On the surface, it was an arcane Biblical reference—but beneath it, another sign of the sea change in Israel-American relations, and the evaporation of Israel’s moderate Right.
Saturday night, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin said in a speech, “The president of the United States is lashing out at Israel just like Haman lashed out at the Jews. I’m not making a political statement—I’m making a Jewish statement.”
When someone in the audience shouted that the rabbi was being disrespectful to the president of the United States, he replied, “I am being disrespectful because the president of the United States was disrespectful to my prime minister, to my country, to my future and to the future of the world.”
Hidden in these few lines of coded language is a roadmap to all that has gone wrong in Israel’s relationship to America.
First, Rabbi Riskin is no fire-breathing fundamentalist. On the contrary, he is (or was) the kind of rabbi American Jews love. A moderate, Modern Orthodox scholar, he led New York’s Lincoln Square synagogue from the 1960s (when Riskin was in his 20s) through the 1980s, turning it into one of the largest, most vibrant Modern Orthodox synagogues in America.
When Riskin immigrated to Israel, he began anew, and enjoyed similar success, founding a network of schools and turning the settlement/suburb of Jerusalem Efrat into an expatriate haven. When I was just out of college, several of my friends lived there, and studied at its renowned yeshiva.
Along the way, he has maintained his religious moderation, writing several books and earning the respect of religious leaders, politicians, and, not least, American Jewish funders.
But his statement Saturday was shocking. As recorded in the Book of Esther—and celebrated on the Purim holiday, which took place last month—Haman is a genocidal Jew-hater who plots to murder every Jew in the Persian Empire. He is an antecedent to Hitler, nothing less.
And there’s yet another nuance. Religious Jews know that Haman is a descendant of the tribe of Amalek, described in the Torah as Israel’s implacable enemy. Jews are commanded to completely annihilate them (Deut 25:19), leaving no survivors (Deut. 20:16), and destroying all of the tribe’s property as well (I Samuel 15:3). It is a commandment for genocide, and Haman/Obama is the target.
The response has been swift. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of the liberal rabbinic organization T’ruah, told The Daily Beast that “comparing President Obama to Haman, a descendant of Amalek whose destruction the Torah demands, isn’t just political criticism—it’s dangerous. we’ve seen horrific examples of extremists who have justified murder against those they consider Amalek.”
Jacobs’s organization has started an online petition with about 300 signatures, asking Riskin to retract his comment. Comparing Obama and Haman is “outrageous and unacceptable,” the petition says.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor, who during the 2014 Gaza operation wrote a viral op-ed saying he was “done apologizing for Israel,” likewise had no sympathy for Riskin. Creditor told The Daily Beast that “no Rabbi should be given the right to so coopt Judaism and reduce Zionism into talking points for or against a specific policy or leader.”
Behind these comments, though, is another, deeper story: the seduction of moderates like Riskin by Christian Zionism and the far-right narrative it represents.
As Rachel Tabachnick wrote in these pages last week, the Book of Esther has long been a favorite theme of Christian Zionists. The story is one of palace intrigue: the evil Haman plots against the Jews, but Queen Esther is secretly Jewish herself, and is able to foil his plans, at the bidding of her uncle Mordechai.
In the Christian Zionist version, the Christians are Esther, working within the system to save the Jews. That makes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into Mordechai—the same role he assumed in Riskin’s remarks. Indeed, Robert Stearns, one of the leaders of the Christian Zionist movement, made the same analogy shortly before Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.
And in fact, Riskin has long, deep connections with the Christian Zionist community. In 2008, he founded the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), which often acts as the host organization for evangelical trips to Israel, offering workshops such as “Discovering the Bible.”
So, it’s no surprise that Riskin is making the same references as his Christian Zionist allies; they are common currency in that community.
Riskin also enjoys a close relationship with Christians United for Israel head John Hagee, whom he gave an award in 2012, and whom he has called “a most impressive man with a clear, deep, articulate voice and a warm and embracing manner.”
In fact, notwithstanding his significant financial resources, Hagee has long held extreme, even bizarre, views.
Last fall, Hagee said that Ebola was God’s punishment against America because of Obama’s insufficient support of Israel. But not just Ebola. Hagee has also said that the 2008 financial crisis was Divine retribution, and 9/11 was “the judgment of God on our country” because we “did not obey the law of God.”
As for his status as “defender of Israel,” Hagee has said that the Rapture is imminent, and that the Jews will not accept Jesus because they will have “made a deal with the Antichrist.” They will thus die in the ensuing tribulations.
This ambivalent (if that’s the word) relationship to Jews is typical of Christian Zionism. But Israel’s right-wingers have long put up with it, since in the meantime, they receive financial and political support from Queen Esther” in the United States.
But why Riskin, in particular? Why would someone so respected, and so moderate on some issues, be keeping company with zealots and parroting their extreme, even genocidal, rhetoric?
The wider story here is how moderate-religious Zionists like Riskin have slid ever farther rightward. Riskin used to describe himself as politically liberal, but as early as 1995, he was protesting the Oslo accords and aligning Efrat more with ideological settlements like Ariel, and less with its closer neighbors in Gush Etzion.
Territorial nationalism has trumped ideological moderation. Now, like the Jewish Home party (comprised, in part, by modern Orthodox Anglo-Israelis like him), Riskin combines religious moderation with political extremism. This community exists in its own media bubble, circulating the same feverish rhetoric about Iran, denying the same demographic realities about Palestine.
And the more the world turns against Israeli policies, the more it validates the view that “the whole world is against us.” The result has been a spiraling of settler nationalism that has Israel’s security hawks alarmed.