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Happy intersectional Purim

  • ParshaRabbiWidmonte
One of the questions that haunts the story of Purim and moves silently through the lines of the Megillah is clear and chillingly simple: How could Jews have chosen to remain in Persian Shushan? It was so clearly an environment in which anti-Semitism was so prevalent that a genocide could be planned and almost implemented without comment by broader society.
by RABBI RAMON WIDMONTE | Mar 14, 2019

When we confront the realities of the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, and Germany in the 1930s, we ask again: Couldn’t they see it coming? Why did they wait?

Our sages in the Talmud (Megillah 12a) paint a terrifying portrait of the Jews of that era. Exiled to Babylon (and then to Persia), instead of choosing to return to Israel to rebuild the temple (as the prophet Jeremiah had said they should do after 70 years of diaspora life), they remained, partying with King Achashverosh. They were so enwombed in his orgy that they didn’t care that the wine they were potting was held in the once-sacred vessels of the temple.

Our sages, as always, capture in this one comment the deepest, tragic human condition of the Jews: a community wilfully overconsuming itself into an oblivion that they hope will mask their identity as Jews.

When we look in the mirror, we think to ourselves: It would never happen to us! Would it?

Over the past five weeks, Jews worldwide have been witness to a grotesque new mutation in the body politic of the United States. A freshman congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, has openly stated that US support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins, baby”, referring to the image of Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill. After apologising for that slur, which clearly alleges Jewish monetary control of US politics, she followed it up with a notorious canard accusing Jewish American supporters of Israel of dual loyalty.

Everyone expected a clear response to Omar’s resurrection of smears thought long dead in the US. And everyone waited and waited and waited. Would the Democratic Party leadership take a clear stance? Would a resolution be passed in Congress? The speaker, Nancy Pelosi, thought it was a slam dunk, but then faced an incredible pushback from new members who believed Omar was being targeted for her skin colour (she is black) and her religion. Meanwhile, bigoted statements by other members of Congress were ignored.

Finally, instead of a clear rebuke to Omar and targeting anti-Semitism, a whitewashing resolution was passed, decrying all forms of discrimination. Omar was not censured at all, and she continues her membership of the influential House foreign affairs committee.

What does this mean for Jews worldwide? In many liberal circles today, the concept of intersectionality has become dominant. Intersectionality is a view of the world which claims that human social constructs should be understood in terms of who wields power, and that there are different systems of power which intersect – and the most powerful people sit at those intersections. Meanwhile, those who occupy no power structures are the most marginalised. But beyond mere description, intersectionality ventures into prescription. So, in order to address these power imbalances, it demands that the voices of those people who were born at such intersections (white Christian, Western males being the most stained) be muted to ensure that the voices of those most oppressed take their rightful place.

The far-reaching impact of this philosophy really hit home when I stumbled across an article titled “Ten things every intersectional feminist should ask on a first date” by Lara Witt. (In case you’re wondering, I’m happily married and first dates are long behind me.)

So what are the 10 things that are crucial to knowing your date, according to Witt? In order, they are: “1. Do you believe that black lives matter? 2. What are your thoughts on gender and sexual orientation? 3. How do you work to dismantle sexism and misogyny in your life? 4. What are your thoughts on sex work? 5. Are you a supporter of the BDS movement? 6. What is your understanding of settler colonialism and indigenous rights? 7. Do you think capitalism is exploitative? 8. Can any human be illegal? 9. Do you support Muslim Americans and non-Muslim people from Islamic countries? 10. Does your allyship include disabled folks?”

In this brave new intersectional world, anti-Semitism isn’t what it once was. Once upon a time (about 70 years ago), anti-Semitism became the Jewish security blanket. No matter what happened, everyone agreed that anti-Semitism was the worst example of bigotry, and had to be avoided at all costs for the dangers it foreshadowed for all people, not just Jews. Like the Jews in Shushan, so long ago, we were drunk on the heady wine of acceptance.

But now, Islam is the most persecuted religion – and Witt actually writes: “I can’t think of any other religion which has been vilified and lied about more than Islam in a cultural and systemic way.” (Wow! Guess the Holocaust doesn’t qualify anymore.) And even juicier: the old Jews are now the oppressors, not the oppressed, hence the inclusion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

What a marvellous reversal, truly worthy of Purim! And to boot, it liberates the Western world of any sense of lingering responsibility for the Holocaust. That is because the former victims are now perpetrating the same evils. This means that all’s square, and Western libertarians can happily work towards the destruction of the Zionist state without any doubt that they are anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic.

And lest we Jews in South Africa congratulate ourselves on escaping this reversal, we need look no further than the statement of Pule Mabe, the ANC’s official spokesperson, regarding deaths at the Gaza border last year. “We watched in complete disbelief as a people, who continuously remind us all about the hate and prejudice Jews went through during Hitler’s antisemitism reign, will exhibit the same cruelty less than a century later,” he said.

This Purim, as we reflect on the Jews of Shushan, the first reflection should perhaps be on contemporary Jews wherever they are, be it the goldene medinah of the US or the shores of sunny South Africa. Perhaps the miracle of Purim is that despite our perpetual blindness, Hashem saves us anyway.

  • Rabbi Widmonte is the dean of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning.

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