Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


Binyamin Netanyahu’s application of the Book of Esther as a guide to negotiations with the Persian (sorry, Iranian) regime reminded me of this famous passage from Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews 1933-1945:

A line of anti-Semitic descent from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler is easy to draw… To be sure, the similarities of Luther’s anti-Jewish exhortations with modern racial anti-Semitism and even with Hitler’s racial policies are not merely coincidental. They all derive from a common historic tradition of Jew-hatred, whose provenance can be traced back to Haman’s advice to Ahasuerus. But modern German anti-Semitism had more recent roots than Luther and grew out of a different soil…

It really needs to be emphasised that Haman is almost certainly a fictional character. What would it mean if this claim were true, that the tree of anti-Semitism has at its root a fictional text invented by a Jew? One presumes he was drawing on some genuine experience, but the brilliant rhetorical crystallisation — “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are different from other people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not in the king’s interest to tolerate them” — is the invention of Esther‘s author.*

The Jews have shown a particular genius for telling their own story, to themselves and to the world. Maybe sometimes we are too effective for our own good.

* As a bonus, the Book of Esther includes a founding text of misogyny as well, put into the mouth of Memukhan (whom the Jewish sages identified with Haman):

Memukhan presented the king and vice-regents this answer: “Vashti the queen has wronged not only the king, but also all the officials and all the peoples in all the provinces of King Achashverosh; because this act of the queen’s will become known to all the women, who will then start showing disrespect toward their own husbands; … If it pleases his majesty, let him issue a royal decree — and let it be written as one of the laws of the Persians and Medes, which are irrevocable — that Vashti is never again to be admitted into the presence of King Achashverosh, and that the king give her royal position to someone better than she. When the edict made by the king is proclaimed throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom, then all wives will honor their husbands, whether great or small.”

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