Yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave President Obama a copy of the book of Esther, which will be read in synagogues this week in observance of Purim. Esther tells the story of a Persian government that tries and fails to wipe out all the Jews in the Persian Empire. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu saw this as an occasion to generalize about Persians (or, as we call them today, Iranians). He told Obama, "Then, too, they wanted to wipe us out." Here's a thought experiment:As someone who's studied the extent to which religious texts are clay in intepreters' hands, Wright is well equipped to highlight the dynamics of religious aggression:
Suppose that an Arab or Iranian leader of Muslim faith met with President Obama and told him about some part of the Koran that alludes to conflict between Muhammad and Jewish tribes. For example, according to Muslim tradition, the Jewish tribe known as the Qurayzah, though living in Muhammad's town of Medina, secretly sided with Muhammad's enemies in Mecca. Suppose this Muslim said to Obama, "Then, too, the Jews were bent on destroying Muslims." What would our reaction be?
I think reactions would vary. Some people would say, "See, the Koran teaches Muslims to hate Jews!" Some would say, "Wow, this Muslim is looking really, really hard for reasons to keep hating Jews, isn't he?"Finally, a poke at the mote in our American eye:
That second point, at least, would have some merit. After all, the Muslim could just as easily have pointed to parts of the Koran that say nice things about Jews--such as the part that says that God, in his "prescience," chose "the children of Israel ... above all peoples." Or the part that says that God "sent down the Torah" as "guidance to the people" and now had sent down the Koran "confirming what was before it."
By the same token, Netanyahu could choose to emphasize a part of the Hebrew Bible that depicts Persians in a more flattering light. For example, the part that calls Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, the "messiah" because he delivered the exiled Israelites back to their home. (Yes, the only non-Hebrew called messiah in the entire Hebrew Bible is a Persian!)
Why is it routine to talk about Iranian religious fanatics who are leading us toward war and so rare to acknowledge the role that religious tribalism in America--among both conservative Jews and conservative Christians--is playing in leading us to war? And why is it that when Muslim radicals use religious scripture in a way that foments belligerence we consider it primitive and vile, whereas when Bibi Netanyahu does the same thing (more subtly, I grant you) we nod politely and smile?Note, too, that the Book of Esther celebrates the heroine's ability not only to induce the King to thwart a genocidal thug, but to turn the planned slaughter on that thug's kindred and allies. Purim celebrates a massacre of 75,000 enemies of Israel -- or rather, "enemies of Israel along with their wives and children."
Of Netanyahu's gifts, it's fair to say: it's the thought that counts.