When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave President Obama the Book of Esther as a gift a few days ago, the message was only slightly less subtle than if he had constructed a massive neon billboard across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the message "Mr. President, please help me destroy Iran before they destroy us."
The Book of Esther is from the Old Testament, and it's a story that Jews across the world will celebrate tonight and tomorrow with the holiday of Purim. Unlike much of the good book, there are hardly any mentions of God. Instead it's a tale of backroom maneuvering ending in victory for the Jews and destruction of their enemies, with a woman in the rare role of hero. Did this 2,500-year-old tale of double-dealing and deceit, set in the old Persian Empire, really happen? Well, your mileage may vary. Does it contain lessons for today? Bibi certainly thinks so.
One of his aides told a reporter that gift was meant to provide “background reading” on Iran for Obama. In a speech to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group, Netanyahu described Haman, the villain of the tale, as "a Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people." The context of his speech was that Iran, the modern successor to Persia, presents the greatest danger to peace and security on the planet.
While I'm not sure foreign policy is well-crafted with ancient biblical texts as a guide, the lessons of the Esther story are taken seriously by Netanyahu and millions of Jews. Some Jewish traditions say Hitler is not a historical aberration, but a descendent of Haman (who, in turn, was a descendant of the Jews' enemies in Egypt). The story of a proposed genocide of the Jews in ancient Persia? Evidence for why the modern state of Israel had to be established – there could be no guaranteed security or safety for Jews living in a Gentile-majority state.
What happened? The Persian king Ahasuerus is displeased with his wife and casts her aside, ordering his men to scour the country for a new bride. The beautiful orphan Esther, being fostered by her cousin Mordechai, is brought before Ahasuerus and he takes her as his wife. Mordechai tells her to keep her Jewish identity a secret.
Some time later, Mordechai overhears a plot against the king and transmits the warning through Esther. But Mordechai's role is unknown and he runs into trouble when some time after that, Haman is elevated to vizier – the king's prime minister and right-hand man. Haman is not a nice man. After Mordechai refuses to bow down before the vain and bullying Haman, the vizier decides to eradicate all Jews in Persia in revenge. With a honeyed tongue in the king's ear warning that Jews are disloyal and dangerous, he wins approval. On a set date, all the Jews in the empire will be slaughtered.
Mordechai learns of the plot, and sends word to Esther that she must intercede with the king. He beseeches her: "If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this." (As quoted in the New International Version of the Bible.)
So she arrays herself in finery and presents herself to Ahasuerus, who promises to give her anything she wants. She finally reveals she's a Jew and that Haman's plan means the destruction of her own people, and Mordechai – whose role in uncovering the assassination plot against the king has by now been revealed.
The furious king shifts positions, and gives the Jews permission to destroy their enemies. The story ends with Haman, his brothers, and 75,000 other Persians put to the sword. Mordechai is elevated to vizier, and given wide latitude to make policy.
It appears that in a modern context, Netanyahu sees himself as Mordechai, Iran's leaders as Haman, and Obama perhaps as Ahasuerus, the powerful but easily influenced king who almost led to the Jews' downfall but saved them in the nick of time. There isn't an obvious Esther figure at the moment (though fans of the evangelical Christian politician Sarah Palin often compared her to Queen Esther, come to save her people "at a time such as this," during her vice presidential run). But I think that's enough of the plot to get the point.
The holiday itself, though very Jewish, is really a celebration of man (and woman) taking action to save themselves rather than waiting for divine intervention. There are no miracles but human ingenuity and intelligence, no great lessons beyond a reminder that the Jews have enemies, and when the chips are down they'd better look to themselves first (as Netanyahu told AIPAC, "The purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish future. Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again. That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.")
The holiday has evolved down the centuries into a cross between Halloween and Hogmanay. There will be readings from Esther in synagogues tonight, but also kids running around in costumes gobbling sweet Hamantaschen ("Haman's hats," though in modern Hebrew they're called "Haman's ears"). Their elders generally indulge in the harder stuff. It's a celebration of victory and survival.
In the modern tale being told by Netanyahu, with his frequent warnings that Iran's nuclear program is the gathering storm of a new Holocaust, the Islamic Republic of Iran is the one "trying to kill us." War talk has been quieted slightly by Obama's skillful handling of his own meetings with Netanyahu and AIPAC this week. But the biblical underpinnings of Netanyahu's and many others Jews fears promise to, eventually, ratchet up the heat again.