliott
Title : Reckless rites Purim and the legacy of jewish violence
Year : 2006

Link download : Horowitz_Elliott_-_Reckless_rites_purim_and_the_legacy_of_jewish_violence.zip

Introduction. BETWEEN REPHIDIM AND JERUSALEM. IN the spring of 2004, as this book was slouching toward completion, Jeffrey Goldberg reported in the New Yorker about a series of disturbIing interviews he had recently conducted with Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. "The Palestinians are Amalek," he was told by Benzi Lieberman, chairman of the Council of Settlements. "We will destroy them," Lieberman continued. "We won't kill them all. But we will destroy their ability to think as a nation. We will destroy Palestinian nationalism." And Moshe Feiglin, a leading Likud activist, told Goldberg: "The Arabs engage in typical Amalek behavior. I can't prove this genetically, but this is the behavior of Amalek." Goldberg explained to his readers that the Amalekites were a "mysterious Canaanite tribe that the Bible calls Israel's enemy." In the book of Exodus, he added, "the Amalekites attacked the Children of Israel on their journey to the land of Israel. For this sin, God damned the Amalekites, commanding the Jews to wage a holy war against them." Although the New Yorker's legendary fact-checking staff allowed no flagrant errors to enter this thumbnail portrait, I would like to make clear to my own readers that in the Bible the Amalekites are neither Canaanites nor particularly mysterious. They are desert-dwelling descendants of Esau, the elder son of Isaac, through his own eldest son Eliphaz (Gen. 36:12). And although it would not be incorrect to say that they "attacked the Children of Israel on their journey to the land of Israel," the book of Deuteronomy chose rather to stress that the attack, at Rephidim, occurred as the "faint and weary" Israelites "came forth out of Egypt" (25:17-18). The Amalekites, their distant cousins, were the first enemy they encountered in their forty-year trek through the desert. Although by the battle's end the militarily inexperienced Israelites, led by Joshua (with Moses looking on from a hilltop), somehow "mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword" (in the mellifluous rendition of the Revised Standard Version RSV), enough Amalekites survived for God to vow that He would continue to wage war with Amalek "from generation to generation" (Exod. 17:8-17). In the book of Exodus the perpetual struggle with Amalek is described as God's war, but in Deuteronomy the Israelites themselves are commanded to "blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven." In his New Yorker article Goldberg gallantly came to the defense of the Jewish tradition, asserting -again not quite accurately- that the commandment to exterminate the Amalekites "is perhaps the most widely ignored command in the Bible." He did not mean that it was ignored in the Bible itself but that "the rabbis who shaped Judaism," who, according to Goldberg, "could barely bring themselves to endorse the death penalty for murder, much less endorse genocide," solved the moral problem by ruling "that the Amalekites no longer existed."1 This, however, is patently false. Not only did the "rabbis who shaped Judaism," that is, the Talmudic sages, never make such an assertion, but even Maimonides, in his great twelfth-century code, clearly suggested -as many commentators noted- that unlike the "seven nations" of ancient Canaan, who were also doomed to extermination by biblical command, the Amalekites were still alive and kicking.2 How seriously the command to "utterly destroy" Amalek was taken in biblical religion may perhaps best be seen from the account, in the first book of Samuel, of Saul's ill-fated war against the Amalekites. Saul, Israel's first king, was commanded in God's name by the prophet Samuel, again following the RSV,3 to "go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (1 Sam. 15:2-3). Although Saul and his army did indeed defeat the Amalekites, whom they "utterly destroyed . . . with the edge of the sword" (1 Sam. 15:8-an inter-textual allusion to Exod. 17:13) they spared both King Agag, who was taken captive, and "the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fatlings," purportedly in order to sacrifice them to God (1 Sam. 15:9). Samuel powerfully expressed God's ire at this partial fulfilment of His command and then dramatically executed the Amalekite king in the presence of his belatedly repentant Israelite counterpart (1 Sam. 15:22-33). What does this have to do with relations between Israelis and Palestinians in the twenty-first century? Very little or a great deal, depending on how one defines the term "Amalekite." If it is defined genealogically, the Palestinians, as Arabs and descendants, in biblical terms, of Ishmael (Isaac's half-brother), have no relation to Amalek, the grandson of Isaac's elder son, Esau. In fact, for centuries, as we shall see, Amalek was associated by Jews with the Roman Empire and its medieval Christian inheritors. If, however, Amalek is seen as a moral or metaphysical category -a notion that first merged in Jewish thought, as we shall see, in the Middle Ages -Palestinians may be classified as Amalekites. This is evidently what the Australian-born Feiglin meant when he told Jeffrey Goldberg that although he could not link the Arabs with Amalek "genetically," their "behavior" was "typical" of Amalek. Indeed, the association of Arabs with Amalekites has become widespread enough for at least one Israeli-Arab journalist to have developed the habit of referring to himself, with some measure of irony, as an Amalekite.4 Not surprisingly, after the death of Yasser Arafat, in November of 2004, "Pikuach Nefesh," an association of some two hundred rabbis who