Text and Context: A Haman by Any Other Name Would Be Just as Bad

A look into the Women’s League archives reminds us that throughout history evil has not been something abstract, but rather a reflection of the very real people responsible for it.

by Lisa Kogen

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Hanukkah, Purim, Pesach – why is it that so many of our celebrations feature bad guys? Even today, we Jews often see ourselves as just one Haman away from disaster. The narrative is the same. Names and faces appear and then disappear. Today, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar al-Assad or Jean-Marie Le Pen are well known, and we are convinced that their words and behavior will be seared in our collective memory forever.

But forever can be a very short time. In perusing the earliest editions of Outlook magazine, Women’s League’s precursor to CJ, I came across this short, unattributed piece from February, 1931.

A Merry Purim

“An Ahasueras, an Esther, a Mordecai – what an asset they would be for the Jews in the many lands where Hamans still flourish. In how many lands are Jews attempting merrily to observe Purim with tears in their eyes and fear in their hearts! There is Haman Passfield, Haman Simpson, Haman Hitler, Haman Soviet, Haman Pilsudski, Haman Bethlen, Haman Cusa and a great many little Hamans.”

How many of these Hamans from 1931 are identifiable today? Of course, Haman Hitler was already ensconced as the leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and a charismatic orator who was captivating audiences with his rabid German nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism.

Haman Soviet. An interesting choice of name. Rather than characterize any single individual, the entire Soviet apparatus was viewed as a collective Haman. Suffice it to say that there were enough American Jews who did not view the Soviet experience as good for the Jews. The absence of Stalin, specifically, is only because in 1931 he had not yet begun to unleash his immense capacity for evil.

Haman Hitler. Haman Soviet. Check.

Now on to Hamans Passfield, Simpson, Pilsudski, Bethlen, and Cusa.

Haman Sidney James Webb, Lord Passfield, was King George V’s colonial secretary who crafted the 1930 White Paper calling for further limitations of Jewish immigration to Palestine. The White Paper’s recommendation was based on a report filed earlier that year, commissioned in the aftermath of the Arab riots of 1929, written by Sir John Hope Simpson, Haman Simpson. Circulated within the Colonial Ministry, The Report on Immigration, Land Settlement and Development upheld continued British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine, but its anti-Jewish tone criticized institutions such as the Jewish Agency for promoting Jewish employment and further land acquisition, both of which they regarded as damaging to the economic development of the Arab population.

The White Paper concluded that “in the light of the examination to which immigration and unemployment problems have been subjected, His Majesty’s Government regard their action in the suspension of immigration under the Labour Schedule last May as fully justified.” The implications of creating a closed door policy for Jewish immigrants as virulent anti-Semitism spread across the European continent remains, to this day, unimaginably distressing.

Marshal Yozef Pilsudski, Haman Pilsudski, was head of state of the Second Republic of Poland from 1926-1935. No stranger to the Jews, the noble Pilsudski was born in Lithuania and his early activity with the Polish Socialist Party brought him in conflict with the Bund, the east European federation of Jewish socialist workers. By the early 1930s, with the rise of right-wing anti-Semitism and increased social and economic restrictions on Polish Jewry condoned by the government, Pilsudski was readily linked to their deteriorating situation. Even as early as 1931, it was not a mischaracterization. The Pilsudski government would sign a pact with Hitler three years later.

Haman Bethlen? Count István Bethlen served as Prime Minister of Hungary from 1921 to 1931 when he led his country into the League of Nations and arranged a close alliance with Fascist Italy. Although he later opposed an alliance with Nazi Germany, as the rising tide of anti-Semitism surged unchecked into Hungary, Bethlen became the political figure most closely associated with worsening situation for Hungarian Jews.

As we continue down this list of early-mid 20th century Hamans, why is Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) included? Cusa was a German cardinal who convened the synod of Bamberg that condoned the Church’s policy that Jews wear a distinctive badge. He was certainly not the first Christian prelate to propose this humiliation, nor was he the most virulent. His proto-humanist writings, in fact, suggest a modicum of understanding and appreciation of Jewish and Islamic writings. How Haman Cusa surfaces in this collection of personae non grata is a mystery.

What does this meandering historical trek through the yellowed pages of a 1931 issue of Outlook reveal about that moment in time and the women who wrote about it? It demonstrates that the familiar becomes distant. Hamans come, and Hamans go. Of course, some are so heinous that they are indelibly imprinted on our collective historical conscience while some become the subjects of Jewish trivia.

But it tells us also that already early in its existence, Women’s League and its leaders were concerned about matters far outside, and certainly more grave, than what they confronted in their relatively secure lives. Purim was not really about hamentaschen and noise makers. Purim was about truly endangered communities. Purim was a time to be aware and alert and offer hopeful prayer that these 20th century Hamans would go the way of all Hamans. How little they knew at that moment, yet how right they were.

Lisa Kogen is the Education Director of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.