On Purim, I’m Re-reading June Jordan

Photo by Corleone Brown on Unsplash

Ms. June Jordan begins by throwing her hands up: I didn’t know and nobody told me and what / could I do or say, anyway? And she ends with the title of her poem, ‘Apologies to All the People in Lebanon’: I’m sorry. / I really am sorry. In between is the apology itself, details of the 1982 Lebanon war. She repeats the word ‘you’ and ‘your’ 22 times, speaking directly to expelled Palestinians. So too, does she speak directly to her Americanness, implicated in the war.

Today, quarantined American Jews celebrate the holiday of Purim, a kind of Jewish carnival that marks the moment in ancient times when we, a People, escaped death. Purim festivities tell how Haman, the king’s advisor, had planned to kill all of the Jews in Persia, and how Queen Esther, who had risen to her position by hiding her Jewishness, revealed herself as a Jew to convince the king to save her kin. We’re supposed to drink ourselves into sloppiness and eat cookies that resemble the hat worn by Haman. It is the happiest holiday in Judaism. An edict to remember our aliveness. An invitation to revel in the joy of being drunk and full, and that we can be drunk and full.

Jewish holidays, which mostly tell stories of our escape, wandering and eventual freedom, are opportunities for reflection, though I do not see many of my siblings, comrades and colleagues in Jewishness asking where the threat to aliveness exists today. I do not see many reading stories from history in the context of the ongoing present, where many miles from the U.S. and neighbor to the so-called Homeland are a People who face ongoing humanitarian destruction. Purim without thought of Palestine and Palestinians reifies Hamanic beliefs. Unlike Esther, who could reveal herself into changing another’s mind, Palestinians continue to demand their humanness yet are unsuccessful in their call.

The regimes Jordan condemned in ‘Apologies to All the People in Lebanon’ are different than the apartheid state Israel currently supports. They are also not so different. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon for the purpose of destroying Palestinian liberation efforts, and the U.S. government and military supported the incitement of war. They said they wanted simply to carve / a 25 mile buffer zone and then / they ravaged your / water supplies your electricity your / hospitals your schools your highways and byways all / the way north to Beirut because they said this / was their quest for peace. Israel continues to evict and exile Palestinians from their own land by way of an active and unrelenting settler-colonial expansion, a political logos likely borrowed from one of Israel’s most vehement supporters: us. There’s the fact that U.S. regimes fund and aid Israel’s — the Trump administration’s approval of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank comes to mind. More explicitly, a 2016 memorandum of understanding between us and Israelis guaranteed $38 billion in military “aid” from 2019 to 2028. The militarism oppressed onto and control of Palestinians by way of both of these governments — which claim to express the will of their People — has led to the financial impoverishment of an estimated 40% of Palestinians and the large-scale prevention of access to medicine, resources, and education. There is no guarantee that Israel will provide coronavirus vaccines to Palestinians. Still, these are words, a couple of facts to illustrate just a portion of what is wrong.

In Jewish holidays evilness is succinctly bounded. There was Antiochus’ army that tried to massacre the Maccabees. There was King Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews. And there was, of course, Haman, who believed that it was in King Ahasuerus’ best political interest to wipe out the Jewish people. In each of these accounts Jews are the victims of violence, Davids who take on genocidal Goliaths. In an America with Jews, high-profile Jews, anti-Semitism and a broad intolerance for that anti-Semitism, these stories serve as platforms of celebration: Hanukkah, Passover, and Purim. We preach peace and justice and repairing the world. And, implicitly, self-preservation above all else. They said something about never again and then / they made close to one million human beings homeless / in less than three weeks and they killed or maimed / 40,000 of your men and your women and your children.

Political self awareness is hard, constant work. (You can expect but so much / from those of us who have to pay taxes and watch / American TV.) It is hard because it is both political and of the self. Communal and internal. Within and without. But as Jews, and as Jews on days where we celebrate that we are living Jews who have descended from Esther and her bravery, we are obligated to reveal ourselves to us and inspect for fault and obligation. We are also obligated to receive others — Palestinians — when they reveal themselves, support their aliveness and hold contempt for those who don’t.

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