Purim's Complex Lessons
Jerusalem Post, March 5, 1999
Gerald M. Steinberg


Life seemed much less complex in the days of Mordechai, Esther, and Haman. A simple reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther) portrays a world (or at least the 127 nations in the Persian Empire) divided neatly between good and evil. Esther, Mordechai and the Jews, exiles from the Kingdom of Judah, are the heroes, saved by their own actions and assisted by the hidden hand of God. Haman, his wife Zeresh, their sons, and numerous followers were archetypal anti-Semites. They were the descendants of Amalek, whose attack on the Israelites in the desert was motivated by hatred, rather than conflict over land or resources. When the Jews, led by Mordechai, defeat Haman, the picture of good triumphing over evil is complete.

If only our situation today would mirror the events of the Megillah. In Lebanon, we are facing an enemy whose goals of destroying Israel are no less evil than those of Haman. Ostensibly fighting for end to the Israeli "occupation", Hizbullah's leaders reject all proposals that would insure the security of Northern Israel. The self-proclaimed "Party of God", is another terrorist group, closely linked to the Islamic militants in Iran and protected by the Syrian army.

In contrast to the events in Shushan some 2500 years ago, today, the application of subtlety and wisdom appear to be exclusively on the side of evil. The fools and clowns seem to be some of the vain Israeli politicians who, like King Ahashverus, are focused exclusively on their personal interests and petty power struggles.

A closer reading of the Megillah shows that the situation was not as simple and one-dimensional as portrayed in school. The initial response of the Jews, including Mordechai and Esther, was one of panic. They tore their clothes, and went into mourning, as if Haman's plans had already been carried out. The situation seemed hopeless. (The conversations in the cafes in the Jewish quarter of Shushan probably sounded like this week's news and talk-show broadcasts.)

The foundation for divine intervention (behind the scenes - God's name does not appear in this biblical book) came through a careful plan, which took time and patience to implement. And ultimately, even after Haman and his sons had been killed, the Jewish forces had to fight a major war, in which they killed 75,000 of their enemies. As the Megillah emphasizes, the diplomatic and military successes of the Jews created fear among their enemies -deterrence in today's terminology. However, in a war like this, the Jews surely also suffered casualties. At the same time (and in the same sentences), we are told of the large numbers of allies that took the side of the Jews when they recognized the likely outcome.

There are important lessons that go beyond the simplistic and one-dimensional religious interpretations. First, the happy ending was the result of a carefully developed diplomatic plan, whose success depended on encouraging conflicting interests between Haman and Ahasuerus. As the King began to see Haman as a threat to his own position, he suddenly woke up (literally) and Haman was trapped. The trap was set by Esther, whose subtlety and diplomatic skills put today's Israeli diplomats and leaders to shame.

How does this relate to Lebanon? The various candidates for Prime Minister are busy making bold statements about negotiating an agreement with Syria, but these all lack credibility. The price, as the Syrians have made clear for many years, is full withdrawal from the Golan Heights (according to their definition of full withdrawal.) There are no indications that Assad is prepared to lower the costs, and few incentives for him to do so. After all, Israel is bleeding slowly in Lebanon, and the internal conflicts that result are weakening the Jewish State even further.

In order to leave Southern Lebanon without insuring increased terrorism, we need a plan that is based on subtlety and diplomacy. Taking our cue from the story of Purim, Israeli leaders need to magnify the conflicting interests between Syria and Lebanon. An Israeli withdrawal, under the right conditions and at the right time, serves the interests of the Lebanese people, but (as noted above), not those of the Assad regime. However, this means that the Israeli withdrawal cannot be seen to be the result of Syrian policies or support, but rather as an indication of strength. Israel also needs allies - the U.S. and the West - to provide the Lebanese government with the "carrots" which it will lose if it continues to support terrorism, and which will increase significantly if it is able to control the use of its territory following a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. This is in the interest of the U.S. and Europe if they wish to avoid a major war in the region.

As the end of the Megillah emphasizes, military force goes hand in hand with skilled diplomacy (and visa versa). The threat of intense punishment is necessary to insure that when Israel does withdraw, the Southern Lebanese border does not again become a safe haven for terror. The Israeli leaders who order the withdrawal must be prepared to respond immediately and overwhelmingly to any attacks afterwards.

On a careful reading, the story of Purim is not so simple after all. Like other Biblical narratives, the lessons are complex. The challenges are in the interpretation, and also in the implementation of the lessons.