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A Gaza ceasefire resolution, at 𝚕̶𝚊̶𝚜̶𝚝̶ least

And a Purim holiday repost

The U.N. Security Council just passed a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.

The good: It is the first ceasefire resolution to make it out of the U.N.’s most powerful body since the crisis began, and one which carries the force of international law. (The U.S. vetoed three previous ceasefire resolutions, in October, December, and February; a much weaker U.S. resolution that supported a ceasefire in principle without demanding one was vetoed last week by Russia and China.)

The U.S. abstention, which allowed the resolution to go through, is by far the strongest sign yet of the Biden administration’s pushback against Israeli impunity after nearly six months and over 31,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza—at least 13,000 of them children. The Israeli government was pissed enough to cancel a planned visit to Washington by Netanyahu’s close advisors Tzachi Hanegbi and Ron Dermer in response to the vote.

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The bad: The resolution’s wording is ambiguous enough (“an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan … leading to a lasting sustainable ceasefire”) that it could be interpreted as lasting as little as two weeks. Also, while legally binding, Security Council resolutions like this one have no enforcement mechanism, so it’s really up to Israel whether they want to comply.

Also, it comes just days after the Biden administration and Congress smuggled $3.8 billion for the Israeli military—of which only $500 million goes to Israel’s missile defense—into the stopgap bill to prevent a U.S. government shutdown. The also prohibits funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which is the lead organization providing humanitarian assistance to over 2 million Gazans, as well as the U.N. body charged with collecting evidence of both Israeli and Hamas war crimes.

And while Hanegbi and Dermer’s flight was canceled, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is already in Washington in hopes of breaking a weapons-delivery bottleneck that Israeli officials fear could become a de facto arms embargo. The U.S. has conducted over 100 weapons transfers to Israel since Oct. 7, including over $106 million worth of tank ammunition and $147 million worth of parts for 155 mm shells, the Washington Post reported earlier this month. (A list of American companies profiting from the genocide including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northup Grumman, and Peter Thiel’s Palantir can be found here.)

Still, it is something. And given the timing, it is also a strong sign of U.S. opposition to Bibi Netanyahu’s planned final assault on Rafah — an operation that one Israeli major general, Nimrod Shafter, told an Israeli radio station today will not happen if the Americans tell the Israelis not to do it. These are all signs that the pressure is working—belated as it may be.

An unidentified girl injured in an Israeli airstrike on a residential building in Al-Mughraqa, Central Gaza, on March 25, 2024. (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Yesterday was the Jewish holiday of Purim—a spring celebration often compared to Mardi Gras (due to the spirit and time of year) and Halloween (due to the costumes). We went to the annual carnival at the synagogue. My eldest little girl was dressed as “Super Giraffe" (her request, complete with a giraffe-patterned cape and paper crown), and won a plastic pterodactyl that by day’s end would get sucked down the bathtub drain. Appropriate in a way.

As it happens, last Purim I wrote a meditation on the holiday and Israeli violence against Palestinians. This was seven months before the Oct. 7 attacks and Israel’s genocidal reprisal. It’s sadly even more salient now than it was then. So I’m sharing it with you, my dear Racketeers, as a Purim gift. Please feel free to share as well.

Festival of Lots

Originally published March 7, 2023

Tonight is the start of Purim, a holiday sometimes called the Jewish Mardi Gras. Like any good carnival, the holiday is celebrated with costumes, parades, satirical plays, gambling, and, in some places, getting black-out drunk. There’s also a tradition of giving baskets of food to relatives and friends, often containing the holiday’s signature pastry, hamantaschen.

This year, both our synagogue and our kid’s preschool gave us Purim baskets. The theme for this year’s baskets was “Purim from the Promised Land!” so all the prepared foods were Israeli brands. The one from the synagogue also came with a little Israeli flag for the kids to wave. This year, I was even more uncomfortable with that package than I’d normally be.

That is because this Purim comes on the heels of Israeli settlers burning and ransacking Hawara, a Palestinian village south of Nablus. The Feb. 26 riot was in revenge for the killing of two Jewish settlers from the nearby illegal settlement of Har Brakha by an unidentified gunman earlier that day. The settlers killed at least one Huwara resident and injured over a hundred more. Hundreds of homes, businesses, and cars were torched.

