Purim and Inglourious Basterds: The Delight and Terror of Revenge Fantasies

I recently rewatched Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. It remains a powerful, entertaining cinematic experience. I forgot how delicious and even thrilling it was – as a seventh-generation rabbi whose father of blessed memory escaped the Nazis and immigrated to America from Poland in 1938 with his parents and brother, leaving most of his family behind, all of whom were murdered by the Nazis – to feel justice served in the painful, fiery death of all the Nazi leadership gathered in one theatre to watch a film glorifying their own psychopathic heroes. I grew up in a community that would append to any mention of Nazis the expression  “y’mach shemam” – may their names be erased.”  Mr. Tarantino gave explosive new meaning to this term!

Tomorrow night, Jews around the world will celebrate the festival of Purim and read the Megillah – the Scroll of Esther. The story of Achashverosh, a paranoid Machiavellian king, Haman, an evil and hateful advisor to the King, a Jewish courtier Mordechai, and his niece –  the heroic, brilliant strategist, identity- hiding Queen Esther. Written in response to Jewish powerlessness and anxiety, the story has twists and turns, court intrigue and sexual innuendo, the near destruction of the Jews of Persia, and the redemptive climax. The evil Haman – whose name is drowned out with harsh noise-making groggers every time it is mentioned – is hung as are his ten sons, and to deepen the salvific gratification, the Jews of the empire, with the permission of the King, get extra days to fight, and they slaughter 75,000 Persians – without incurring even one Jewish casualty.  “For the Jews, it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor.”

The Purim story and Inglorious Basterds get similar jobs done! They are fun, action-packed, Jewish revenge fantasies! Rather than focusing on the suffering of Jews, the Purim story and Inglorious Bastards are primary process experiences. There may be millions and millions of Jewish victims in “every generation,” from those enslaved in Egypt to those butchered in the Shoah’s Kingdom of Night, but the Purim story and Inglorious Basterds tell the one story we are afraid to tell about ourselves: the story of what we would really like to do to the “other.” No wonder the custom on Purim is to get so drunk that we can’t discern the difference between the blessing of  Mordechai and the curse of Haman.  How else could we allow ourselves to feel the pent-up rage and vengeance against those in “every generation who rise up to destroy us?”

But the Purim story begins, “And behold in those days,” and Inglorious Basterds begins, “Once upon a time,” – reminding us that we are watching fables, tales, dreams, and fantasies that alas did not happen.  The Purim story, like Inglorious Basterds, is a flight of the imagination, a meditation on justice and vengeance, an invitation to feel and even savor our most vicious and murderous feelings towards that evil “other.” Both bring to consciousness feelings and desires that many Jews could never bring up in mixed company.

I admit, for so many of my 60+ years celebrating Purim, I have had thrills and chills reading how we Jews wreaked havoc on those Haman-istians and emerged victorious. And even though I never go to action films, let alone violent movies, I thoroughly enjoyed and was even hyped up by Inglorious Basterds. Oh my, yes, yes, if God is not going to pour out his wrath on those “others” – and God is completely absent from both the Purim story and Inglorious Basterds – then damn it, I wish “we” could utterly destroy all those who rise up against us in every generation!

2024 – Israel at war with Hamas in response to Hamas’s horrific, brutal, nihilistic, barbarous acts of October 7th. What happens when our darkest fantasies can become reality? What is the cost of not recognizing and owning the feelings that lie deep in our psyche: Kill every last one of those…As Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt), leader of the Basterds, says: “We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us.” Or as Israel’s Dahiya Doctrine says, most clearly articulated by Gadi Eisenkot, former IDF General and now a member of the war cabinet, “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and will cause immense damage and destruction.” The Dahiya Doctrine is about achieving a sustained deterrent impact by intentionally using disproportionate force, extending to the destruction of the economy and state infrastructure with many civilian casualties. They will know who we are and won’t fuck with us anymore.

