How Anti-Semites Haven't Come Up With New Material in Thousands of Years

A special holiday edition

Tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Purim, on which Jews celebrate their deliverance from an ancient genocidal plot, as recounted in the biblical book of Esther. Traditionally, that book—or megillah (scroll)—is read twice over the holiday, while listeners famously make noise to drown out the name of the story’s villain, Haman, a vizier who manipulated the Persian king into nearly eradicating the Jews.

Scholars date the book of Esther back over 2,000 years, but I’ve always been struck by how contemporary its account of anti-Jewish prejudice sounds. Here’s Haman speaking in Esther 3:8:

Then Haman said to [King] Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.”

And here’s Kevin MacDonald, perhaps the most famous and published white supremacist intellectual, in a recent interview:

…the Jews were sort of unleashed on American society and European society…. They accepted citizenship, but they weren’t thoroughly assimilated in the sense that they didn’t think of themselves having the same interests as their fellow citizens, necessarily.

The tongue-in-cheek takeaway here is that anti-Semites haven’t come up with new material for thousands of years. The more serious takeaway is that anti-Semitism—or to use a less modern term, anti-Jewish prejudice—is much older than our contemporary political and religious ideologies, and stems from something more fundamental: the human inability to tolerate minority difference. In other words, although anti-Semitism expresses itself in whatever terms are popular at the moment, it runs much deeper than those trappings.

This means that anyone who attempts to simply pin the prejudice on a current political or religious movement is not offering a serious historical account of it. After all, there were no Christians, Muslims, progressives, conservatives, capitalists, or socialists when the book of Esther was written. But there was still anti-Jewish bigotry.

But enough of the serious. Purim is Judaism’s festival of revelry, complete with elaborate costumes and parties. Sadly, some of that celebration will be curtailed due to the pandemic. But we can still laugh along here, in the spirit of the day.

Lost in Translation

When out to buy hamantashen—the tri-cornered pastry of Purim—I took this photo last year and have lived to see it become a canonical Jewish meme:

"Historians traced the blood libel of 2020 backed to an ancient technical tool known as 'autocorrect.'"

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• One of the odder heroes of the Purim story is a character called Charvona. Absent from the entire affair until the very end, he appears at the last moment to ensure the villain’s demise. The genocidal Haman had built a 50-cubit gallows, in anticipation of hanging his Jewish nemesis Mordechai. But at a climactic moment, when King Ahasuerus is incensed at Haman, Charvona pipes up to say, “well, you know, Haman just happens to have a giant gallows lying around waiting for someone to hang on it.” The king takes the hint:

Now Charvona, one of the eunuchs, said to the king, “Look! The gallows, fifty cubits high, which Haman made for Mordechai, who spoke good on the king’s behalf, is standing at the house of Haman.”

Then the king said, “Hang him on it!”

So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordechai. Then the king’s wrath subsided.

According to rabbinic tradition, Charvona was actually one of Haman’s allies, and only flipped on him when he realized which way the political winds were blowing. Yet he is nonetheless celebrated as a hero by Jewish tradition, despite his late and self-interested conversion to the cause. Why is that? That’s exactly the question my dad, Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, addresses in a fun little piece from his 2019 book, The Muggle Megillah. Read the whole thing here.

And now you can appreciate this meme:

• One more recent Purim tradition is the Latke-Hamantashen debate, in which the potato pancake of Hanukkah is pitted against the tri-cornered pastry of Purim in an epic battle for Jewish culinary supremacy. This typically takes the form of public disputations on college campuses, where celebrated scholars marshal the collective wisdom of their fields in order to passionately advocate for their favorite food. Here’s Dr. Anthony Fauci guest-starring in one such showdown over Hanukkah:

Years ago, I wrote a humorous history of this practice, complete with interviews with the participants and some of the greatest hits from their debates. I even spoke to Middle East peace negotiators to find out if the Latke-Hamantashen conflict could be resolved. (Their answer: No.) Read it all here.

• Regular readers know that I previously chronicled the inside story of how Harry Potter was translated into Yiddish. On March 4, the remarkable Orthodox Jewish Indian-American translator behind that effort, Arun Viswanath, will be talking about the challenges of translation across cultures with one of the great American Jewish biblical translators, Robert Alter. The event is being held under the auspices of UC-Berkeley, but through the magic of the internet, you can register for it here. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Chag sameach!

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