oppose territorial concessions on the part of Israel, announced that "the day of Arafat's death should be a day of rejoicing," since the Palestinian leader was "the Amalek and the Hitler of our generation."5 Several months earlier Goldberg had published a short piece in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times ("Protect Sharon from the Right," August 5, 2004) that began with the description of a circumcision ceremony he had recently attended. The ceremony had taken place in a trailer that served as the synagogue of an outpost outside one of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Like other Jewish outposts in the area, many of which are technically illegal, this one too was home to a handful of families who belonged to what Goldberg aptly described as "the avant-garde of radical Jewish nationalism, the flannel-wearing, rifle-carrying children of their parents' mainstream settlements, which they denigrate for their bourgeois affectations . . . and their misplaced fealty to the dictates of the government in Jerusalem." Not surprisingly, the young father -a goat farmer- found occasion, when he rose to speak, to raise the (to him) timely subject of Amalek. "I am looking at our life today, and what Amalek wants to do is swallow up the people of Israel," he said. Then, using an image that had been first developed in the Zohar, he added: "This is the snake. This is the snake" -although "serpent" would arguably have been a better translation, since the Zoharic allusion is to the sly and slithering creature in the book of Genesis. Goldberg then turned to a young acquaintance seated next to him, Ayelet, a pregnant (married) teenager who wore a long skirt and carried a semiautomatic M-16, and asked her whether she thought Amalek was alive today. "Of course," she replied, and pointed toward one of the Arab villages in the distance. "The Amalekite spirit is everywhere," she added, "it's not just the Arabs." When asked by Goldberg who else might be part of Amalek, she replied, "Sharon isn't Amalek, but he works for Amalek." The teenaged Ayelet was hardly the first Jewish ideologist to suggest that misguided fellow Jews might be in league with Amalek. Ironically, in fact, this position had been advanced by such fervent opponents of Zionism as the renowned Lithuanian Talmudist Elhanan Wasserman, who early in the twentieth century asserted that Amalekites could be found among those Jews who had "cast off the burden of the Torah," both in the Diaspora and the Holy Land. By the time Rabbi Wasserman was killed by the Nazis in 1941, the latter had become the universally recognized Amalekites of their day, temporarily blotting out the memory of all others. Yet late in the twentieth century the notion of Jewish Amalekites again gained currency, finding expression, for example, in an article by the Bar-Ilan professor and West Bank resident Hillel Weiss that appeared in Ha-Zofeh, the newspaper published by Israel's National Religious Party, on Purim of 1994. On that very day Dr. Baruch Goldstein -another West bank resident- opened fire, with his army-issued semiautomatic rifle, on dozens of Muslims who were praying inside the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, killing twenty nine.6 At the time, I was living in Jerusalem, barely an hour's drive north from Hebron, and was working on a Hebrew version of an article about the history of Purim violence that became the genesis of this volume.7 The realization, as the news came in sometimes contradictory spurts over the radio, and as I saw the raucous celebrations in the center of Jerusalem continuing unabated, that there was a clear connection between past Purims and the present one was both exhilarating and disturbing. It became clear to me that another chapter had written itself into the history of Purim -a carnivalesque holiday of reversal that celebrates the triumph of the Jews, during the days of Mordecai and Esther, over the genocidal plot of their archenemy Haman, who was hanged on the gallows that he had planned for Mordecai. Haman is referred to repeatedly in the book of Esther as an Agagite- that is, descendant of the Amalekite king Agag. The Torah reading for the morning of Purim is taken from the account in Exodus (17:8-16) of the battle at Rephidim, after which God vowed that He would have war with Amalek "from generation to generation." And the Sabbath before Purim, called the "Sabbath of Memory," is even more infused with mordant memories of Israel's encounters with its archenemy. The special Torah reading, drawn from the book of Deuteronomy (25:17-19), from which that Sabbath draws its name, opens with the command to "remember what Amalek did" and concludes with the ringing (yet to some chilling) exhortation to "blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven." And the reading from the Prophets for the Sabbath before Purim is taken from the aforementioned account (in 1 Sam. 15) of Saul's ill-fated war against the Amalekites, from which their king alone was spared until the prophet Samuel dramatically "hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal." Although my article on Purim, whose treatment began in the fifth century, stretched ambitiously into the nineteenth, I decided after the Hebron massacre of 1994 to be even more ambitious and extend my story to the present. The editors of the journal Zion, published by the Historical Society of Israel, wisely advised me to delete the hastily written appendix, which was not sufficiently integrated with the rest of the article. A decade later, however, I feel that there is no longer any excuse for me, as a historian or as a Jew, "to keep silence at such a time as this" (Esther 4:14). I have therefore chosen, somewhat recklessly, to begin not at