A question has long puzzled me about the Jewish festival of Purim. The potted story is that a Jewish woman called Esther became the queen. Her uncle, Mordechai, was approached by the Royal Chamberlain, Haman, who demanded that Mordechai bow to him. For reasons that are not adequately explained, Mordechai refused to do so, inciting a genocidal rage within Haman. He then conspired to kill all Jews, and through a series of twists and turns, Mordechai and Esther uncover his plan and have him hanged on his own gallows.

Superficially, I have always drawn a parallel between Haman and Adolf Hitler. Both attempted to exterminate the Jews, both were stopped before completing the act, and eventually being killed by their own instruments of death, in Haman's case on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordechai, in Hitler's case, suicide with his own pistol.

The comparison ends when we consider how both men are thought of by Jews. Hitler is thought of with a certain amount of fear, and is taken very seriously indeed. Haman, on the other hand, is thought of as a sort of cartoonish nefarious, dastardly villain, twirling his handlebar moustache and laughing evilly.

What is the difference in perception? The first possibility is to examine my original supposition, that the two are similar. Haman was ultimately foiled in his plan, having killed one Jew with whom he had personal enmity. Hitler on the other hand, whilst ultimately unsuccessful in killing the global population of Jews, did manage to kill approximately six million. Secondly, a certain amount of pride can be taken by Jews in the downfall of Haman, since it was orchestrated by the two principle Jewish characters of the story. Hitler's downfall was brought about by the armies of the allied powers, and was not primarily motivated by Hitler's Final Solution to the Jewish question at all. On the other hand, in Haman's time, the vast majority of the global Jewish population lived in one place, so committing genocide was a much more realistic objective, whereas in the mid twentieth century, Jews were spread throughout the four corners of the earth, and exterminating each and every one would probably have been logistically impossible over a finite timescale.

I don't accept these arguments, as I don't believe they ultimately amount to that much of a difference. But why else might they be treated differently? Perhaps the answer is within the Halachah, the Jewish law, which tells us, amongst other things, that we should become so drunk that we are unable to tell the difference between the names Haman and Mordechai. Perhaps this shows why we treat Haman as an object of ridicule, but it doesn't explain why the seriousness of our treatment of Hitler is not the default position when thinking of Haman. Add to that the fact the laws are derived from the teachings of Rava, who lived some 800 years after the Purim story, and it becomes less convincing. This is, however, consistent with what I believe to be the crux of the issue.

I believe the answer is one of time. The story of Purim happened well over two thousand years ago, whereas I myself know people who lived in concentration camps 65 years ago. Perhaps the difference between the perception of the two is similar to the difference in perception between Hitler and Attila the Hun.

Some Jewish comedians, most notably Mel Brooks in his musical The Producers, attempt to broach the subject of Hitler with humour. Whether this is a conscious effort to convert him into a Haman type figure or not, the undeniable implication is that we should not treat him seriously, as this shows a type of respect for him. The best way to ultimately destroy everything that he stood for would be to make a mockery and a laughing stock of him. I am unsure as to whether I am comfortable with that, and, by association, I am not sure whether or not I am comfortable with the way we treat Haman either. Perhaps the question will become easier to answer in another sixty years, once the pain has dulled and the survivors are no longer with us. But it will still give me something to think about when I hear the scroll of Esther being read next year.

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