Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the son of the great historian of Judaism under the Spanish Inquisition and the younger brother of the Israeli war hero killed freeing hostages in the raid on Entebbe. Himself the twice-wounded leader of a Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, Netanyahu has reason to be wary of his foes.
In Netanyahu’s view, Iran is an existential threat to Israel, and Iran’s nuclear program the tip of the spear.
The Prime Minister’s speech to the US Congress on Tuesday was designed to address that threat, by undermining the ongoing talks regarding Iran’s nuclear programme.
Netanyahu is fond of comparing the current threat from Iran to the time of the Book of Esther (reign of King Xerxes, 486–465) when a Persian prince named Haman threatened to kill and extirpate all Jews.
Born into a secular Israeli family, Netanyahu has recently hosted group Bible studies in his home on several occasions, declared in a speech at Auschwitz that the prophecy of Ezekiel 37 has been fulfilled, and stated 'the Bible is the foundation of our existence'.
He presented President Obama with a megillah scroll of the Ketuvim / Old Testament book of Esther on a previous visit to Washington. And on this visit to the US, he again used the story of Esther and Haman as a metaphor for Israel and Iran in 2015 in his speech to a joint session of Congress.
‘We're an ancient people. In our nearly 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people. Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we'll read the Book of Esther. We'll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
‘The plot was foiled. Our people were saved.
‘Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei spews the oldest hatred, the oldest hatred of anti semitism with the newest technology. He tweets that Israel must be annihilated -- he tweets. You know, in Iran, there isn't exactly free Internet. But he tweets in English that Israel must be destroyed.’
There’s one other reference in Netanyahu’s speech which will have found resonance with his Jewish audience, while perhaps passing unnoticed by many others.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve come here today to tell you we don’t have to bet the security of the world on the hope that Iran will change for the better. We don’t have to gamble with our future and with our children’s future.
‘We can insist that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program not be lifted for as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world.’
His reference to gambling – ‘We don’t have to gamble with our future’ – will be understood, like many of the speeches Michael Gerson wrote for George W Bush, as a ‘double-coded’ message, those in the know understanding ‘gambling’ as a reference to Haman’s use of a throw of the dice (purim) to decide on the day when the Jews should be killed.
The Jewish reading of the Esther story frequently emphasizes that our human life is not a game of chance, but a divinely scripted narrative embedded with moral truths.
Michael Curtis, writing in The American Conservative, suggests, ‘The use of analogies in politics is always perilous’. Nevertheless, he comments, it is ‘…worth remembering the historical events that took place in the great Persian Empire with its 127 provinces, in the context of today’s Islamic regime, and the invitation to the Israeli prime minister.
‘Queen Esther was forbidden to speak to the king without being summoned. Netanyahu was not summoned by the U.S. head of state, who is unwilling to meet him, but only by the Speaker of the House, John Boehner. She realized the plight of the Jewish people in Persia who were threatened by Haman’s plan for annihilation. Netanyahu recognizes the current plight of the Jewish people in Israel whose survival is endangered by the threat of annihilation from Iranian nuclear bombs.’
There are some problems with the Esther metaphor, however.
Unlike the Ayatollah Khamenei, Haman was both the vizier to and a rebel against Ahasuerus (Xerxes), the Iranian ruler of his time. Besides, history is not guaranteed to repeat scriptures.
Nevertheless, for Jews both the Book of Esther and the Feast of Purim (which fell on 4-5 March this year) have strong emotional resonance.
During Purim, children blot out the name of Haman whenever it is mentioned in the reading of Esther by the use of noise-makers called ‘groggers’, while the celebrants enjoy eating a pastry called ‘the ears of Haman’ and parade in carnival masks commemorating the time when Esther saved her people and ‘The Jews had light and gladness, joy and honour’ (Esther 8.16).
Netanyahu’s speech was well received by those who attended, and may have given his Likud party a mild boost in the run-up to the elections. The Jerusalem Post reported under the title, ‘First polls after Netanyahu's Congress speech find slight gain for Likud’, that, ‘surveys sponsored by leading Israeli TV channels show Likud and Zionist Unions parties neck-in-neck’.
The reference to Esther and Haman is the part of Netanyahu’s speech that the secular press predictably misses. An exception in this case was Suzanne Fields, writing for theWashington Times - a paper founded by the late Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church (Moonies). Her piece, ‘Netanyahu's Bible lesson from Queen Esther’, gives further useful context.
But what does it all mean? The nuclear talks between the US and Iran were Netanyahu’s central talking points, and when his speech was fact checked, the points he made were found to be within reasonable distance of the truth.
On the whole, Netanyahu largely adhered to what is known about the nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran, even if he predicted far direr consequences for the Middle East and the world if a deal is reached this month. His calculations on how close that might leave Iran to nuclear weapons capacity rested on solid footing.
Still, Netanyahu exaggerated at times for dramatic effect.
In his speech to AIPAC the day before his appearance before Congress, Netanyahu said: ‘My speech is also not intended to inject Israel into the American partisan debate.'
That seems, on the face of it, implausible – but quite what that influence will be has yet to be seen.
Did his speech enhance his chances of winning his own imminent domestic election? And will it influence the outcome of US discussions with Iran? We live in a complex world, and Netanyahu needed his speech to accomplish all three goals.