On Tuesday, millions of Jews around the world celebrated Purim, reading the Book of Esther and its story of Jewish salvation. Purim is the ultimate – and perhaps only – Jewish diaspora holiday, with its tale of a diaspora community under threat from the combination of anti-Semitism and the whims of a capricious monarch, and the community’s salvation resulting from Jewish ingenuity and political savvy. Purim and the Book of Esther are often portrayed as a warning about the fragility of Jewish safety and security in the diaspora and also as a how-to guide for Jewish survival in a larger non-Jewish society and culture. Not only does the Book of Esther famously contain no mention of God, its only reference to the Land of Israel is a mention of Mordechai’s forebears’ exile from Jerusalem, with no indication that Jews remained there or that the Persian Jewish community retained any connection to Israel or desired to return.
So it seems strange to draw any lessons from the Purim story for Israeli coalition negotiations, and all the more so to draw any lessons about the largely non-Jewish Joint List. But there are indeed insights from the Book of Esther for how Israeli and American Jews may want to think about the potential inclusion of the Joint List in any Israeli government or as an outside supporter of a minority government, and what ethical obligations Jews and the Jewish state have to other groups who are subject to their authority.
After Esther and Mordechai are able to remove Haman from the scene, the dilemma they face is that the king’s order to exterminate the Persian Empire’s Jews cannot be rescinded. The solution that the king suggests is that he issue a new order, which grants permission to Jews throughout the empire to respond to any province or people that attacks them and to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions.” In other words, Persia’s Jews are allowed to declare open season on any group that tries to attack them first, and they do not have to limit their response to be a purely defensive one but can legally kill innocents who are connected to their attackers and make off with as much booty as they can carry.
What actually transpires in the Book of Esther’s narrative, however, does not comport with the king’s decree. The Jews do indeed assemble and fight for their lives, but the story recounts that in various places where the Jews ended up in battle, they killed only men – i.e. their direct attackers – and that they specifically did not take any plunder. While the king’s decree was expansive in terms of how far the Jews could go in order to deter future attacks and how they could materially benefit from any victories, the Persian Jews practiced self-restraint and limited their actions to those that were necessary to preserve their lives and customs.
The way that the Jews decided to celebrate following their victory is also noteworthy. The Book of Esther recounts that the Jews declared a day of rest, feasting, and sending gifts to one another – hence the holiday of Purim that is still with us – and that Mordechai then sent messages to Jews throughout the empire that the holiday should be observed every year going forward. But in his instructions for how the holiday should be celebrated annually, he introduced a new twist, which was that in addition to feasting and sending gifts to friends, Jews should also mark the occasion by sending gifts to the poor. In other words, Purim was not only about celebrating a great and critical victory over enemies, but about remembering those less fortunate in the midst of a time of triumph.
There is a furious debate taking place in Israel right now in the aftermath of the election about the legitimacy of relying on the Joint List to form a government of any sort. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters insist that any coalition that includes the Joint List or relies on a vote from the Joint List to assume and maintain power is inherently illegitimate. The reasons for this vary depending on who is doing the insisting, but they range from the principle that only votes representing a “Zionist majority” are legitimate to the accusation that the Joint List today actively supports terrorism to the claim that the Joint List personifies enemies of the state and opposition to Israel’s existence.
Benny Gantz and Kachol Lavan’s supporters have largely taken a contrary position with regard to the Joint List. They argue that a coalition should represent all Israeli voters, no matter who they are or where they come from, and that a country that speaks of full rights for its citizens cannot automatically disenfranchise 20% of them. As former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin argued, Israel’s Declaration of Independence and basic democratic principles grant Israel’s Arab citizens the right to the representation in the Knesset that they choose, and dismissing the votes of over 500,000 Israelis because you do not agree with the party that they voted for is the actual illegitimate move. For those who are more squeamish about granting the Joint List legitimacy, the argument is that a minority government that relies on a one-time vote from the Joint List is not ideal but preferable to pushing the country off the edge of a cliff and going to a fourth election.
There are plenty of reasons to oppose the Joint List’s inclusion in a coalition, from questions about their MKs’ past behavior and statements to Balad’s ongoing refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Zionism to MK Heba Yazbak’s paeans to terrorists such as Samir Kuntar. But in the spirit of Purim, there is also the example of how to treat those who may have wanted to do you harm in the past, and how to relate to them when they have changed their tune, irrespective of the reasons why. This lesson applies precisely to how you treat your erstwhile foes when you are in a position of power.
The inescapable reality is that the Joint List received north of half a million votes, and it does not matter whether those votes came from Arabs – the overwhelming majority –or from Jews. What matters is that they came from Israeli citizens, and the notion that their votes should be thrown out when they voted for a party that Israel’s High Court has deemed to be legal is noxious. Furthermore, anyone who is paying even a modicum of attention knows that today’s Joint List is not the Joint List of the past, and that while it will never be singing Zionism’s praises – and nobody should expect it to enthusiastically buy into singular importance of a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland – it is far more concerned with advocating for the welfare and inclusion of Israel’s Arab citizens than it is about any other issue.
And even if this were not the case, the example of Persia’s victorious Jews is instructive. When one group thoroughly vanquishes its enemies and holds all the power, the appropriate way to behave is not to go after the women and children and plunder at will just to make a point. When one celebrates victory, the appropriate thing to do is to take a moment and think about those less fortunate, no matter who they are. Israeli Jewish parties hold all of Israel’s political power and have thoroughly defeated any attempt to erase Zionism and eradicate the Jewish state. We should all be grateful for that and celebrate it wholeheartedly. Continuing to humiliate and delegitimize Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, and as Netanyahu did last week, literally erase their votes when tallying the alleged people’s will, is unseemly and wrong. It does not demonstrate strength, but betrays a fundamental weakness and insecurity, and provides an example of precisely how not to behave as the victor.
If you think the Joint List should not be part of Israel’s politics, that is your right to believe and to express. Some of the Joint List’s policy positions are obviously objectionable, and there is no principle that anybody needs to support a party with which they disagree. But if your reasoning is that votes for the Joint List are inherently illegitimate and that only Jewish parties count, you are misunderstanding how democracy actually works. And you might also want to pay closer attention to next Purim’s megillah reading, where there is a contrary example of what it means to be gracious to your foes in victory and how doing something just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.