While the events of the book of Esther and the Persian monarchy’s intended annihilation of the Jewish community of the day reside within the realm of myth, the danger posed by the ayatollahs of those same lands today is no fiction. This was not the case Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington to make this week. No one doubts the Iranian threat; the question only is how to address it.
As the drama on Capitol Hill played out, the hopeful idealist in me considered the Prime Minister much like Esther herself. Recall how Mordecai suggests to the queen she may have achieved her position for just such a crisis. Perhaps Netanyahu believes that he has risen to his position of leadership to prevent the threat of a nuclear Iran, and therefore he must use every diplomatic tool at his disposal to scuttle what he considers a harmful deal before it is completed. He sees the clock ticking toward the end-of-the month deadline, and therefore no matter the appearance of political opportunism, he felt compelled to speak to Congress.
Of course the cynic in me viewed the scene in the House chambers differently: It was as all about politics. The Speaker of the House sought to undermine the President and cut into the Jewish vote. The Prime Minister, who has interjected himself in America’s presidential campaigns before and is no fan of President Obama, sought to burnish his image among his political base at home. As a result Congress came off looking like the so-easily manipulated Ahasuerus, cheering along to Netanyahu’s skillful and powerful address.
Neither Esther nor Ahasuerus are true heroes in the Purim story. Both end up doing the right thing and saving Persia’s Jews. But Esther needs to be reminded that unless she sticks out her neck she, too, will hang, and Ahasuerus only agrees to turn the gallows on Haman once he realizes his wife is among Haman’s intended victims. Neither acts purely out of principle.
Similarly, no one walked the stage with great distinction in Washington this week. Not Speaker Boehner for injecting partisan politics into support for Israel. Not the Prime Minister for insulting the President of the United States. Not the President for diminishing Israel’s stake in what is a diplomatic gamble. And not those Democrats who boycotted the speech.
A few weeks ago, acclaimed Israeli journalist and author Ari Shavit, speaking at Temple Emanu-El, questioned the wisdom of any Israeli Prime Minister who would alienate the President. But in the same breadth he pointed out that Israel’s concerns vis-à-vis Iran must be taken seriously, because no country comprehends Iran’s threat with greater clarity.
In time, these diplomatic tensions will ease. The United States will support Israel against any Iranian nuclear threat, simultaneously taking every step to avoid military confrontation with Iran as it should. But we could have reached that reasoned approach with less Purim drama.
Rabbi Davidson is spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.