Two years ago this week, when Donald Trump was still the dismaying presumptive Republican nominee for president, I compared the man seemingly destined to lose in a November landslide to King Ahashverosh from the Purim story. I’ve been thinking again this year about the connection between President Trump and the events recounted in the Book of Esther, but not because my comparison between the president and the capricious Persian king reads even more accurately with the benefit of two years of observation. The Book of Esther tells a story of how a Diaspora Jewish community can flourish in a hostile environment with political savvy and a fair amount of luck so long as it treads very carefully around the sovereign. The American Jewish community may have once been in the Persian Jewish community’s position, but thankfully, those days are long gone. Yet in a strange reversal, today’s Israeli government – which does not depend on the whims of a fickle overlord – seems to have adopted the lessons of Purim for itself when dealing with Trump.
The Purim story is familiar to those versed in the rhythms of Jewish mythology and at the same time unique. It tells the tale of a Diaspora community under assault from its enemies, and when all hope seems lost, salvation miraculously arrives and the Jews triumph over their enemies. This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the parting of the Sea of Reeds as the Egyptian army bore down on the ancient Israelites, or Sennacherib’s failure to topple the Kingdom of Judea despite standing at the gates of Jerusalem. What makes the Book of Esther different is that salvation for the Jews comes not overtly from God – indeed, it is the only book of the Hebrew Bible in which God’s name does not appear – but from the gentile king. The Jews are powerless to stop the king’s genocidal decree that was wrested from him by Haman, and are then dependent on his counter-decree to deter the burgeoning mobs. The story has a happy ending as Esther and Mordechai are empowered in the king’s name; as the Megillah text renders it, “ve’nahafoch hu,” meaning that things were turned upside down. Purim is the story of Diaspora Jews at the mercy of their non-Jewish ruler figuring out a way to work the system so as to come out on top, but always being reminded that their good fortune is entirely dependent on the king. Indeed, the very last verse of the Book of Esther explicitly reminds us that Mordechai was “great among the Jews” but was still subordinate to King Ahashverosh.
The reason that the founding and survival of Israel was and continues to be such a momentous and life-altering achievement for American Jews is because it signified the end of Jews as solely creatures of the diaspora. Israel was the fulfillment of Jewish sovereignty after two thousand years of powerlessness, and the Israeli government has adopted as its unofficial credo the idea that it will never be dependent on anyone else for its ultimate security. The Purim story, with its tale of Jews coping in a land that is not their own, should have no relevance to the modern state of Israel, despite the frequent hackneyed references to a modern day annihilationist threat emanating from the seat of the ancient Persian kingdom. And yet, nearly since the day Trump took office, Israeli leaders have been behaving not like modern day Ahashveroshes in control of their own destiny and beholden to nobody else, but like modern day Mordechais who must bow and scrape before a higher power. The government of Israel has taken a roadmap for survival under conditions of powerlessness and applied it to the personification of Jewish power.
Whether or not you think that Trump has a genuine affinity for Israel – and I do not – he has undeniably done lots to make Israelis happy. The Israeli prime minister no longer enters the White House looking like he’s about to spend his day in jury duty and no longer exits looking like he’s been sucking on a lemon. Israel is not fighting with the administration over settlements, is not dealing with a White House that is even attempting to look even handed in its treatment of Israel and the Palestinians, and has finally won American recognition of Jerusalem as its capital with an embassy move coming in May. Trump has done Israel many favors, and for all of this, Israelis are genuinely and understandably grateful.
But it is one thing to be grateful and another to be obscenely obsequious. This has manifested itself most clearly with Trump’s December 6 Jerusalem announcement and last week’s follow-up missive about the Arnona consulate becoming the temporary embassy on May 14 in order to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of Israel’s establishment. I truly understand the happiness that Israelis and American Jews feel about the Jerusalem recognition, since I feel it too. I have been arguing since well before Trump made his embassy decision that folks on the left and the center – in other words, those in my own camp – need to understand how emotionally resonant issues surrounding Jerusalem are, and that Israel has made many laudable sacrifices in that regard. American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a big deal, and it is natural for people to show their gratitude to Trump.
But it goes without saying that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital before Trump, and it will be its capital after him. Trump’s recognition was a confirmation of that fact; it did not make it so. Hanging a shingle on the Arnona consulate building on May 14 that says “Embassy of the United States of America” is nice, but it does not validate Israel’s founding since it does not need external validation. The gratitude Israeli officials lavish on Trump now goes above and beyond the normal platitudes that might be expected. Israel’s leaders, from Prime Minister Netanyahu on down, are suddenly behaving as if Trump has the power to confer divine recognition and save Israel from its foes by the power of his word and the stroke of his pen, as if Israel is weak and beset on all sides by those about to overrun it. It is ludicrous to suggest that American recognition of Jerusalem makes the Trump administration a great miracle for the Jewish people. It is historical malpractice and insulting to sentient thinkers everywhere to compare the American president who moved a diplomatic compound from one city to another to the American president who recognized Israel eleven minutes after its founding in the face of his war hero secretary of state’s threat to resign if he did so, or to the Persian monarch who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland following their first exile in Babylonia. Naming a Jerusalem light rail station in the holy precincts of the Western Wall after Trump would be comical if weren’t so farcical. Israel is the embodiment of the Zionist dream precisely because its existence need not depend on the caprice of any American president, but you wouldn’t know it to hear the rhetoric coming from Jerusalem.
Israel relies on the U.S. for a lot, and should be thankful to the U.S. for a great many things, from $38 billion in military aid over the next decade to Iron Dome to support in the United Nations to, yes, recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. But the heroes of Purim acted as if their life and death depended on the good graces of Ahashverosh because it did, and because without the power of his favor, they had nothing. Israelis are not in the same position, and for all of their looking down their noses at Diaspora Jews, for some reason they are behaving like the original Diaspora community in Shushan under assault. Ve’nahafoch hu indeed.