Preparing to write this column for the month in which we celebrate the holiday of Purim, I engaged in a fascinating and painful Google search. I entered “Purim + Trump” in the search box and was quickly led to dozens of articles scattered across the Internet, virtually all of which were from the spring of 2016, pre-dating Donald Trump’s election.
Most of the columns drew broad comparisons between Trump and Ahasuerus (the Persian King in the Book of Esther) or between Trump and Haman (the King’s virulently anti-Semitic vizier.) None of the writers could dare to imagine that, in March of 2017, we might be anticipating the White House kitchen staff baking a batch of hamantaschen for the President’s Jewish daughter and her family. Just as the Book of Esther tells a tale that defies belief, there is something quite incredible about what has come to pass in the United States.
What some of the writers got right back in 2016, however, was their assessment of Donald Trump and traits that he shared with King Ahasuerus. Writing in The Forward, Jay Michaelson noted: “[...] Ahasuerus isn’t quite a fool; he, like Trump, is a violent demagogue concerned with his own aggrandizement and power [...] Ahasuerus is also maniacally focused on his own power. When Vashti, one of his wives, fails to appear [...] at his command, the sycophant Memuchan warns the king that she might inspire women across the empire to rebel. So the king banishes her. And of course, Ahasuerus is easily persuaded by Haman that the Jews pose a threat to his rule."
Michaelson continues: “But here’s the central point. In some midrashim, Ahasuerus is depicted as even more dangerous than Haman. With Haman, you know what you’re getting. He is a Hitler-like figure who makes no bones about his thirst to murder Jews. Ahasuerus, though, is what gamers of a certain age call “chaotic evil.” You just don’t know what’s going to come out of his mouth next. Unlike Haman’s principled evil, there seems to be no principle guiding Ahasuerus’s choices, other than his own fickle whim. His only policy is himself.”
The first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have revealed the price we, as a nation, are paying for Trump’s whims, his fragile ego and his seemingly insatiable desire for self-aggrandizement. With a white-supremacist Steve Bannon playing the role of Haman to Trump’s Ahasuerus, we are encountering real threats to human rights and to the well-being of those deemed by this administration to be “The Other”: Muslims, LGBTQ people, refugees and immigrants, the disabled, people of color, Jews, etc.
In his 2016 book The People and The Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature, Adam Kirsch writes: “What makes Haman such a frightening figure, and what justifies the inevitable comparison to Hitler, is the way he reveals the seeming security of the Jewish minority to be a fragile illusion.”
American Jews may not be at the top of the list of minorities feeling threatened, but we should harbor no illusions about our security. We are not as vulnerable as Muslims or people of color, but manifestations of anti-Semitism have spiked dramatically since last November. If there is a “takeaway” from the Purim story it is this: when push came to shove, the Jews of Purim had to stand up for themselves.
That moral is especially applicable in this 2017 version of the Purim story but with an important addition...we must stand up for each other. If the attacks on liberty and human rights that surface with each new Executive Order are to be resisted, it will happen only through the concerted and sustained efforts of those who cherish the freedoms under siege. As Jews we would do well to pay close attention to the Purim story this year and to heed its warnings that hide just beneath the surface of all the merriment.