the beginning, but at the end, inspired, in part by the words of Esther herself (Esther 4:14), "if I perish, I perish." In May of 1982, shortly before I immigrated to the state of Israel, the "Karp Commission" issued its findings regarding Jewish violence on the West Bank -under Israeli control since 1967- including events that had transpired in Hebron over the (extended) holiday of Purim, 1981. Although at that point the Jewish presence in Hebron itself had not yet been renewed -most Jews had abandoned the "City of the Patriarchs" after the massacre of 1929, and the last had departed in 1947- on Friday (March 20), the first day of Purim, settlers from neighboring Kiryat Arbah came to celebrate the holiday in Beit Hadassah, which had once housed a Jewish infirmary and a synagogue. By Friday evening they had managed, allegedly through their spirited dancing, to bring the roof down over the Arab-owned upholstery shop downstairs. Since Purim in Hebron is traditionally celebrated over two days (the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar) the settlers settled down in Beit Hadassah for another day of boisterous festivity, which in 1981 coincided with the Jewish Sabbath. The Arab upholsterer, who had closed his shop before noon on Friday as was his custom, returned the next day to find a large hole in his ceiling, and proceeded to the local (Israeli) police station, but did not file a formal complaint -hoping, he later explained to investigators, that after repairing the hole quiet could be restored. He began work on repairing the ceiling, as he had been advised by the (Arab) municipality, but his new neighbors upstairs insisted that he stop, "on account of the sanctity of the Sabbath." When the upholsterer returned on Saturday evening, he was forcibly prevented by the settlers from continuing with the repairs. Around midnight an officer from the (Israeli) military governor's office arrived and saw that the entire ceiling had collapsed, and that young settlers were removing the contents of the shop. When he asked them what was going on, they replied that the shop's ceiling had collapsed and that they were removing the cotton fabric so that it would not get soiled. When the same officer returned some two and a half hours later, after having been informed that the shop's door was open, one of the settlers reportedly told him (in Hebrew) that he was witnessing the renewal of Hebron's Jewish community. On Sunday the upholsterer returned to find his shop devastated. While he was sitting at its entrance mourning his fate, three armed settlers emerged from Beit Hadassah and asked him to leave. When he replied that it was his shop, they pushed him away violently. He then returned to the police station and filed a formal complaint. The police investigation was completed nearly a year later, in February of 1982. The state attorney's office decided the following March to close the case, both on the grounds of insufficient evidence and because the Arab upholsterer had by then received financial compensation. The Karp Report, however, found it both "highly disturbing" and worthy of note that, according to the police superintendent's affidavit, Hebron's military governor had instructed the commander of the local police station not to investigate the incident.8 On Purim of 1986, five years after the festive reconquest of Beit Hadassah, Jewish settlers paraded through Hebron carrying puppets of various images from the book of Esther, including, of course, that of Haman. When they arrived at Beit Romano, one of the other local buildings that had been owned by Jews prior to 1948, one of the settlers, as reported by Haaretz correspondent Uri Nir, placed a kaffiyeh on the effigy of Haman, which was being hung. The local Arabs, understandably, took offense, and only the timely intervention by a representative of the military government -who demanded that the settlers remove the kaffiyeh -prevented a violent confrontation. It is not unlikely that Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who immigrated from the United States to Kiryat Arbah in 1983 -and who by 1984 already had a police record in Hebron- participated in the Purim parade of 1986.9 Three years later, according to the same correspondent's report, the (by then) traditional Purim parade through Arab Hebron was even more provocative. Jewish settlers carried a skeleton with a kaffiyeh on its head and a noose around its neck, and also burned Palestinian flags. Some Jewish children carried toy rifles, which they pointed menacingly at their Palestinian counterparts. From the city's central square the festive settlers, many in masquerade, continued to the Tomb of the Patriarchs into which they sought to introduce a Torah ark -contrary to regulations- during the time normally set aside for Muslim prayer. "The shoving match . . . continued for some time," reported Nir, "and provided such surreal scenes as (Israeli soldiers) struggling with Jewish settlers dressed as Arabs, in an effort to protect the 'real' Arabs who were in the vicinity."10 The following year, in 1990, the Purim parade departed from Beit Hadassah toward the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and in that year, too, Palestinian flags were burned in the streets of Arab Hebron. Some of the Jewish participants were again provocatively dressed as Palestinians, but Noam Arnon, then spokesman for the settler organization Gush Emunim, chose to wear a "Peace Now" t-shirt with a kaffiyeh on his head -suggesting an inner affinity between those two sartorial objects. Four years later the holiday of Purim coincided with the first Friday of Ramadan- as delicate a situation as one could imagine in the embattled city of the Patriarchs. On that fateful Friday morning Dr. Goldstein