Saturday Night Blues
Nec meminit notas, ut prius, ire vias.
Besides attending prayers, eating well and sleeping even better, I spent Shabbat working through Elliott Horowitz's articles on Purim violence. In Zion 59 (1994) and Poetics Today 15 (1994), he found traces of a tradition of violence on Purim. Specifically, violence towards Christians and Christian religious symbols (more on that in his article here). Another article in Zion 64 (1999) explored the halachic sources for the idea that Amalek is alive and kicking - sometimes identified with specific historical figures, including Jews, but usually as a general epiphet for European Christianity.
One of the themes Horowitz likes to explore in his work is the way earlier scholars deal with information they find uncomfortable. For instance, many Jewish historians found it hard to believe that Jews could have physically assaulted Christians without direct provocation - on Purim or at any other time. By stringing together many such incidents, Horowitz makes the point that this really is one of the aspects of Purim in Jewish history.
So, what does that mean? Is it simply a historical curiosity? The year Horowitz published his two articles, current events seemed to prove that his thesis was still valid (these Google results are disturbing in themselves!), that Jewish violence towards others on Purim is a living tradition.
Horowitz makes it clear that this tradition was a popular one, not something sanctioned or even mentioned in Halachic sources. In his later Zion article, he looked at what Halachic sources do contain. Mostly, they swing between two poles - the commandment to eradicate Amalek is a dead letter, or it is theoretically binding but political considerations usually make it impossible (e.g., the absence of a king to lead a war against Amalek).
I sincerely believe in the importance of acknowledging all of our heritage, as I have said here before. But I am not a big proponent of violence. What lesson can I learn from this?
For one, that the acts of the few can have a lasting impact on the many, for generations. For another, Jewish history is not necessarily something to hide behind in proclaiming moral superiority. Morality is something that has to be constantly strived for, struggled for.
And third, that Jewish social history is not all about being victimised!