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April 2003
Guest Editorial: Reflections on War on the Eve of Purim

By Ronit Avni

March 17, 2003—Watching George W. Bush mouthing ultimatums at the Iraqi government tonight, I was overcome by a sense of cruel irony. Had this been some other year, I would likely be among friends, drinking to celebrate the auspicious intersection of the full moon, the long-awaited spring, the Jewish holiday of Purim, and St. Patrick’s Day.

Purim, unlike virtually every other Jewish holiday, is a relatively upbeat, raucous occasion. We celebrate the heroine Esther’s success in thwarting an attempted genocide of the Jews by convincing her husband, the Persian king Ahashverosh, to overturn the prime minister Haman’s plan to eradicate her people. In an unforeseen and welcome twist of fate, the maniacal architect of this extermination plot, Haman, winds up hanging from the very gallows that he had prepared for the killing of the Jews. For this reason, we celebrate our reversal of fortune by stepping outside of our lay identities. On this night, in good conscience, we souse ourselves silly until we cannot distinguish men from women, the dominant from the vulnerable, and the wise from the fraudulent. Hierarchy and certainty are subverted. The unpredictable rules.

Purim is a godless holiday. The Book of Esther, in which this drama unfolds, is the only sacred book of the Bible that does not mention God at all. We are on our own to combat militants, maximalists and escalationists without divine intervention. Leave it to a woman to figure it out.

Tonight I wanted nothing more than a godless Purim; a night in which hierarchy and Manichean analyses are challenged and unraveled; in which people gather in the spirit of gratitude to express themselves in new and unconventional ways. I wanted a night in which monotheistic, apocalyptic “civilizing” missions give way to the messiness that is respectful social interaction; a night in which any cloaks, masks or veils donned for the occasion actually connect us to, rather than alienate us from, one another’s complex and rich inner worlds.

How fitting and how sad that this holiday emerged from the very region where another potential massacre may yet unfold. Centuries after the triumph of Esther’s diplomacy, we have refined but not perfected our tools of war. By the Pentagon’s own admission, the U.S. military’s “smart bombs” repeatedly missed their marks in recent years. According to a news report by the BBC, of all such “precision” bombs dropped by the British in Kosovo in 1999, only 40 percent found their targets. Now the American army is deliberately preparing to bombard Iraq with far more powerful weaponry in the hopes of traumatizing the Iraqi army into submission and defeat. How many casualties will it take? Perhaps we should ask the Canadian armed forces (about the four soldiers killed last year in Afghanistan), Afghan civilians, or the staff of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade about the precision of the American arsenal. We could also ask them about the accuracy of American maps.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have faced malnourishment and disease over the last decade. Now the Bush administration, unlike Purim’s fabled Persian court, is bent on unleashing its coercive powers despite vociferous objections from longstanding and loyal allies like Germany, France, Canada and the British “street.”

After hearing Bush’s speech tonight, I forwent the Purim festivities and headed home. Leaving Tribeca, I passed a series of soldiers in camouflage gear on the Canal Street subway platform. As a New York resident, I was not reassured by their ominously conspicuous yet ineffectual presence. As an Israeli, I might have laughed had the situation not been so tragic. Short of installing metal detectors at every turnstile and replacing each trash can with see-through wire receptacles, I fear that there is not much New York can do now to avoid its unfortunate and gruesome future. While George W. Bush will not cause New York subways to explode, his unwillingness to exhaust diplomatic channels—along with his hostile language (beginning with the infamous and grossly irresponsible ‘axis of evil’ speech) and his blatant disdain for the concerns of the international community, as well as his neglect of the divisive Israeli-Palestinian conflict—increase the likelihood that global anger against Americans will intensify. Radicals with simplistic, black and white world-views will undoubtedly exploit this anger in violent ways. A tragic truth about terrorism is that, in addition to causing carnage and pain, it also succeeds in subverting hierarchies; even the most powerful armies and populations tremble at the nihilistic acts of suicide bombers. The unpredictable rule. Yet, unlike the reversals celebrated on Purim, such anarchy will lead to more misery, not less.

I am not a pacifist. Sometimes war is necessary to stop fear-mongering, opportunistic leaders from fostering enmity and causing the undue suffering of innocent people. Sometimes decent societies break down in violent and unfair ways. Sometimes the presence of external actors—peacekeepers or police—leads to the cessation of bloodshed and the promotion of equality. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more genuine and sustained diplomatic involvement by the Bush administration might actually stop the deadly cycle of violence that is destroying both societies and destabilizing the region. Intervention in the spirit of de-escalation, genuine reconciliation, and the promotion of human dignity for all can be a deeply constructive force in the universe.

Yet despite Saddam Hussein’s abysmal human rights record and his disinterest in creating a free, equitable, safe environment for his people, I remain unconvinced that a massive, nearly unilateral American military incursion and occupation will contribute to the preservation of human life and the establishment of transparent self-governance. One need not look further than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, or the American War in Vietnam for examples of how seemingly simple war plans lead to prolonged and unforeseen hardship. Today in Afghanistan, with peacekeeping forces confined to Kabul and with grossly inadequate international support for reconstruction, lawlessness still characterizes much of the country.

I might have been convinced that President Bush had altruistic intentions in Iraq if his domestic policies demonstrated his commitment to democracy and the promotion of government accountability. Sadly, his administration’s social and economic track record at home further convince me of the impending injustices of this war, since there will be fewer mechanisms to restrain the U.S. military and government from behaving in the interest of corporate greed rather than on behalf of the Iraqi people. Perhaps if this American president had been a different kind of leader, with a reputation for spreading true freedom, equality and justice within the United States itself, he would have earned a modicum of my confidence and, more importantly, support abroad.

The word “Purim” means lottery, because the malicious Haman drew lots to choose the date on which he would eliminate the Jewish people. On this night, Jews around the world celebrate life in all of its unpredictable beauty. We honor Esther for her wisdom and diplomacy. We praise Ahashverosh for his restraint. We condemn Haman for his bigotry and bloodlust. We remind ourselves of our obligation to act in ways that promote tolerance and the flourishing of all peoples. And we affirm that no matter who seems to wield power or privilege at this particular moment in history, nothing is predetermined; anything can happen.

Ronit Avni
is a long-time human rights advocate who lives and works in New York.


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