Purim, October 7, and Holocaust Inversion

This year, one passage in the Book of Esther is particularly poignant. Before Haman could carry out his deadly plot to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate the Jews, young and old, children and women on a single day,” first, he had to get rid of Mordechai. His wife, Zeresh, had the perfect plan: “Build gallows fifty cubits high and hang him on it.”

Fifty cubits!? That is roughly 75 feet. There is nothing in the entire Bible that tall. Even Solomon’s Temple is only 30 cubits high.

This over-exaggeration is an example of the megillah’s gallows humor (excuse the pun). A midrash has a different focus. Not why so high but where did they get the wood? Its suggestion is intriguing if fanciful. Haman’s son, Parshanada, was governor of Ararat. And there on Mt. Ararat stood Noah’s ark. Its wood was plenty long.

Consider this unexpected connection. In the face of a flood meant to wipe out an all-pervasive evil, Noah built a vessel to save humanity. And now, Haman would dismantle the ark and use it to threaten the Jewish community.

Today, as in ancient Persia, there is a worrisome inversion taking place – Holocaust Inversion. The very laws and language meant to protect humanity are being used against the Jewish people. Recently, for example, South Africa charged Israel with perpetrating genocide against Palestinians.

Speaking before the International Court of Justice, Dr Tal Becker, vehemently denied the charge: “The attempt to weaponize the term genocide against Israel in the present context, does more than tell the Court a grossly distorted story, and it does more than empty the word of its unique force and special meaning. It subverts the object and purpose of the Convention itself.”

The very term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Holocaust survivor. Serving in on the American legal team at the Nuremberg trials, he included this new legal category in the indictment against Nazi leadership. By turning the term against Israel, it is as if South Africa has taken a board from Noah’s ark meant to save humanity and erected it to hang the Jews.

To be sure, the suffering of innocent Gazans is tragic. But Israel has made it clear in word and in deed that it seeks to destroy Hamas’ leadership and fighters, not civilians. Indeed, if anyone should be charged with genocide, it is Hamas who started the war proudly and intentionally “to destroy, massacre, and exterminate the Jews.”

This nauseating inversion is happening not just in the International Court of Justice, but in the court of public opinion by city council members and college students, academics and actors.

To be fair, many have made Holocaust comparisons – not surprising since October 7 was the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust. Former Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennet, said about Hamas, “We are fighting the Nazis.” But this is not weaponizing the Holocaust. It was an expression of anguish and resolve by a traumatized leader.

When President Joe Biden commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day saying, “We cannot remember all that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust experienced and then stand silently by when Jews are attacked and targeted again today,” he was not weaponizing the Holocaust. He was offering comfort and reassurance.

Admittedly, it is not always appropriate to reference the Holocaust. Although the IDF found a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf translated into Arabic in a Gaza apartment and although Hamas and the Palestinian Authority regularly engage in Holocaust denial, Hamas is not Nazis. The historical context, ideology, and tactics are entirely different. So, any comparisons must be made judiciously.

But learning from the Holocaust is not the same as weaponizing the Holocaust. And an essential lesson we must learn from Haman as from Hitler is that if they say they are going to kill you, believe them and act accordingly. If anything, learning from the Shoah to protect Jewish lives is a sacred obligation that sanctifies the memory of those killed.

Haman took that which was meant to save humanity, Noah’s ark, and turned it against the Jews to destroy us. What happened? V’naafokh hu, an inversion. On the very gallows made for Mordechai, Haman was hung. And with this reversal, the Jews of Shushan were saved. They turned a time of darkness into light, a time of mourning into rejoicing, a time of fear into a time of joy. So may it be in our day.