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A Final Purim Thought

March 25, 2011

It’s a strange world, indeed, when the one place in the Middle East that seems the most stable and secure is the State of Israel. This is the spring of Arab revolt.

Tunisia has fallen, Hosni Mubarak is gone, Yemen is in danger, Hezbollah has taken over Lebanon, Saudi troops have moved into Bahrain, Jordanians are nervous, Syrian officers have fired on protesters, and in the skies above Libya allied missiles fly, seeking to destroy Muammar Gaddafi’s defenses.

Only in Israel do things seem quiet. It’s the nahafoch hu of the Book of Esther, a world in which what unfolds is precisely the opposite of what might have been expected.

The similarities don’t end there. For just as in Esther, the apparently massive battles at the end of the book were precipitated by Haman’s vendetta against a single man, so too, here in the Middle East, everything was unleashed by a policewoman’s slapping a Tunisian vegetable vendor, and his subsequent decision to burn himself to death.

Once on the subject of parallels, we ought to note Mordecai’s warning to Esther, as well.

“Do not imagine,” he tells her, “that you will escape with your life just because you are in the king’s palace” (4:12). There is no stopping this crusade, Mordecai is wise enough to understand – and all the protections of the palace will do nothing to protect her.

He was right, of course. So why do we assume that the fires can burn in Tahrir Square, in Yemen, in Beirut, in Bahrain and in Tripoli, but that all will remain forever calm in Gaza City, Nablus, Ramallah and Bir Zeit? Young people there are not connected to the Internet? And they’re not on Facebook? And we assume that they’ll be content to be left out of the spring of Arab youth?

NOW LET’S play out what happens if those cities erupt. Against whom will the protests be directed? Libyans (both the rebels and Gaddafi’s loyalists) despise Israel, but they do not have the luxury of pretending it is the cause of their ills. Syria is technically at war with Israel, but no one in Damascus could plausibly claim they have a repressive regime because of Israel. The same is true in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Even Egypt.

But that would not be the case in Gaza City or in the West Bank. Should those protests erupt, when everything is no longer as calm for the Jews as it is now, who will be blamed? In Ramallah, the problems may be the result of the Palestinian Authority, and in Gaza City they are the fruit of Hamas’s policies. But surely we know enough to understand that protesting Gazans will not accuse Hamas, and marauding Ramallans are not going to blame Mahmoud Abbas.

Once again, Israel will be blamed. And when that happens, the eyes of the entire world, already focused on the Middle East and all too happy to examine Israel with laser-like intensity, will look and watch. And if IDF troops have to help quell protests in Ramallah, which is a stone’s throw from Jerusalem, or in Nablus, where matters could easily get out of control, to whom will these troops be compared? In the eyes of the world, the IDF soldiers putting down the protests in Ramallah or Nablus will be the equivalent of Mubarak’s troops in Tahrir Square, Saudi troops that have crossed the Bahraini border, Syrian officers who’ve now started firing on civilians and, worst of all, Gaddafi’s forces, now the target of a new European coalition.

No, it will not be fair or just. And at this moment, it looks highly unlikely. But the central point of the Book of Esther is that often what seems most unlikely is precisely what can unfold. And why should those protests not begin? Why should Gazans and Palestinians be the only ones to sit out the revolts, when they’ve already had two intifadas which earned them some serious progress?

And what are we doing to prepare? What thought is being given to how we might put those protests down without looking like Mubarak or Bashar Assad or Gaddafi? Yes, it is true that Israelis (including Arabs) are infinitely freer than the citizens of those other countries will probably be for decades, but that will not convince anyone. That Israel has done more to create a Palestinian state than have the Palestinians may also be true, but that fact, too, will fall on deaf ears.

Nor should we forget that our current government has raised tone deafness to a near art form. In the aftermath of the horrific murder of the Fogel family in Itamar two weeks ago, there was a chance – a small one, but a chance nonetheless – to remind the world of the utter evil against which we are arrayed. But snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, our government, in its great wisdom, chose to announce the construction of 500 more housing units across the Green Line. Whether the building is justified or not is not the point.

What mattered was the timing. By the next morning, it was the construction, not the murders, that was being reported around the globe. Another opportunity missed. Just imagine how effectively we’d be likely to handle the fallout from mass protests in Nablus and Ramallah.

King Ahasuerus was not evil incarnate, at least not the way that Haman was. He was just stupid, a bumbling monarch with no vision, no spine and no strategy. But when push came to shove, the Book of Esther reminds us, being a fool is not much less dangerous than being evil.

Purim is now behind us. The costumes are gone, the drinking has ceased and the merriment has ended. So now, we’ll see. Did anyone read the megila? Did anyone learn anything?

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