Bibi Netanyahu's Bible Story

Yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave President Obama a copy of the book of Esther, which will be read in synagogues this week in observance of Purim. Esther tells the story of a Persian government that tries and fails to wipe out all the Jews in the Persian Empire. 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."

Here's a thought experiment: Suppose that an Arab or Iranian leader of Muslim faith met with President Obama and told him about some part of the Koran that alludes to conflict between Muhammad and Jewish tribes. For example, according to Muslim tradition, the Jewish tribe known as the Qurayzah, though living in Muhammad's town of Medina, secretly sided with Muhammad's enemies in Mecca. Suppose this Muslim said to Obama, "Then, too, the Jews were bent on destroying Muslims." What would our reaction be?

I think reactions would vary. Some people would say, "See, the Koran teaches Muslims to hate Jews!" Some would say, "Wow, this Muslim is looking really, really hard for reasons to keep hating Jews, isn't he?"

That second point, at least, would have some merit. After all, the Muslim could just as easily have pointed to parts of the Koran that say nice things about Jews--such as the part that says that God, in his "prescience," chose "the children of Israel ... above all peoples." Or the part that says that God "sent down the Torah" as "guidance to the people" and now had sent down the Koran "confirming what was before it."

By the same token, Netanyahu could choose to emphasize a part of the Hebrew Bible that depicts Persians in a more flattering light. For example, the part that calls Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, the "messiah" because he delivered the exiled Israelites back to their home. (Yes, the only non-Hebrew called messiah in the entire Hebrew Bible is a Persian!)

To be sure, Esther is a book of special significance for Jews this week and so was in that sense an appropriate gift. But it's not as if diplomatic protocol demands that you give the President a religious text when visiting him. Had Netanyahu not been inclined to cast Persians in a bad light, he could have just given Obama, say, a paperweight or a nice fountain pen.

Of course, those things wouldn't have had quite the same emotional impact on conservative American Jews and conservative American evangelicals as a Bible story that, by Netanyahu's reading, depicts Iranians as eternal enemies. And I guess Netanyahu, like any politician, hates to miss an opportunity to reach his base. (In case word of his remarks to Obama didn't reach them, Netanyahu mentioned Esther in his AIPAC speech last night, calling it the story of a "Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people.")

The genius of using religious scripture for political purposes is its resistance to criticism. After all, in the week when the book of Esther figures in a sacred Jewish ritual, who would be foolish enough to challenge Netanyahu's invocation of it?

Me, apparently. And no doubt some commenters will illustrate my foolishness in the space below, accusing me of insensitivity, making dark insinuations about my motives, etc. So let me try to be clear about what I'm saying. I'm basically just asking two questions:

Why is it routine to talk about Iranian religious fanatics who are leading us toward war and so rare to acknowledge the role that religious tribalism in America--among both conservative Jews and conservative Christians--is playing in leading us to war? And why is it that when Muslim radicals use religious scripture in a way that foments belligerence we consider it primitive and vile, whereas when Bibi Netanyahu does the same thing (more subtly, I grant you) we nod politely and smile?