Much of the American and Israeli press has referred to these hours of terror as a “rampage.” To me, and plenty of others — Jew, Muslim, and Christian alike — it was more easily identifiable as a pogrom. Not only were the settlers given free rein in their attack by the Israeli army, which even gave them time to hold evening prayers in the burning village. But their work was blessed by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich who affirmed afterward that “the village of Hawara needs to be wiped out.”

As Racket readers know, Smotrich was accused by Israeli officials of having planned a terror act in protest of the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005. He has also called for the complete annexation of the West Bank without citizenship rights for Palestinians. His position as head of a consolidated Civil Administration makes him effectively Benjamin Netanyahu’s viceroy of the West Bank.

I would love to say that all of this goes against the “spirit of Purim” or even the history of the Jewish state, but none of that would be true. They are, alas, very much in line with a revanchist tradition that runs back to the ancient holiday. But, as often happens in a culture as contradictory and complex as ours, that same holiday also suggests another possible path forward.

The simple story of Purim, as told to kids in the diaspora at least, goes like this: In the ancient kingdom of Persia, there was an evil royal advisor named Haman who came up with a plan to exterminate the Jews. A wise Jewish man named Mordechai convinces his niece, Esther, to marry the king. Esther simultaneously reveals to the king both Haman’s plan and the fact she and her uncle are both Jews. The Jews are saved. There is much rejoicing.

The actual story, as related in the Book of Esther, is far darker and far weirder than that. For one, Mordechai pretty blatantly pimps out his niece (who, if you read closely, he is raising as his daughter). The story begins when the king, Ahasuerus, orders his queen, Vashti, to attend a multi-day drunken bacchanal so that his buddies can gawk at her beauty. (There is a reference to her being ordered to wear a royal crown, which the rabbis interpret as an order for her to wear just the crown, and nothing else.) Vashti refuses. So the king gets rid of her, and his servants call for a harem of “beautiful young virgins” to be assembled to find a replacement queen. The king will spend a night with each virgin to pick the one he likes best. This is the help-wanted ad that Mordechai answers.

All of this happens before Haman is even promoted to be the king’s vizier; his decision to wipe out the Jews of the kingdom comes later, after Mordechai refuses to bow down to him. And far from being surprised at Haman’s genocidal plot, the king signs off on it, going so far as to give Haman his official signet ring to approve the necessary documents. He does so because Haman makes an argument that would be familiar to generations of genocidal bigots to come:

There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws. It is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the steward for deposit in the royal treasury. (Esther 3:8)

The day this genocide will occur is decided by casting lots; most likely some kind of dice. The Hebrew word for these is “purim.”

Queen Esther does speak out, revealing her identity to the king — at great personal risk. The king, realizing that killing all the Jews in the empire will cost him his favorite new sex toy, changes his mind instantly. He finds Haman lying down on one of the queen’s couches, convincing him somehow that Haman was also planning to rape his bride. He orders Haman impaled, on the very same stake on which Haman planned to impale Mordechai. Mordechai becomes the king’s vizier instead.

This is where things really go nuts. Instead of rescinding the genocidal decree, the king (and Mordechai) officially empower the Jews to “fight for their lives.” If anyone attacks them, they are permitted to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force, together with women and children, and plunder their possessions.” (Emphasis added.) When the king asks Esther what more she wants, she asks for the Jews of the capital, Shushan, to be given an extra day to kill and plunder, which they use to impale all ten of Haman’s sons like their father. According to the book, the Jews end up killing 75,000 people in all.

There are a few things to keep in mind about this story. For one, the rabbis knew exactly how fucked up it was. The Book of Esther is notable among books of the Bible because it is one of the only two in the canon that never mentions God. (The other is the Song of Songs, which in the Jewish reading is primarily an erotic poem.) The message there is clear: there is no divine sanction to these events; the humans are on their own.

