My mother and grandparents survived the Holocaust. When I was growing up, I resented how often they read anti-Semitism into seemingly innocuous exchanges. “They will always hate us,” they warned. I naively dismissed their anxiety as paranoia, and questioned their capacity to move beyond their own pain. Now I recognize how wrong I was.
Anti-Semitism is hardly a thing of the past; it’s a constant, vicious drumbeat—and it’s louder today than it has been in decades. Anti-Semitism—cloaked and overt, polite and crass—has permeated discourse for millennia. The recent rise in anti-Semitic violence should force us to reevaluate not only the way non-Jews regard Jews, but also the way Jews have come to see themselves through the eyes of those who despise them.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., displays a “Scroll of Hitler”—Megillat Hitler, in Hebrew. It tells of the rise of Hitler, the requisition of Jewish property, and the Nazi attempt to deport Jews from North Africa. The Megillat Hitler was written by Prosper Hassine, a scribe from Casablanca. There is a copy of the scroll on display at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. This copy, according to the museum’s archives, was once owned by the Corcos family. They fled to Casablanca from Florence in 1939, hoping to escape the fate of other European Jews.
The scroll is modeled after the Scroll of Esther, a biblical story that has its own Hitler: the Persian courtier Haman. Although some trace the origins of anti-Semitism to the New Testament era, it is hard to ignore the implicit anti-Semitism in the Esther story, which took place in approximately the fifth century B.C. Early in the Book of Esther, Haman tells King Ahasuerus about the Jews in the vast Persian empire: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws.”
Haman targeted Jews not because they were dangerous, but solely because they were different. He claimed that the Jews did not obey the king’s laws. This lie, however, was undercut by the fierce loyalty both Esther and Mordechai demonstrated to Ahasuerus. Mordechai not only obeyed the law, but also prevented an assassination attempt against the king that was neither recognized nor initially rewarded.
Understanding how ancient anti-Semitism is does not mitigate its sting. That Haman harbored irrational prejudice toward Jews in the Book of Esther was not the central problem in the story. It was that, like some forms of modern anti-Semitism, his disgust manifested itself in a murderous campaign against the Jews. His speech to the king ends with this sober conclusion: “It is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” Haman decreed that all the Jews in Ahasuerus’s 127 provinces were to be killed on one day.
Haman’s speech to Ahasuerus reminds me of Theodor Herzl’s words in “A Solution to the Jewish Question” centuries later. In the late 1800s, Herzl could not understand why, despite their noteworthy contributions to society, Jews were continually branded outsiders:
In vain we are loyal patriots, in some places our loyalty running to extremes; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to increase the fame of our native land in science and art, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In countries where we have lived for centuries we are still cried down as strangers. . . . If we could only be left in peace . . .
But peace is not on offer. In the Jewish historical narrative, decades of quiet amity are almost always eclipsed by years of worry and persecution.
Jews cannot help but see Haman and Hitler on the same historical continuum. In his commentary on Esther, Bible scholar Michael Fox notes:
Every year at Purim when I hear the Scroll read in the synagogue, I know that it is true, whatever the historical accuracy of its details. Indeed, I relive its truth and know its actuality. Almost without an effort of imagination, I feel something of the anxiety that seized the Jews of Persia upon learning of Haman’s threat to their lives, and I join in their exhilaration at their deliverance. Except that I do not think “their,” but “my.”
At Yad Vashem, the Scroll of Hitler is rolled together with a Scroll of Esther; at the end of its chapters of twentieth-century horrors is the actual story of Esther and Haman—an illustration of how the same evil emerges in every generation. Stories repeat and overlap, especially when we fail to heed their most important lessons.
Perhaps combining them also symbolizes the fervent Jewish wish for Esther’s happy ending, when the Jews of Persia went from powerlessness to respect and security. The Book of Esther concludes with Jews taking important positions in the royal court, positively contributing to society, defending their people, and advocating for their rights. In 1942, the Jews of North Africa temporarily enjoyed a similar happy ending. American and British troops defeated the Germans in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia on November 8, 1942, after only eight days of fighting. Hassine used lines from the Book of Esther to describe this history; November 1942 was the month, he wrote, “that turned from sorrow to gladness” and in which the Jews “had light, gladness, joy and honor.” A prayer traditionally read after the recitation of the Book of Esther on Purim states, “Blessed be Mordechai, cursed be Haman.” Hassine rephrases it: “Blessed be Roosevelt and Churchill. Cursed be Hitler and Mussolini.”
Today the scroll is exhibited in a Jewish State, in a museum nestled in the hills of Jerusalem. Yad Vashem is next to Har Herzl, a sprawling military cemetery named after the same man who believed that a future without anti-Semitism was only possible if Jewish influence was twinned with Jewish autonomy. Maybe, Herzl thought, the best way to fight hate is not to fight it at all, but to move away from it before it catches you in its grip.
After all, anti-Semitism is a persistent Jewish concern but is not really a Jewish problem. It’s the disease of those who greet difference with violence. It can never, therefore, be eliminated by Jews. It must be eradicated by non-Jews willing to fight all forms of hatred. It is time to unravel the scroll of hate and recognize the need to tell a new story.
Erica Brown is an associate professor at The George Washington University and author of The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile.