ANC TODAY Human Rights Day column


This year, Human Rights Day coincides with the Jewish festival of Purim. While the two events appear to have little in common, in actuality, there are numerous interesting parallels between them. The Purim narrative, based on events recorded in the Book of Esther, abounds with human rights themes. The festival commemorates how a plot to massacre the entire Jewish population of the Persian Empire was thwarted through an extraordinary chain of events which in retrospect could only have been Divinely-orchestrated. Its message of how the attempted genocide of an entire people on the part of those driven by unreasoning hatred was defeated, resonates strongly in our own troubled times, and imbues us all with the strength and courage to resist such evils.

The dangers of racial and other forms of hatred and the need to take a stand against it, is obviously the central theme of the Purim story, but there are others that likewise resonate strongly with the broader theme of human rights. Another powerful message of the festival, as demonstrated by the commandment that Jews give generously to charity exchange and gifts is that we all have a responsibility to love and care for one another. Creating a just society is not just about ensuring equal rights for all, but also about assisting and supporting its more vulnerable members. In terms of women’s rights the heroic example set by Queen Esther, who intervened to save her people at the risk her own life, has long been a source of inspiration to feminist thinkers.

A final point of comparison between Purim and Human Rights Day is how both show how even the darkest, apparently most hopeless times can contain within them the seeds of future redemption. In ancient Persia, a dispossessed, scattered and largely powerless Jewish nation were saved from the greatest threat to their existence they had ever faced and went to regain freedom in their ancestral homeland. Similarly 21 March 1960, when scores of unarmed civilians were massacred merely for protesting against the iniquitous pass laws, was one of the darkest days in South African history. It was a frightening demonstration of the ruthless power of the apartheid state and the apparent impossibility of ever defeating it. And yet, far from breaking people’s will to resist, the tragedy instead became a rallying point for the resistance movements, contributing to greater, more sustained and ultimately successful acts of resistance in the future.

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