The other big thing to remember is that this is all made up. There is no record in the annals of Persian history of a mass of Jewish civilians being allowed to massacre anyone, much less kill 75,000 men, women, and children at the heart of the empire.[2] The revenge massacre is almost certainly a fantasy — a bedtime story passed down by a people slaughtered in countless places for countless generations, about a time when they got the drop on their would-be tormenters. (Think Inglourious Basterds set in the Achaemenid Empire.)

Still, the carnivalesque ridiculousness of the Purim story, and its often-forgotten bloody coda, have often played an outsized role in the fraught history of Jewish relations with the rest of the world. As a well-argued blog post notes, the revenge massacre has been used by antisemites for centuries as “proof” of the Jews’ deep-seated genocidal intent, from Martin Luther (who called the Book of Esther “too Jewish”) to the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, who is said to have gone to the gallows after his conviction at Nuremberg sneering, “Purimfest 1946!” This “chilling claim that the book of Esther was being reenacted,” as the blogger writes, was “a vile absurdity given that no Jews died in the book of Esther and the Nazis had just murdered 6 million.” Yet that is the excuse of génocidaires throughout history: we must destroy these people before they destroy us.

And that same logic, and story, have also inspired real acts of Jewish vengeance. Most infamously, on Purim 1994, the Kahanist Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein massacred twenty-nine Muslims and wounded 125 more in the Cave of the Patriarchs in occupied Hebron. The significance of the date could not be missed: the victims were praying during Ramadan, which coincided with the Jewish carnival that year. When a reporter asked a leader of the Jewish settler movement in the West Bank, Hanan Porat, what he thought of the massacre, Porat was reported to have replied: “Happy Purim!”

This brings us back to the recent atrocities in the West Bank. In what has been a very bloody year so far — at least 60 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have been killed already — the chance for escalation on Purim is high. So too is the risk of some sort of miscalculation amid the rising tensions between Israel and a nuclearizing Iran. In 2012, Netanyahu gave then-President Obama a copy of the Book of Esther, which his aides said was “background reading” on Tehran.

Some Jews, when they learn about the coda to the story, swear off Purim forever. Others say “eh, let the kids have fun, they’ll forget about it anyway.” Still others emphasize the carnivalesque invocation to get blind drunk — and this is a Talmudic requirement: to drink until you cannot tell the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” (As the blogger cited above says, “This is an appropriate ritual for reading such a bloody, godless text.”)

But there are, if you look for them, some insights in the tradition as well. First are the positive parts of the example of Esther herself, who puts her life on the line to speak out; a reminder that one voice in the right place can make a difference. And then there is the negative example: that even a person who has undergone even as much horror, objectification, and persecution as she can become a tyrannical killer as soon as the tables have turned.

Indeed, in many ways the fake story of Esther has become a real story in the State of Israel: people who escaped horrific oppression in Europe, North Africa, and elsewhere in the Middle East suddenly find themselves with real power, only to use it to uproot, displace, and kill many of the people who were inconveniently living on our “promised land.” Some supporters of that state have taken the story of Purim as a proof-text that Jews are always victims, that our actions are always justified in Heaven, and that we will thus always win in the end.

But God is not at the center of this story; in Purim, as in life, far more comes down to random chance. So those of us with a longer view of history might counsel some strategic justice this Purim: to hold back our worst instincts, show solidarity with those our fellows oppress, and hold the worst among us responsible for their actions. After all, put-upon people can quickly turn the tables, with the caprice of power, or the ease of another roll of the dice. And when they do, that stake you sharpened with your enemy in mind can end up impaling you instead.

Das Purim-Fest, Mortiz Daniel Oppenheim, 1873

1  That would have been equivalent to half the population of Babylon, the most populous city in the world at the time the story is assumed to have taken place. Nor is it clear which historical king “Ahasuerus” is supposed to be — most scholars assume it is a Hebraization of Xerxes or Artaxerxes, both of which were the names of several generations of Persian kings. It is very unlikely that any of them had a Jewish queen. And in any case, there is no historical Queen Esther of Persia. Some scholars believe her name was a play on the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. If that’s right, then Mordechai is probably a reference to the Babylonian god Marduk.

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