Purim and the Longest Hatred

February 22, 2002
Book of Esther. Jewish people reads the book of Esther (the megillah), as part of the traditions of the holiday of Purim

This is a transcript of Rabbi Sacks’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 22nd February 2002

In a few days’ time we’ll be celebrating the Jewish festival of Purim. It’s a joyous day. We have a festive meal; we send presents to our friends; and gifts to the poor, so that no one should feel excluded. Anyone joining us on Purim would think it commemorates one of the great moments in Jewish history, like the Exodus from slavery or the Revelation at Mount Sinai.

Actually though, the truth is quite different. Purim is the day we remember the story told in the book of Esther, set in Persia in pre-Christian times. It tells of how a senior member of the Persian court, Haman, got angry that one man, Mordechai, refused to bow down to him. Discovering that Mordechai was a Jew, he decided to take revenge on all Jews and persuaded the King to issue a decree that they should all – young and old, men women and children – should be annihilated on a single day. Only the fact that Esther, Mordechai’s cousin, was the King’s favourite allowed her to intercede on behalf of her people and defeat the plan.

Purim is, in other words, the festival of survival in the face of attempted genocide. It wasn’t until way into adult life that I realised that what we celebrate on Purim is simply the fact that we’re alive; that our ancestors weren’t murdered after all.

Like many of my generation born after the Holocaust, I thought antisemitism was dead; that a hate so irrational, so murderous, had finally been laid to rest. So it has come as a shock to realise in recent months that it’s still strong in many parts of the world, and that even in Britain yesterday a cleric appeared in court charged with distributing a tape calling on his followers to kill Jews.

What is it about Jews – or black people, or Roma, or foreigners – that causes them to be hated? The oldest explanation is probably the simplest: because we don’t like the unlike. As Haman put it, “Their customs are different from those of other people.” And that’s why racial or religious hate isn’t just dangerous. It’s a betrayal of the human condition. We are different. Every individual, every culture, every ethnicity, every faith, gives something unique to humanity. Religious and racial diversity are as essential to our world as biodiversity. And therefore, I pray that we have the courage to fight prejudice, of which antisemitism is simply the oldest of them all. Because a world that can’t live with difference is a world that lacks room for humanity itself.