Overcoming adversity: Purim and the resilience of Jewish identity

How Jews respond when faced with a grave threat is sometimes known as a “Queen Esther moment.”

Mannequins show off Purim options at Brurya, a costume store in Tel Aviv. Photo by Deborah Fineblum.
Mannequins show off Purim options at Brurya, a costume store in Tel Aviv. Photo by Deborah Fineblum.

The ancient Jewish festival of Purim, celebrated this year from sundown on March 23 through nightfall on March 24, is a testament to resilience, courage and the triumph of good over evil. Purim celebrates the perseverance of Jews against one of the leaders of Persia (now Iran) who plotted to kill all the Jews in his domain in the fifth century BCE. Purim resonates deeply with contemporary challenges faced by American Jews, particularly the need to confront adversity while preserving their identity.

Anti-Jewish venom increasingly plagues university campuses. Universities should be places of learning, open debate and academic research, but they have become hotbeds of fear for many Jewish students. A new study conducted across multiple campuses with a significant Jewish population reveals the social cost of being Jewish. Their identity is making them vulnerable to attacks, both verbal and physical, much like other examples in Jewish history.

A new federal civil-rights complaint against Sarah Lawrence College in New York asserts that it is “safe to be Jewish as long as you are openly anti-Israel.” The overwhelming majority of American Jews support Zionism—the return of exiled Jews to a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland; this is the opposite of “colonization.” The Hamas-Israel war puts Jewish students in the crosshairs of pro-Hamas supporters who demonize supporters of Israel, often using “Zionist” as a substitute for “Jew” to prevent accusations of bigotry.

Talia Khan, a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is “traumatized” on campus as “anti-Israel club members stated that violence against Jews who support Israel is acceptable.” This fear is only one reason why a skyrocketing number of Jewish students feel they need to hide their Jewish identity—nearly doubling to 30% in a year and a half. A new study conducted by a Tufts University professor proves that their fears are justified as a large share of non-Jews reported that they did not want to be friends with someone who supports Israel, confirming results in other recent studies.

“The vast majority of Jewish students say they would feel social pressure just from taking the basic stance that Israel as a Jewish country should exist,” according to the study’s author. Two-thirds of Jewish students pay a social penalty for supporting the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. Young American Jews should be able to proudly embrace their heritage without facing prejudice and social stigma.

Professors acting as divisive political advocates

Professors are increasingly being pressured to take a position on the Hamas war against Israel. This is disproportionately affecting Jewish professors. Historically, professors in fields not related to the Arab-Israeli conflict have not shown any restraint in openly scolding purported Israeli policies. At the same time, professors who are supportive of Israel have been hesitant to take a stand unless it is within their academic field.

University of California at Berkeley professor Ron Hassner just ended a sit-in protest—eating, sleeping and teaching in his campus office—to bring awareness to university administrators that they must provide protection and support for their Jewish students. He said, “If my students feel that they cannot walk safely across campus without being bullied, then I will not cross campus either.”

Dartmouth College in New Hampshire is an example of how to use education as an opportunity to build dialogue between Muslim and Jewish students and professors. Middle Eastern Studies professor Ezzedine Fishere and Jewish Studies professor Susannah Heschel hosted forums at the Ivy League university for the campus community to talk together after the terrorist attacks of Oct. 7. Fishere stated: “What we did is our job. And our job is to teach, not to advocate.”

Queen Esther
Queen Esther. Credit: Courtesy.

Modern-day ‘Queen Esther moment’

How Jews respond when faced with a grave threat, especially with annihilation, is sometimes known as a “Queen Esther moment.” Esther was married to the king of the Persian Empire in the fifth century BCE when one of the king’s officials, Haman, convinced the king to allow him to rid Persia of all its Jews. Queen Esther revealed the plot, saving the Jewish people from genocide.

At the recent ADL “Never Is Now” conference, Dara Horn, the author of People Love Dead Jews, announced: “We’ve reached our Queen Esther moment.” American Jews are facing adversity and should be inspired by Queen Esther’s courage and bravery. The U.S. Jewish community has an opportunity to proudly stand for their beliefs rather than hiding their identity.

Attacks against American Jewish students have prompted a greater connection with the Jewish community and Israel. Acts of anti-Jewish hatred often increase Jewish pride. A recent study showed a sharp rise—from 26% to 43% in about a year—in the number of U.S. Jewish students who feel very close to a Jewish community. Tessa Veksler, the student government president at the University of California at Santa Barbara, declared: “We are showing resilience and strength. The Jewish people are not going anywhere.”

Points to consider:

  1. Purim is a reminder to proudly display Jewish identity.

The story of Purim and the courage of Queen Esther serve as timeless reminders of the resilience and determination inherent to Jewish tradition. From ancient Persia to the Holocaust to the present day, Jews confront adversity with courage, fortitude and an unwavering commitment to their identity. Relentlessly attacked in America since Oct. 7, especially on university campuses, Jews increasingly feel the need to hide their identity. There is a growing movement for Jews to celebrate their Jewish heritage proudly and visibly.

  1. Jewish students need to be included on campus, not shunned.

Increasing numbers of young Jews are feeling the need to hide their identities because they live in fear of being targeted and ostracized. A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League concluded that “social networks and social norms increasingly point toward a growing acceptance of antisemitism,” and a new study revealed that 66% of American Jewish students are frightened that there will be a social penalty for supporting the Jewish state. This result is confirmed by the 33% of non-Jewish students who do not want to be friends with Zionist Jews. Creating an environment of acceptance and respect for all religious and cultural identities is essential for fostering diversity and promoting academic excellence. This includes Jews.

  1. Universities are for learning and dialogue, not hatred and division.

The goal of earning a degree in higher education is to learn and grow in an environment that fosters intellectual curiosity and debate. Right now, there are too many examples of students who support the Jewish state being silenced and attacked. It is vital that universities celebrate the exchange of different ideas openly. The promotion of acceptance, empathy and mutual respect can ensure that universities remain beacons of progress for generations to come.

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