Purim 2011: Making History Better in a Topsy-Turvy World

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, March 22, 2011

Purim 2011 was a time of Nahafochu, of complete turnarounds, as the world seemed particularly topsy-turvy. In the Arab world, the popular revolts continued to surprise dictators and democrats, as even Syrians started protesting.  In Israel, the parental smiles amid the Purim celebrations masked continuing heartbreak about the Itamar massacre, with the two butchered Fogel parents along with their three martyred children becoming national icons.  And in Japan, a country famed for its earthquake preparation and general efficiency, the unexpected earthquake-Tsumani wallop exposed human sloppiness and nature’s awesome powers.

 

Nahafochu has two meanings, as these events confirm.   As a descriptive term, it teaches that humans occasionally confront dizzying revolutions, sometimes good, sometimes bad, like the happy, sudden switch Jews experienced, flipping from being Haman’s target to the King’s favorites. But as a prescriptive term, Nahafochu teaches not to be passive when history happens to us. We should transform reversals into potential gains as Esther, Mordechai and the Jews’ communal fasting did. 

The Arab upheaval has triggered many transformations. Just weeks ago, Israel advocates’ lamenting about the lack of rights in the Arab world usually were ignored. Back in those days of –another Purim concept  — Ad Lo Yada –inability to distinguish good from bad, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya helped lead the UN Human Rights community. Hosni Mubarak was a cherished American ally, the keystone to Middle East peace and stability. Many academics, not just the London School of Economics toadies, begged gifts from Libya and other dictatorships.

 

Suddenly, mainstream world opinion started caring about Arab civil liberties. But rather than acknowledging that pro-Israel advocates were right or wondering how so many Western dupes were so numb to Arab rights and dignity for so long, the Ad Lo Yada relativistic crowd bashed Israel as anti-democratic. Yet Israelis’ guilty fears that these popular uprisings might not yield peaceful democracies are justified.  The conventional wisdom ignores how Hamas and Hezbollah are the Arab street’s monstrous spawn,  the Moslem Brotherhood’s popularity in Egypt, and the way some populist Arabs call their perceived enemies “Jew, Jew” or
otherwise link opponents to Israel.

 

At the same time, by focusing on military intervention the West is misguided.  Wherever possible, citizens of a particular country should decide whether and how to remove their dictators.  The world should react when a Muammar Gaddafi starts slaughtering his own people –but only as a last resort, although preferably without dithering for too long.  The best way democratic outsiders can help is by cultivating true democracy inside the Arab world. Cold War programs that nurtured democratic infrastructure in Eastern Europe should be resurrected, expanded, exported, translated into Arabic and applied intelligently. Visionaries like Natan Sharansky, who recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, understand this as the West’s greatest gift to give.  After decades of enabling Arab autocracy, democrats should enable true Arab democracy, respecting rule of law, mutual rights, basic civil rights, civil society, and a functioning free market, not just votes. That would be a constructive Nahafochu.

 

Many Ad Lo Yada morally-comatose Westerners continue to misread the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too. The Itamar massacre again highlights the cancer of violence corroding the Palestinian national soul – and constituting the greatest obstacle to peace. The civilized world should repudiate the Itamar murder or murderers who stabbed to death the five Fogel family members, including three-month-old Baby Hadas. The world should recoil at the incitement which produced these baby-killers – while also condemning those Palestinians who welcomed home the murderers that night. The pictures of the blood-soaked mattresses suggest that anyone involved in those murders returned drenched in blood and sweat, reeking of death. Welcoming an obvious murderer is a criminal act of collaboration; celebrating homicide with candies is unconscionable.

 

But now too many are accusing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of raising the incitement issue to avoid peace talks. In fact, Nahafochu, the opposite is true. If Palestinian political culture cleansed itself of its death cult, if the world restrained expressions of Arab anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and delegitimization of Israel, border questions and other issues could be dispatched quickly. In Israel, those who believe in settling the entire land of Israel at any price are a small, loud, minority. These ideologues find reinforcement in the pragmatic majority which justifiably fears the Palestinian violence, Palestinian demonization, Palestinian incitement that the Oslo peace process unwittingly fed rather than cured by trusting Yasir Arafat. Western leaders combating incitement, Palestinian visionaries taking responsibility to wean their people of violence  – for the sake of their own souls — would transform the Middle East, making peace a procedural question rather than an existential  challenge for most Israelis.

 

Amid this tragedy, all this complexity, it is easy to read the Japanese catastrophe as an invitation for passivity, a prompt to despair. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Tsunamis, earthquakes, and radioactive releases, this terrifying intersection where acts of God meet the mistakes of man.  But we cannot ignore the acts of godliness among so many people, in the Tsunami of love enveloping the Japanese, and the impressive international efforts to avert the feared nuclear meltdown.

 

A story circulating in Israel this week told of Rami Levy, the little guy from the Mahane Yehudah market who established a supermarket empire, showing up daily at the Fogel shiva, filling the refrigerator in the mourners’ home. At one point, he supposedly told a relative, get used to me, I will do this every week until the youngest surviving Fogel child – a 2-year-old – turns 18.

 

This Purim in particular teaches us that Nahafachu is prescriptive.  We cannot avert every catastrophe.  We can turn any catastrophe – Rami Levy style – into an opportunity to overcome challenges, assert our common humanity, help others, and change history for the better.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”giltroy@gmail.com
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