brought his semiautomatic rifle with him to Purim prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and fired into the neighboring room where Muslims were at prayer. Since then, for me and for many others, Purim has never been the same. In Hebron, however, little changed, even after the murder, in November 1995, of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a law student at Bar- Ilan University (where I was then teaching) and an admirer of Goldstein.11 On Purim of 1997, according to Haaretz correspondent Amira Segev, Hebron's traditional Purim parade, which by then departed from the Jewish "neighborhood" of Tel Rumeida, was headed by a Lubavitch "mitzvah tank," and Noam Arnon, who by then had become spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, (cross-) dressed as the outspoken left-wing parliamentarian Shulamit Aloni, who had been a minister in Rabin's government. One young woman was dressed as Margalit Har-Shefi, a Bar-Ilan law student and West Bank resident who had been arrested in connection with her classmate's assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. In 1998 the Purim parade again stretched from Tel Rumeida to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the site of the 1994 Purim massacre. Noam Federman, a Kahanist resident of Tel Rumeida, was dressed, according to Haaretz correspondent Tami Sokol, as Leah Rabin in witch's garb, with a sticker that ominously read "Shalom, Leah" -a ghoulish allusion to Bill Clinton's famous words of farewell to Yitzhak Rabin at the latter's funeral. And one of the settler children was dressed as the local Jewish saint, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, wearing a stethoscope and carrying a rifle. He was apparently one of many local Jewish children that year who chose that macabre masquerade- presumably with the approval of their parents.12 Purim in Hebron after 1994 was like Purim in Hebron since 1981, only more so -with a new Jewish hero for Jewish children to dress up as. And in Jerusalem the fashion of categorizing fellow Jews as Amalekites reached new highs- or lows. In late February of 1996, after a bus blew up on Jaffa road, a reporter for Ma'ariv heard a passerby exclaim: "This is all due to the leftists of Meretz. We will take care of them. For us they are Amalek."13 Four years later Israel's controversial Education Minister Yossi Sarid, one of the founders -with the aforementioned Shulamit Aloni- of Meretz, had the distinction of being designated an Amalekite by no less an authority than Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the founder and spiritual leader of Israel's Shas party, and the most widely respected rabbinical figure among Oriental and Sephardic Jews throughout the world. In a public address delivered in March of 2000, shortly before the holiday of Purim, Rabbi Yosef compared the veteran left-wing politician to Haman, adding that "he is wicked and satanic and must be erased like Amalek." The office of Israel's attorney general pursued a criminal investigation (on grounds of possible incitement to violence) but the great rabbi was never charged.14 In contemporary Israel, it is not only Haman who is conjured, but also his stubborn nemesis Mordecai, whose refusal to bow before the evil minister has reverberated for centuries, as we shall see, both among Jews and Bible-reading Christians. In the spring of 2003 the Israeli painter Moshe Gershuni, who was to receive the coveted Israel Prize on Independence Day of that year, announced that he would not attend the ceremony in order to avoid shaking hands with Education Minister Limor Livnat, with whose government's policies he sharply disagreed. Livnat, in response, decided to revoke the prize. Writing in Haaretz the conductor Itai Talgam compared the story to the book of Esther, and asked rhetorically: "Why couldn't Ahashverosh's chief minister abide this one exception and write off Mordechai as just an eccentric old geezer?" Talgam saw Gershuni as a contemporary Mordecai who represents "the Jewish spirit, that does not give in; and the temptation to try to break this spirit cannot be assuaged by all the pleasures and power of authority."15 In modern America, too, the ancient book of Esther could be brought to bear upon contemporary politics. In southern California during the Watergate investigations of the 1970s, members of a left-leaning Havura (prayer community) accompanied the reading of the Megillah with a dramatic enactment of the Esther story. One of the participants, the local campus Hillel rabbi, chose for himself the role of Haman. Rather than merely masquerading as the biblical villain, he chose to impersonate Richard Nixon's senior aide H. R. (Bob) Haldeman -whose surname also began with an H. In addition to wearing a three-piece suit and a hat, he walked onstage carrying a briefcase on which was written H. R. "Bob" Haman, and from which audiotape trailed. Riv-Ellen Prell, the participant-observer who has described the performance, notes that the character had no spoken lines. "His entire performance was visual and succeeded because of his ability to effectively associate Haldeman with Haman and Haman with Haldeman." Both had access to the highest corridors of power and both had been stripped of it when their evil intentions were uncovered.16 On the East Coast not long afterward members of the Jewish Defense League in Brooklyn decided, on Purim of 1977, to burn in effigy another person who had ascended to the highest corridors of power under Richard Nixon- their coreligionist Henry Kissinger!17 This, however, was not as paradoxical as might appear, for as we have already seen, it had long been claimed that Jews too could be Amalekites. ...

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