The joy of Purim and the scourge of antisemitism | John Hamer

What can we do as individuals living comfortably on Mercer Island, to reduce polarization, hate, and antisemitism here, if anything?

On the Sunday before Easter, I took my 5-year-old granddaughter to the Purim Festival at the Stroum Jewish Community Center. Our family is not Jewish, but we are longtime members of the “J” and thought she’d have a good time. She loved it!

Purim is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the story of Queen Esther saving the Jewish people from massacre by an evil man named Haman in ancient Persia. It’s a time for joy, celebration, and fun.

“It celebrates good over evil,” Amy Lavin, CEO of the J, told me. “That’s all you need to know.” In these times of evil deeds worldwide, we all need some good.

The J was packed with hundreds of children, parents, grandparents, and friends. There were carnival games, a bouncy house, arts and crafts, a mini-golf course, a music jam session, a line-dance lesson, raffle-prize drawings, and more. Music blared from speakers. They had cotton candy, popcorn, pizza, and shaved ice. My granddaughter and a young friend, visiting from Colorado, were in kid heaven.

The J is one of Mercer Island’s most valuable community assets. It is 75 years old this year and will celebrate that milestone at its annual Circle of Friends Luncheon on April 18 (register at, when it will honor past presidents and “share stories of the J’s history, community impact, and hopes for the future.”

I first joined 25 years ago when my wife and I bought a house right across East Mercer Way. I walked over daily to work out in their exercise room, then sit in the hot tub and sauna. I did a Crossfit class there for several year. I attended lectures, films and other events. My grandchildren enrolled in preschool classes and played on the playground. We often walked in the garden, past the striking “Never Forget” sculpture out front.

I always felt welcome. I was struck by how open and engaging everyone was. On days of big events such as Jewish holidays, our little street was often used for overflow parking.

The J recently unveiled plans for a major remodel that is still in the design and permitting process and will take years to complete. The construction project will be large, but the facility is aging and clearly needs major renovation.

As I watched my granddaughter and dozens of other kids playing happily at the Purim Festival, I could not help thinking of the current status of Jews around the world – especially children in Israel who suffered or died in the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas or may still be held hostage in the Gaza tunnels. I also thought of Palestinian children in Gaza, who have either been killed or injured by Israeli military forces or forced out of their bombed homes and cities, living in tents or on the streets, traumatized and hungry.

But since the vicious attack by Hamas, and the counter-attacks by the Israeli Defense Force in Gaza, antisemitism has grown alarmingly in this country and around the world. Historically, that has happened every time there is a conflict between Israel and Palestine, but this time seems especially ominous. Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations, backed by Iran, have openly declared their goal of wiping Israel off the map. “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Must Be Free” is a chant widely heard.

And the IDF’s massive military response in Gaza, aimed at eliminating Hamas, has caused many civilian casualties, including women and children. Hamas uses them as “human shields” according to reliable news sources, and that loss of civilian life is deeply disturbing. Negotiations to bring about a cease-fire in exchange for a return of the Israeli hostages have so far been rejected by Hamas. There have been temporary halts in IDF action to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in Gaza,

but many have called on Israel to do more, which the country’s leaders have resisted.

The children in the rubble of Gaza, or in the tunnels below, and the children of Israel who lost family and friends on October 7th, and whose families now are being bombarded and driven from their homes in the North, are living lives so incredibly different from the children at Purim. Our hearts break and a resolution seems elusive, if not impossible.

What can we do as individuals living comfortably on Mercer Island, to reduce polarization, hate, and antisemitism here, if anything?

Another J-sponsored event last week offered some suggestions. “Deconstructing and Responding to Anti-Jewish Ideas” was an online program with more than 250 participants. Since October 7, it noted, “conversations around Israel and Palestine have grown more polarized, and rising anti-Israel sentiment has made these conversations even more complicated for American Jews.”

It was conducted by Project Shema, a national organization formed in 2021. The Hebrew word Shema means “to hear,” “to listen,” or “to understand.” The project “works to deepen understanding and build compassion and bridges across communities” and to “provide a truly unique, nuanced approach to antisemitism education for those working to ensure inclusive spaces for all Jews.”

The group’s Andi Friedman led a 90-minute presentation that offered “tools and tips for navigating difficult conversations across the ideological spectrum with respectful, evidence-based dialogue.”

Friedman, who grew up in Chicago, went to Tufts and Harvard and became a lawyer, then an abortion-rights advocate. She is now a trainer with Project Shema. Her goal is to help facilitate conversations about “how recent events are impacting Jews in the U.S.”

The online audience included about 90% who identified as members of the Jewish community and 10% who identified as “allies.”

Friedman emphasized that the goal was to “create empathy by nurturing compassion for the Jewish people, but that means also having empathy for the Palestinians.”

When conflicts break out in the Middle East between Palestinians and Israelis, antisemitism always increases globally.

A principal reason, Friedman said, is that many people simply don’t understand who Jews are. Many are not religious, and they vary widely in color and ethnicity. “We are a people and a nation first. Jews are a diverse people, not just a Jewish country. We are more like an ethnic group than a religious community. We are attacked for who we are, not for how we pray.”

She noted that “much of the progressive left sees Jews as a predominately white group” in a “dominant position” in society, oppressing women, the poor, non-whites, non-Christians and the LGBTQ community. “Jews are racialized as white, and they are assumed be privileged,” she noted, calling that “binary thinking” that is not accurate.

She noted that “small but loud” elements of the “far left” think this way. They “demonize Israel as an historic evil,” then call for “decolonization,” demand that “Israel be dismantled” and all its land “returned” to the Palestinians.

She concluded by saying: “We have to keep telling our story. Allies can help us, but we need more of them.”

What more can we as individuals do? The J’s Lavin cited a new local website,, that contains ideas and suggestions for personal action.

The site, co-sponsored by 35 local organizations, notes: “Antisemitism can be subtle and systemic. It is not only swastikas and skinheads.” It adds: “Incidents of hate and antisemitism have exploded

across Washington….Too many of our neighbors live in fear.”

The group states: “We are individuals, parents, students, leaders, teachers, activists, neighbors, business leaders, artists and civic leaders committed to building safe and respectful communities for all. Some of us are Jewish, many are not.

“To be clear: Not all criticism of Israel’s policies and actions is inherently antisemitic. However, we must be responsible to make sure such criticism does not contribute to a culture of antisemitism.”

They acknowledge that “we may each pursue political activism in various ways, and hold a range of opinions about the best strategies to achieve our political goals.

“Silence is complicity. Intent vs. impact matters. Our words, tone and actions can create space for racism and discrimination. We must trust what our Jewish neighbors are telling us.

“Today, Jews are feeling assaulted and abandoned by both the right and the left. Historically, when this happens Jews are vulnerable and it doesn’t end well. Get educated. Stand up against hate. Be an ally.”

As I watched the children playing at the Purim Festival, I thought: When hate and violence prevail, innocent children may suffer the most. Children here, children in Israel, children of Palestine: We can – we must – have compassion for them all.

John Hamer is a Mercer Island resident and former editorial writer and columnist for The Seattle Times. On assignment in the former Soviet Union, he met with Jewish “refuseniks” and dissident students. He also has visited Israel, including the West Bank and Hebron, and met with both Israelis and Palestinians. He has tutored Muslim children in a Seattle inner-city elementary school with other Mercer Island Rotarians. When living in Seattle, he led a campaign to remove antisemitic covenants in his neighborhood by-laws. He identifies as an ally.