This week, we once again celebrate Purim. The guiding hand of Hashem and the wisdom and courage of Mordechai and Esther in the court of the Persian king saved the Jewish people from the threat of annihilation.
Today, another regime in Persia, the Iran of today, is bent on a similar plan of genocide against the Jewish people. To fight it, we need to display the same faith, wisdom, and courage that Mordechai and Esther displayed at the time of the Purim miracle. What is the challenge we face today? What can the story of Purim teach us about how to face it?
Unfortunately, we often see political issues and political figures in terms of black and white. We see the triumph of the candidate we support as the dawn of the Messianic era and the triumph of our opponents as the second coming of the Nazis. This causes us to fail to see nuance, to alienate potential friends, to miss opportunities, and to fail to see dangers. There is nothing to be gained by calling every politician who disagrees with us an anti-Semite. There is much to be lost by failing to realize that even our best friends can make mistakes with devastating consequences.
There have been decisions by the Biden administration that are cause for concern. The United States has rejoined the Israel-bashing United Nations Commission on Human Rights. We have resumed funding for UNWRA, the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian “refugees.” The PLO office in Washington will be allowed to reopen. There will be an American consulate in East Jerusalem.
Other actions by the Biden administration are cause for optimism. Israel will receive $3.8 billion a year in assistance. President Biden has said that he will not use this aid as leverage to pressure Israel into making concessions. Military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the United States will continue. The United States has adopted Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and is purchasing Iron Dome missiles from Israel. Secretary of State Blinken has made clear that the Biden administration will retain three of the Trump administration pillars of support for Israel: The US Embassy will remain in Jerusalem. While he stopped short of recognizing Israel’s legal sovereignty, he made it clear that Israel will continue to control the Golan Heights. He praised the Abraham Accords which led to peace agreements between Israel and several of the Arab states and will work to get other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel.
Some have focused on the negative, to make the case that the Biden administration has a nefarious scheme to undermine and destroy Israel. Others have focused on the positive, to proclaim Joe Biden as the savior of Israel. Both claims are premature. We would do best to express our gratitude for the positive and our concerns about the negative, rather than to lionize or demonize the new President.
I am not a prophet, but my feeling is that solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict will not be high on the list of Biden administration priorities.
The President has a full plate of urgent issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, reviving the economy, infrastructure, immigration, race relations, and climate change to deal with. On the international scene, the challenges from China and Russia are a more pressing concern.
The fourth pillar of the Trump administration’s support for Israel was the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Here the Biden administration has departed from the Trump administration. It has made clear that a new agreement with Iran is an urgent priority.
We should not jump to conclusions based on our political prejudices. When it came to Iran, Barack Obama and Donald Trump both got it wrong.
What threatens Israel and the Persian Gulf States the most is Iran’s development of medium range ballistic missiles, intervention in other countries in the region, and promotion of terrorism. Iran seeks the capability of producing nuclear weapons to deter Israel and the Gulf States from striking back against Iran’s efforts to dominate the region and threaten the very existence of Israel.
Barack Obama believed that the main concern was to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons. His goal was to achieve a nuclear deal while pushing the other issues to the side. His hope was to buy time by reaching a 15-year agreement for Iran to stop almost all its nuclear activities. The hope was that the Iranian government, led by the “moderate,” President Hassan Rouhani, would use the money from sanctions relief to improve the lives of the Iranian people. This would strengthen the hands of the Iranian “moderates,” and that the Iranian government would become less hostile to the United States and Israel. Instead, the fanatical ayatollahs who run Iran used the money to step up their development of missile technology, their intervention in the region, and their support for terrorism.
Donald Trump believed that by withdrawing from the nuclear deal and imposing crippling sanctions, he could force Iran to its knees and that wrecking the Iranian economy would stop their missile development and mischief in the region.
The practical impact was that Iran resumed its nuclear program while doubling down on its efforts to develop missiles and to intervene in the region. Iran now controls large portions of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon and can use those areas as a launching pad for missile and terrorist strikes against Israel and Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors. Hezbollah, an Iranian backed terrorist organization, is armed with upwards of 100,000 missiles on the border with Israel. In September 2019, Saudi drones attacked Aramco’s Abqaiq-Khurais oil fields in Saudi Arabia, causing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage and disrupting the production of 5.7 million barrels of oil a day. That attack, for which the Trump administration did not retaliate, showcased Iran’s ability to precisely hit targets. The rockets Hezbollah has today are far more dangerous than the ones it used in 2006. They include precision-guided weapons that can target and hit the Knesset, Ben Gurion Airport, the Haifa oil refineries, the Dimona nuclear plant, and the centers of Israel’s high-tech economy. Israel’s Iron Dome defense system is state of the art, but it is not perfect. And Iran is daily moving closer to the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. Whatever the intentions of Barack Obama and Donald Trump were, Iran has become more powerful and more dangerous than ever before.
