A Tide Turns as Israelis Pray for American Jews

The story of the Purim holiday, of a Jewish community suddenly unwelcome in its home, resonates this year.

There's no escaping him this Purim.

Photographer: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The Jewish liturgy includes a category of prayers known as the mi she-beirach, which open with the words, “May God who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, also bless … .” These brief prayers are recited on behalf of those who are ill, for women who have recently given birth and for newborn babies, for example. In recent decades, new prayers have been added. Most common is the one for Israeli soldiers, recited in virtually every Israeli synagogue, usually along with the Prayer for the State of Israel.

Among the Diaspora Jews in U.S., the mi she-beirach for those who are ill is recited across denominational lines. Traditional synagogues also recite the Prayer for the State of Israel and the prayer on behalf of Israeli soldiers. (More liberal synagogues, uncomfortable with the militarism of the former and the politics of the latter, often omit those.)

It was thus with a degree of astonishment that, in Jerusalem this past Friday evening, we listened as the rabbi noted that we would be adding a newly written mi she-beirach. “For years,” the rabbi said, “communities across the globe have been praying for us, for our safety, for our children serving in the army and defending this country. But now, we are the ones who are secure, and they are the ones facing danger. It is time that we began to pray on their behalf.”

The prayer was concluded in a minute or two, but a sense that something profound had just transpired lingered. Something is shifting in Israeli discourse about American Jews. In Israel’s early years, the classic Zionist position was that American Jews had proved deaf to the call of history when the vast majority chose to remain in the U.S. and not move to the newly founded state. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, once remarked with sadness, “For hundreds of years, a question-prayer hovered in the mouths of the Jewish people: Would a country be found for this people? No one imagined the frightening question: Would a people be found for the country when it would be created?”

Israelis have watched recent threats against Jews and attacks on Jewish property in the U.S. (which some American analysts believe have been drastically overstated after the election of President Donald Trump) not with the triumphalism that one might have expected from the country Ben-Gurion founded, but with sadness and concern. Two longstanding international Jewish tropes are shifting. Israelis are looking at the world’s largest Diaspora community not with disdain, but with concern. And no longer are Israelis looking across the ocean with the expectation that American Jews will provide them with support. Today, Israeli leaders clearly wish there was something they could do something to help protect their American counterparts.

The radical changes in the Jewish world were clearly evident in this year’s Purim, celebrated Sunday throughout the world and on Monday in Jerusalem. Purim, after all, is the quintessential Diaspora holiday. The biblical Book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish community situated seemingly comfortably in Persia. But the Bible warns that Diaspora comfort is always ephemeral. Hatred of the Jew can spring seemingly from nowhere, when least expected. In the Book of Esther it emerges simply because Mordecai, the Jewish protagonist, refuses to bow down to Haman, the archetypal representation of evil and Jew-hatred. For virtually no reason, Haman decides to destroy the Jews.

Haman tells the king (a bumbling fool easily persuaded by those around him, a familiar character many noted with irony this year), “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of Your kingdom; and their laws differ from those of every people; and they do not keep king's laws; there is no reason for the King to let them be.” (3:8) The king acquiesces and issues a decree ordering the murder of the Jews.

When Esther refuses Mordecai’s entreaties that she intervene with the king, Mordecai admonishes her for not using her access to power, asking “Who knows? Perhaps it was precisely for this moment that you have become royalty?” (4:14) Jews have access to today’s easily manipulated leader, many have noted. Some have called on Ivanka Trump, a Jewish woman in a non-Jewish “court,” to intervene. Others have thrown her husband, Jared Kushner, into the mix, as well.

What made Purim so sobering on both sides of the Atlantic this year was the resonance of Purim’s central message that even a combination of assimilation into Persian society and access to power cannot save the Jews. Somehow, everything the Jews do seems to backfire. Assimilation provides no protection from hatred. Joining the royalty seems not to be enough.

Some American Jewish leaders worry that today, too, almost every strategy can backfire. Some warn that focusing on Ivanka Trump or her husband's Jewishness risks leading others to “blame the Jews for what goes on in the White House,” in the words of Abe Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s recently retired chief executive.

Toward the conclusion of the biblical story, the world is turned upside down. The victims are saved, the would-be murderers are hanged, and the Jews create a holiday to remember the occasion. But the celebration is accompanied by the knowledge that Jews cannot count on such reversals each time. Thus, the holiday is also one of masquerading, of Jews hiding who they are, because they fear that nothing else will save them. Purim is also celebrated by consuming copious amounts of alcohol, as if to say that the only way to avoid worry is to escape reality altogether.

Israeli Jews do not usually offer prayers on behalf of their American counterparts, and American Jews do not typically write about parallels between the Book of Esther and the White House’s cast of characters. But this has turned into a year in which nothing is “as usual,” in which fears long subsided have once again become acute. Often, Jewish leaders search desperately for ways to make the holidays relevant once again. The tragedy of this year’s Purim was that it was no challenge at all.

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