What a profoundly challenging moment. The liberating fantasy of those Inglorious Basterds blowing up a theater filled with evil Nazis can now be reality. The necessary, sustaining, dignity-creating and life – affirming fantasy of slaughtering the enemy in the Purim story – a story we Jews chant to a sacred melody to this day – that I will actually be chanting for my community on Saturday evening can now become policy. How privileged to live in this era. How burdened to live in this era. Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and most important witness of the Kingdom of Night teaches: “Some stories are true that never happened.” These days we might add: Some stories that never happened can become true.

Fantasies of eliminating the other – dreaming of doing what we can’t possibly do – depend on our splitting victim and perpetrator. The Jews – victims – are about to be eliminated by Haman and his followers – the perpetrators. Splitting is a remarkably important way to defend against humiliation, fear, anxiety and powerlessness. But an adaptive skill in one period can be maladaptive in another and fantasies can become nightmares. To paraphrase Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The line separating victim and perpetrator passes right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years.

These days, Jews and Palestinians are completely traumatized by their histories and by what they have done to each other over the past 100 years, and what many outside interests have supported them in doing to each other. They are both victims AND perpetrators. But neither can see how the other is a victim or how they themselves are perpetrators.  So, each has fantasies about eliminating the other and seems prepared to fight till the death to do so. Not surprisingly, this is now metastasizing into the same splitting here in this country within the Jewish body politic Jews and between the generations in America. Everyone knows for certain who is the victim and who is the perpetrator and to even suggest that things may be more complicated will evoke attacks from all sides.

We Jews are in an unusual position as we celebrate Purim and begin preparing for Passover, where Pharaoh is the evil enslaver, and we, the victims, are redeemed by a God who justly and devastatingly plagues those Egyptians. Given this splitting between victim and perpetrator, with each side seeing itself as a complete victim and the other as an existentially dangerous perpetrator, and the present asymmetric power arrangements, there will be far more deaths for Palestinians in the next months and years. This is new for Jews. But Israel’s – and Jews’ – moral standing in the world, yet alone Israel being central to the next generation of American Jews, will be radically diminished. Of course, the understandable post-Holocaust response of mainstream Jewry is that the world has no right to morally judge Israel, after all we are ever the victim people dwelling alone.

Can each side discern, recognize, process, digest, heal, and transcend their trauma and legitimate fears of each other?

Can each side recognize that they are perpetrators and not only victims?

This won’t happen without very serious work at the psycho-cultural level that is both bottom-up and top-down and will require enormous investment.  Right now, my guess is the total investment in all the people and every organization doing this work does not add up to what one F-35 costs. Until both sides can stop splitting their identities between victim and perpetrator and integrate that they/we are fully both victims and perpetrators, we will continue to kill each other ever more viciously with ever more distorting, distorted, and hardening rationalizations.

I can’t speak for the Palestinian side, but right now, my experience is that there is no possibility of American Jewish institutional leadership, nor, for that matter, almost any Jew of influence I know over 50 years old, to even entertain that we Jews are perpetrators. To do so would literally require a complete destabilization and breakdown of contemporary Jewish identity – both personal and institutional. (Progressives can’t do this either as they simply split the opposite way. They assume Jews – by which they really mean those bad Zionist Jews but often wind up blaming Jews in general -are perpetrators and assume Palestinians but too often include even Hamas – are victims.) There are simply no communal spaces or sustaining structures in Jewish life to help Jews through this very painful process…and I imagine the same is true for Palestinians.

But power itself is always contingent, which means the present asymmetrical nature of power can indeed shift in time, which should be humbling and unnerving. This is what Yitzchak Rabin z’l understood when he said Israel was at the strongest it would ever be during his time and, therefore, was specifically in the position to take a risk for peace. I assume few people would argue that Israel is safer, more secure or even more powerful today than it was when Rabin signed the Oslo Accords…or even the day of his funeral to which every Arab nation sent a representative or two days later when Yasar Arafat drove to Tel Aviv to pay a shiva call to Leah Rabin. Alas, we have come a long way.

There is an ancient teaching that the only holiday that will remain after the coming of the Messiah will be the holiday of Purim. When all our dreams are realized, we will still be reading how fragile our reality is and how even our most understandable fantasies can turn into nightmares. Happy Purim.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com
Send this to a friend