Twenty-five hundred years ago in Persia, so the legend goes, a Jew called Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, the king’s chief minister. Enraged, Haman persuaded the king that the Jews should be annihilated. But Queen Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, convinced the king to spare her people and accused Haman of treachery. The king hanged Haman and appointed Mordecai in his place. The victorious Jews celebrated by declaring a holiday. They called it Purim which, centuries later, has become a kind of worldwide Jewish Mardi Gras— costumed and noisy. But there was little cause for celebration this year. Purim fell on Monday, March 4, and that was the day when the fourth terrorist bomb in nine days killed 13 people and injured more than 100 in Israel. So far in the Hebrew month of Adar, Haman’s legacy of hatred of Jews has claimed 57 lives—including several Arabs.
In synagogues and community centres across Canada last week, Jews gathered to pray for the latest victims of terrorism, by Hamas this time, and for friends and family members visiting or living in Israel. For most, the lurid headlines and televised images of the carnage in Tel Aviv and earlier in Jerusalem either deepened fears for Middle East peace or strengthened convictions that Israel’s negotiations with Arab neighbors and the PLO were a dangerous waste of time.
“Some people are questioning their support for the peace process,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch of Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim, an Orthodox synagogue. “Others are now sure that their opposition to the peace process has been correct.”
Yet there was widespread, if reluctant, agreement that the peace talks had to proceed. Karen Mock of Toronto, national director of the League for Human Rights of the Jewish service organization B’nai Brith, said the bombings filled her with “confusion, dismay, anger and frustration.” However, she added: “There is no question that most people truly want peace, but there must be peace with security for all, so we can’t give up.” Winnipeg lawyer Lyle Smordin, the league’s national chairman, said that abandoning the search for peace would be a victory for Hamas. And Rabbi Dow Marmur of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple said that while no one knew how the attacks would affect the peace negotiations, “accelerating speed is not something we should expect in the near future.”
Despite their heightened anxiety, many of Canada’s 320,000 Jews elected to defy Hamas and celebrate Purim. Neil Loomer, publisher of the monthly newspaper Edmonton Jewish Life and executive director of the city’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, said: ‘We wanted to show that those people aren’t going to stop us from celebrating our holidays and observing our religion.” In Winnipeg, home to 15,000 Jews, Smordin said educators and rabbis debated whether to call off the festivities but in the end elected to go ahead (although the observance at Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate, the city’s Jewish high school, was called off). ‘To cancel celebrations,” Smordin said, “could be interpreted as a victory for Hamas and so you go on and do what you were supposed to.” Not everyone did.
Vancouver lawyer Michael Moscovich said a friend in Israel kept her children at home during the holiday. “Israelis aren’t like that,” Moscovich said. “This seems to have shaken people in a different way.”
In fact, because of their emotional, spiritual and historical investment in Israel, the brutality of the attacks had shaken Jews everywhere. “There is a personal connection, Israel is so central to Judaism,” said Holy Blossom’s Marmur, whose son lives with a family in the Israeli port city of Haifa. After news of the bombings, he said, “the first thing one does is get on the phone and so of course they tell you that all circuits are busy. There are so few of us that the likelihood is that you know someone there or you know someone who knows someone there.”
That sentiment was echoed by Loomer who, like many Canadian Jews, considered preventing his 20-year-old son Benjamin from visiting Israel this summer, but then relented. “You can’t stop going,” Loomer said. “It’s so easy to fall into the larger mass and be swallowed up in the general community, so it is Israel, along with our religion, that keeps us going as Jews. People say Israel needs us to support it, but I think we need Israel. We need it for our children, we need it to remind us why we’re Jews, we need it to remind us of what we have struggled for over the years.”
Yet between Western Jew and Israeli there are profound differences—in background, experience and lifestyle. In an e-mail letter to his mother after the bombings, Karen Mock’s son Steven, who is attending the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote of that distinction: “I hate the Israeli for his smugness, his air of superiority, his audacity. Yet he knows something I do not— despite my perfect English and Western culture, I need him far more than he needs me.... I am sickened by this country now. I want to leave on the next plane. But only if that next plane is after I have seen every sight, met every person and experienced every experience that this country has to offer.” A quarrelsome family, perhaps, but united in mourning against a common foe.
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