A Tale of Two Antisemites

There is a madman in Tehran who is sworn enemy of the Jewish State, and is unabashed in the brazen declarations of his goal to “erase Israel from the pages of time.”

Many centuries ago, in ancient Tehran, then known as Persia, lived another antisemite, one of history’s most infamous: Haman from the Purim story. The classic statement of Haman’s genocidal pitch to king Ahasuerus in the book of Esther (3:8-11) reads:

And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; their laws differ from those of every people; and they do not keep the king’s laws; therefore it is of no use the king to let them be. If it please the king, let [a decree] be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the king’s treasuries.”

And the king said unto Haman: “The silver you can keep, and the people, do with them as you please.”

Haman wants to kill the Jews, but he recognizes that the Ahasuerus may not be inclined to agree — after all the Jews’ tax money contributes significantly to king’s coffers. So he offers the king an exorbitant sum of 500,000 pounds of silver to offset the potential loss. Unbelievably, the king responds to Haman that he can keep his money. He has no love lost for the Jews, and whatever Haman wants to do to them is fine with him.

While it appears that Ahasuerus is every bit the antisemite that Haman is, poetic justice at the end of the story seems to only play out for Haman who gets killed, whereas Ahasuerus continues to live and prosper. Why is this so? Aren’t they both evil Jew haters?

The Talmud (Megillah 14a) sheds some light into the psyches of these two characters by way of a parable:

Ahasuerus and Haman are similar to two people, one of whom had a mound in the middle of his field [Ahasuerus] and the other a deep ditch in the middle of his field [Haman].

The owner of the ditch mused to himself, “I wish I could buy that mound of dirt to fill up my ditch.”And the owner of the mound said to himself, “I wish l could purchase the right to dump my dirt in that ditch.” 

Not long afterwards the two met. The owner of the ditch said, “Sell me your mound of dirt,” whereupon the other replied, “Take it for nothing, and I shall be only too glad.”

Like all Talmudic analogies, wording and phraseology are precise and important. At face value the Talmud is saying that Ahasuerus and Haman’s needs were complementary – getting rid of the Jews suited them both. But why doesn’t the Talmud just come out and say that? What’s all this business with a mound and a ditch (and why is Ahasuerus the owner of the mound, and Haman the owner of the ditch?)

In his classic commentary on Esther, Rabbi Yehudah Loew – the famed Maharal of Prague – explains: When discussing Ahasuerus’s perspective, the Jews are referred to “a mound.” A mound is not harmful to the owner of the field; it’s simply extraneous, a mere nuisance. A trench, on the other hand, is a void. Haman considered the Jews a pit; their very existence created a lack and void.

In this parable, the Talmud is teaching us that there are two types of antisemites. One is like Ashauerus – he doesn’t understand what Jews are doing here on this world. They are peculiar and they bother him. If the opportunity presents itself to him to be rid of this superfluous mound he says “yes please.”

For this type of antisemite there is yet hope. He can be educated to understand that the Jews are indeed different, but that is because, as Abraham J. Heschel put it, they are G-d’s stake in history. This “otherness” can (and has been) a contribution to humanity and the betterment of the world. Such a person can come to appreciate, and ultimately become supportive of the Jews – as Ashauerus came to be in the Purim story.

There is nothing to say, however, to the second, Haman-like antisemite. In his worldview, Jews are not only the cause of all the world’s troubles, but their very existence is blight on mankind. The Jews are a dangerous pit that threatens the well being of everyone.

But why? What causes Haman to hate the Jews in this way? What have the Jews ever done to him?

Rabbi Menachem Ziemba – Rabbi in pre-WWII Poland, who was gunned down by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto – suggests that there is no logical explanation for this phenomenon. This type of hatred is an irrational disease. It is not the result or conclusion of a particular reason, it just is.

He cites the Midrashic passage “It is a well-established law [axiomatic] that Esau hates Jacob”, and asks: What does “law” have to do with any of this?

His answer:

There are those who think they will discover the rationale and the causes of antisemitism and they strive to do so. However, reality demonstrates that there is not even one valid reason – the hatred defies logic and reason; their hearts have simply turned to hating G-d’s people. 

In one place they hate Jews because they are capitalists; in another, because they are socialists. Here, they hate them because they work harder and are smarter than the average individual; there, they hate them because they are a useless burden on society. Here, they are too pious and zealous; there, they are too progressive and secular. That’s how it always is – the reasons are always contradictory.

That is why it is “a well-established law.” For Esau’s hatred of Jacob is like a settled principal that can be stated without any supporting rational.

Noting drives the point home like a cynical joke:

Ignacy Paderewski, Poland’s post-WWI premier was discussing his country’s problems with President Woodrow Wilson. “If our demands are not met at the conference table,” he said, “I can foresee serious trouble in my country. Why, my people will be so irritated that many of them will get drunk and go out and massacre the Jews.”

“And what will happen if your demands are granted?” asked President Wilson. “Why, my people will be so happy that they will get drunk and go out and massacre the Jews.”

At the end of the day, we subconsciously seek “reasons” to justify out prejudice. The hate comes first, only then the after-the-fact rationalizations.

I will leave it to others to draw the parallels between the two archetypes of Jew-hatred and their modern day equivalents; I do, however, want to extrapolate what I think a possible lesson from these haters can be for Members of the Tribe.

To paraphrase Newton: For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. What is the remedy for irrational hatred? Irrational love. “Raw, cold-blooded, fanatical, baseless, relentless hatred can be matched and combated only with pure, undiscriminating, uninhibited, unyielding, baseless, unsolicited love and acts of kindness.”

“Love doesn’t need a reason,” said Deepak Chopra, “[love] speaks from the irrational wisdom of the heart.”