Our Differences Are Our Strengths By Rabbi Ari Ballaban
Then Haman said to Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate…”
It was with these words, according to Megillat Esther, that Haman began his explanation to King Ahasuerus of why the King should not tolerate the Jews. This was far from the last time that we as Jews would experience such an attack; throughout history, we have been accused of being clannish, overly tribal, separatist…often worse. Beyond this, even when we have been able to assimilate into the prevailing non-Jewish culture of a given historical milieu—the majority culture—there always have been people unwilling to tolerate us merely because we were Jewish.
To many, the Jews’ choice to retain any amount of authentic, Jewish identity was itself a sign that Jews were culturally stubborn. To those who saw only the worst in us, our mere self-definition as being Jewish was too much. That, of course, was central to Haman’s complaint: the Jews were different from other Persians, dangerous because we were culturally and religiously distinct.
Even though antisemitism has risen dramatically in recent years, we as Jews in the United States in a way are lucky; we benefit from circumstances more hospitable to Jews than most of our forebears. Thankfully, though it doesn’t always do so perfectly, America values pluralism and defends the rights of religionists. Our laws and culture consider faith the province of individual consciences, free from governmental imposition or popular tyranny.
As Jews, we should be grateful for this aspect of American culture; it has allowed us to prosper and succeed more in our larger national, American, context than at almost any other time in Jewish history. However, in 2019, we now also must recognize and grapple with the fact that the boogeyman of “Jewish clannishness” does still exist; it has only donned new clothes.
Sadly, Jewish-Americans are not the only people facing this new specter of hate. It is much too easy to think of examples of people in our society who denigrate other “hyphenated-Americans” for failing to be “American enough.”
Have any of us not encountered someone espousing vicarious anger over a minority group for not acting or looking like “normal” Americans? Have any of us not heard someone complain about Asian-Americans’ choice to live in Chinatowns or K-Towns? Or someone complain about Latin-Americans’ use of Spanish? Or about particular linguistic habits, Ebonics and naming-customs, of many in the black community? Or about the clothing choices and head coverings of American Sikhs and Muslims?
We should hear Haman’s voice in all such complaints: “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples who keep themselves separate.” Just as we literally scream and shout “boo!” at Haman because of the way he leveled Jewish identity against the Jews, we have a moral obligation to raise our voices when we see other peoples similarly slandered and denigrated.
There is nothing wrong with a people holding to the aspects of its identity that make it unique and that it cherishes; that is as true of Jews’ choice—and it is a choice—to remain Jewish over the millennia as it is today of other immigrant and minority groups in America who work hard to keep their cultures alive.
Though Purim is a holiday mostly concerned with fun and games, there no doubt is an important message in the Megillah. It’s important that we don’t miss this holiday’s profound meaning just because it wears merriment as a disguise.