OP-ED: Like Haman in story of Purim, immigrant-haters rear heads today

Dani Fessler
York Jewish Community Center
Mourners lay flowers on a wall at the Botanical Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand, Monday, March 18, 2019. A steady stream of mourners paid tribute at makeshift memorial to the 50 people slain by a gunman at two mosques in Christchurch, while dozens of Muslims stood by to bury the dead when authorities finally release the victims' bodies. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

This week we celebrate the holiday of Purim by reading the remarkable story of the Book of Esther. In verse 8 of chapter 3, evil Haman speaks with king Ahasuerus and describes the Jews like so:

“And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their faith is diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s customs: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them.”

“A certain people scattered and their faith are diverse from all people.” That is ample reason to ask the king’s permission to destroy this people. The fear of the different, the foreign, the minority, coupled with the ambition of total power over the peoples of the land, is not an invention of the 20th century, but thousands of years old.

The massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, is added to the growing list of hate crimes targeting places of worship around the world and minorities, in the name of racism and xenophobia.

The Tree of Life synagogue at the intersection of Shady and Wilkins Avenue, in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. (John Altdorfer/Zuma Press/TNS)

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The target of this massacre was the Muslim community of the city, but its characteristics share similarities with what some refer to as “the worst anti-Semitic crime to ever occur on U.S. soil” — the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh.

Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old accused of massacring 50 Muslim adherents, including women and children, came to New Zealand from Australia with the explicit goal of carrying out an attack against Muslims and immigrants as retaliation for the so-called “white genocide” — a term white supremacist organizations use to criticize immigration and the population growth of minorities.

Before the massacre, Tarrant published a 74-page manifest detailing his hate for foreigners. Among other things, he indicated he was inspired by similar acts of hatred, such as the massacre of African-American worshipers in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015 by Dylann Roof. He outlined his reasoning for choosing New Zealand as his target as a distant, isolated and law-abiding nation, to imply that immigrants will not be safe anywhere.

Robert Bowers, who is charged in the Pittsburgh massacre, also acted in the name of white supremacy and under the theory of white genocide.

Minutes before the massacre, Bowers posted on social media a post targeting HIAS, a Jewish agency for the integration of immigrants who most Americans have probably never heard of, saying: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered”.

Experts on the far right found that some of the activities against minorities are likely inspired by anti-Semitic statements and from toxic statements made against immigrants trying to enter the U.S. from the Mexican border.

These massacres were carried out in quiet communities of minorities by killers explicitly targeting places of worship, traditionally thought of as a spiritual haven that have become deathtraps.

In this day and age, we must stand together, united to prevent such events from happening through education, advocacy and celebration of the diversity in our community. Our JCC is a good example for the strength in diversity by creating a home open to all and taking action to promote inclusivity.

Much like the Muslim community of Pittsburgh rose in support of the victims of the Tree of Life massacre, the Jewish community of New Zealand chose not to remain idle — cancelling Shabbat prayers out of respect for the victims, standing alongside the grieving families.

Faith leaders and politicians around the world reacted in horror to the New Zealand massacre. They indicated this crime is a direct consequence of Islamophobia and the demonization of Muslims.

Much like anti-Semitic hate crimes in America, Europe and South America, white supremacy does not differentiate between minorities as it penetrates the heart of a peaceful community and hurts its holiest places.

In Shushan, the Persian capital of king Ahasuerus, the Jewish people are saved thanks to the determination of Esther, the Jewish queen, and her uncle. Once the king understood Haman’s goal, he immediately reversed the decree and punished the evil Haman for his schemes.

Like Ahasuerus, so too should modern leaders of the western world voice a clear and determined message against white nationalism, racism and hate crimes. A moral code based on humanitarian values, and the assumption that all people are created equal in the image of God, must be clearly written on the wall, and both law and rhetoric must uphold this practice.

This Purim, we shall remember the story of the holiday and mention the victims of hate crimes of our time from all religions and peoples.

On this holiday we celebrate diversity, tolerance, integration and everything that represents that which is different from ourselves. We’ll learn, and teach the younger generations the wonders of each culture that enrich mankind.

In the spirit of education and celebration, I would like to invite you to celebrate Purim with us at 11:30 a.m. this Friday, March 22, at the York JCC, 2000 Hollywood Drive, Spring Garden Township.

— Dani Fessler is CEO of the York Jewish Community Center.