PERSIANS AND JEWS HAVE NOT ALWAYS BEEN ENEMIES
Who still reads the Bible in Israel, at least in government circles? We can wonder after Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow. And Vladimir Putin, whose atheistic education can be an excuse, does not seem to be better informed.
When received at the Kremlin, the Israeli Prime Minister violently criticized Iran, which is allied to Russia in the Middle East: "2,500 years ago,” he said, “there was an attempt in Persia to annihilate the Jewish people", recalling the festival of Purim (12 and 13 March) which, according to Jewish tradition, celebrates the Jews’ victory over those who had then planned to exterminate them.
"Today's Iran, the heir of Persia, is renewing the attempt to destroy the Jewish State. They say so in the clearest way: they write it on their missiles”, Netanyahu added.
"Maybe, but that was in the 5th century BC,” the Russian president replied ironically, but no more accurately. "Today, we live in a different world," he concluded.
A different world, no doubt. But what happened in the 5th (or 4th, we don’t know for sure) century BC has nothing to do with what either Netanyahu or Putin said.
The history of pre-Christian antiquity shows quite the opposite: the Jews then had no better ally than the Persians.
The Jews were deported to Babylon by the Chaldeans as a result of the conquest of Jerusalem by king Nabuchodonosor in 586 BC. Fifty years later, the Jews were set free by Cyrus, king of Persia. In the meantime, the Persians had eliminated the Chaldeans and taken Babylon.
Cyrus did not merely set the Jews free; he resettled some of them in Jerusalem: 40, 000 returned; the others stayed in Mesopotamia. He appointed a Jewish governor, Nehemiah. It was under Persian political domination that the Temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt. Moreover, that was when the Hebrew Bible was developed in the version we know today. Even if it traditionally comes from Moses (at least the first five books containing the Torah), most historians believe that the hard core was written down at the time of Nehemiah under Cyrus’s protection. It is barely an exaggeration to say that the substance of Judaism took shape under Persian supervision.
Netanyahu was referring to the Book of Esther, in which we learn that, at an unspecified time, a king of Persia called Assuerus (we do not know exactly who he is, since no Persian sovereign of that name appears in the records) decided to get rid of all Jews as suggested by his grand vizier Haman. They were saved by the intercession of the Jewish Queen Esther. With advice from her uncle Merdoches, the head of the Jewish community, she talked the King out of that fatal plan. This is the plot of a well-known tragedy by the great French playwright Jean Racine.
Already, to convince George W. Bush that Iran is evil, Netanyahu had offered him a deluxe edition of the Book of Esther.
In fact, Haman the villain is not Persian, but Greek - the text says: Macedonian.
As far as the historical facts can be reconstructed, the King of Persia was a passive character, with two ambitious minorities vying for influence at his court: the Jews and the Greeks. The story of Esther is a settling of accounts between the two factions and the final trouncing of the Greeks.
However, in 333, the Persian Empire was destroyed by Alexander the Great and the Greeks then dominated the region for several centuries.
The age-old hostility between Jews and Greeks
It was indeed the Greeks who caused the Jews more trouble than anyone else. The most serious hostility came from the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanius, whose historical existence is more assured than that of Assuerus. He strove to eradicate all Jewish traditions at the beginning of the second century, and had most cruelly executed those who resisted, like the old man Elazar, then seven young brothers and their mother .
His attempt at forced Hellenization triggered the revolt of the Maccabees (175-140 BC), which temporarily restored Jewish independence and traditions.
When the region fell under Roman protectorate, the half-Jewish king Herod’s ambitions were thwarted by the Greek queen Cleopatra, Her lover Anthony even offered her a guard of six hundred Gauls to strengthen her military superiority .
One exception in this long story of enmity was a Jewish embassy to Sparta in 177 .
The Roman domination succeeded the Greek one. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70, then 135 AD), Jerusalem was conquered by the Persians in 614, and then again, a Persian king, Chosroes, tried to bring the Jews back to Jerusalem.
If too happens often today, historical recollections exacerbate conflicts. But in some cases, like the relationship between Israel and Iran, it is ignorance that fans the flames.