The best alternative to the current situation is a new agreement with Iran that permanently ends its nuclear program, its missile development, its intervention in the region, and support for terrorism. That is the stated goal of the Biden administration. It is a goal Israel shares. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently issued a statement saying, “Israel believes that going back to the old agreement will pave Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal.” What he essentially said is that Israel is opposed to a return to the old deal, not necessarily to a new one.
As is usually the case in such negotiations, the US is demonstrating both flexibility in reaching out to Iran and firmness. It has offered to enter negotiations and is ending its effort to get the UN Security Council to reimpose sanctions on Iran. That is a symbolic gesture with little practical impact. There is no way that the effort in the Security Council, where China and Russia have veto power, would have succeeded. The sanctions imposed by the Trump administration remain in place, and the Administration has rejected Iranian demands that those sanctions be dropped as a precondition for negotiations to begin.
Robert Malley, a diplomat known to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and who helped negotiate the original Iran nuclear deal, has been named as the envoy to Iran. Secretary Blinkin, who Malley will report to, has made it clear that the goal is not to return to the old deal but to reach a new one with no sunset provision, and which deals with the crucial issues of Iran’s missile development and intervention elsewhere in the region. He has pledged to consult with Israel and the Persian Gulf countries during the negotiations.
If President Biden and his administration are successful in getting Iran to sign and comply with an agreement that permanently ends its nuclear program and its toxic behavior, it would be an epic achievement. Whether such an agreement can be reached and whether Iran would comply with it is another problem.
What happens if a new and improved agreement cannot be reached? Will the Biden administration go to the Obama route of returning to an agreement that kicks the can of Iran’s nuclear program down the road for a few years while doing nothing to address the more immediate issues? Will it continue its own sanctions and get the rest of the world to join in, hoping to starve Iran into submission but risking Iran becoming an even more dangerous actor on the world stage? Will the US act against Iran’s nuclear program? Will Israel be forced to do so on its own? Will the US back Israel if it does? Will an attack succeed? Even if it does, will it lead to deadly retaliatory strikes against Israel?
What the Purim story teaches us is that G-d guides the fate of the Jewish people and the world. Yet, we need to do our part by finding and carrying out the mission that He has chosen us to fill.
Megillas Esther can give us some good guidance on how to do that.
Having friends in high places helps.
Esther became Queen in the seventh year of the reign of Achashveirosh. Mordechai uncovered the plot of Bigsan and Teresh to poison the King some time after that. Haman initiated the plot to kill the Jews in the 12th year of Achashveirosh’s reign. The crowning of a Queen and the loyalty of a prominent Jew to the King five years earlier played a major role in turning the tide.
We need to vote and become active in politics for every election and not to wait for a crisis.
Political leaders act in their interest.
Haman and Esther had something in common. Neither appealed to the King based on morality or principle. Haman sold his plan for genocide saying, “It is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” In her appeal to the King, Esther said, “Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the King’s trouble.”
Politicians act on the basis of their interest. Our elected officials are under pressure from many different groups and agendas. We cannot expect them to agree with us 100 percent of the time. If we rule out ever supporting them, they can safely ignore us. We need to make it in their interest to support our agenda, by standing by them when they support us.
Accentuate the positive; it’s about the policy not the person. Know the difference between enemies and opponents.
It is hard to imagine that demonstrations or broadsides protesting the anti-Semitism of the Achashveirosh regime could have succeeded. The intervention of people who had the King’s trust and parties did. Haman was an implacable foe of the Jewish community who had to be confronted. Even after Haman was hanged and Mordechai replaced him as Prime Minister, there were still 75,000 people who tried to kill us, and we had to fight back. Achashveirosh was no great friend of the Jews, but he was someone who could be and was won over with the right approach. Mordechai and Esther had the wisdom to know the difference.
The biggest mistake many of us made was to demonize Barack Obama as an anti-Semite rather than to oppose him on policy. By doing so, we needlessly antagonized and mobilized other communities who might otherwise not have cared about the issue. And it allowed supporters of the Iran deal to turn the vote into a litmus test of loyalty to the President and the Democratic Party, probably costing us the support of Democrats who might otherwise have stood by us.
There are anti-Semites in government, and we must call them out and oppose them. Joe Biden is not one of them. We need to appeal to President Biden as a friend and supporter. If and when it comes to the point where we must oppose him, the debate should be about his misguided policies, not about him.
Hashem rules the world.
Esther and Mordechai did not rely on their own talents. They ordered the Jewish people in Shushan to fast and pray for three days. Chazal say that as a result of the Purim miracle there was a resurgence of Torah and mitzvos as the Jewish community “committed themselves to what they had previously accepted.”
G-d’s name appears nowhere in the Megillah. But His presence can be felt in every word. As we approach the challenges ahead, we need to strengthen our t’filah, limud Torah, and kiyum mitzvos. May Hashem grant us the same wisdom and courage he granted to Mordechai and Esther so many years ago. May He guide us to success. And let us all thank Him for the miracles He has done for our forefathers and for us in days of old and in our own time.