HUFFPOST | From Tel Aviv to London, the past week has been an international open house for President Obama and his foreign allies. During his last visit to the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave President Obama a decorated copy of the book of Esther — a story read by many in the following days at Purim services around the world. Yet immediately after the exchange, many media outlets jumped on interpreting the symbolism of this loaded exchange. What they failed to do was to finish reading the entire story.
A senior White House official said that during the meeting Monday, Netanyahu gave Obama a copy of the biblical Book of Esther, which tells the story — widely considered to be apocryphal — of the foiling of a plot to kill all the Jews in the ancient Persian empire. The official would not say what Netanyahu told Obama about the gift, but did not deny reports in the Israeli media that the prime minister said, “Then, too, they wanted to wipe us out.”
The Israeli leader told reporters on Monday that he presented President Barack Obama with the Book of Esther, the story of the Jewish queen of Persia who foiled a plot to destroy the empire’s Jews in the 5th century B.C. The Jewish people’s salvation is marked on the Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins Tuesday night. Netanyahu didn’t say why he gave Obama the book. He didn’t have to.
At the White House, Netanyahu presented Obama with a copy of the Book of Esther which relates the story, celebrated in this week’s holiday of Purim, of a 5th-century plot to destroy the Jews of Persia, now Iran. It is, Netanyahu said, the account of “a Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people”. In the end, it is the Persians who are slaughtered.
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu saw this as an occasion to generalize about Persians (or, as we call them today, Iranians). He told Obama, “Then, too, they wanted to wipe us out.”
As the drumbeats of war between Iran, Israel, and the U.S. louden, and the keen eyes of the international leaders on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapon plans widen, the book’s symbolism was taken in the utmost negative way. It suggested that the Persians’ hatred of the Jews is rooted in history. According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Netanyahu’s sentimental gift had a far more aggressive aura than what the story truly entails: “Then, too, they wanted to wipe us out,” Netanyahu told the president.
At time when the two countries are at the brink of war, any notions of diplomatic reconciliation and possibilities of diplomatic talks are of value. If the story of Esther was read until the end, many could have noted that this diplomacy was in fact present between the Jews and the Persians and ultimately led to peace between the two people.
One does not need to be a Talmud scholar or a Jew by birth to understand the story of Esther: The story tells the tale of the heroes of the story: Esther — a young Jewish woman who lived in Persia and was raised by her cousin Mordecai. She was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, King of Persia, where she became part of his harem. The Persian king loved her so and therefore she became the queen. However Esther’s faith was of a mystery to the King, because Mordecai told her not to reveal that to Ahasuerus. The villain of the story is Haman, an adviser to the king. Haman — hating the Jews — in particular Mordecai, plots to destroy the Jewish people. In a speech so familiar to most Jews Haman tells the king: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people’s, and they do not observe the king’s laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them.” Esther 3:8.
It was then that the King gave his adviser — Haman — the fate of the Jewish people, to do as he pleases. Soon after, Haman planned to exterminate all of the Jews.
“The most important verse that explains the relationship between Jews and Persians is 3:15, when Haman offered his decree, but the people are confused, why this part of the community, this fabric of the community that is so clearly integrated and so clearly part of the community, are being targeted.” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin on the relationship of the Jewish people to the Persians and how even the common people found Haman’s intentions an ill thought.
What many commentators, correspondents and analysts failed to recount was the positive message revealed after Esther engages in a conversation with the Persian king regarding the potential conflict — a diplomatic action that in the looming days of a possible conflict, Israel, Iran and the U.S. are falling shy of.
Happy with Haman’s ill intentions, the press instead stopped its interpretation in the negative light to reflect on the hatred of Persians toward the Jews. Perhaps they could have read the entire story without pausing at their preferred ending.
“The evil Persian king Ahasuerus and his viceroy, Haman, tried but failed to annihilate the Jewish people,” reported Ha’aretz.
For many, interpreting Netanyahu’s exchange with President Obama stopped right as Haman “planned to exterminate the Jews.” But as we finish the story we can see the power of diplomacy and dialogue even in historic stories, like that of Esther.
“She clearly had access to the Persian King throughout the story, the king trusted many sources, one of them was Esther, even after he realized she is a Jew,” said Rabbi Bassin.
The story continues as Esther, worried about her people, took on the dangers of standing up to the king and after three days of fasting decided to go up to her husband and have a dialogue in regards to Haman’s vicious plan. She was worried that she might be put to death — because she wasn’t summoned to the king’s presence — but to it’s contrary the king welcomed her queen and she told him Haman’s plot against her people. The king then ordered the killing of Haman and his ten sons and the Jewish people were then saved.
Reading the story in full suggests something beyond what Ha’aretz and others have implied. Possibly one can look further in the positive discussion that took place between the Jewish and the Persian characters of the story and how that lead to a positive resolution in solving a potential crisis. The tale symbolizes the affect of dialogue and diplomacy — while at the climax of the tale a simple conversation between Esther and Ahasuerus solved everything, both for the Jews and the Persians — something that for some reasoned failed to be mentioned in any of the interpretations.
“Esther shows that there is a possibility and solution to solving conflicts and these conflicts are not intractable.” said Brie Loskota, director for the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.
Ha’aretz, however, reported that Netanyahu told Obama “Then, too, they wanted to wipe us out.”
On the biased reading of this story, Loskata said: “reading that in the story of Esther does a disservice to not only history but also to the future of reconciliation.”
A reconciliation that was amended by Esther and the Persian king after engaging in dialogue — a trait often misinterpreted, misguided and misread in today’s stories.
The media is evidently taking cues from Netanyahu’s charged comments. However, members of the press have the responsibility to provide the context of the entire story of Esther beyond the biases of the Israeli leader. The subjective narratives cultivated by politicians and pundits cannot replace the standards of accuracy, completeness and objectivity expected of news organizations — especially at sensitive times as such, where stories should be read well beyond the subjective comments of one political leader.
TARA KANGARLOU ON HUFFPOST